Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Note to My Fellow Americans

We pay attention to Niall Ferguson at our peril.

Let me start with a personal anecdote. Last year I went to visit my grandmother for her birthday, and mere hours before she fell down, broke her hip and then insisted she be taken to her birthday meal to get a steak and decent scotch, she told me that my brother had given her a copy of Ferguson's The Ascent of Money and that she had read it but couldn't make sense of its thesis. When I tried to explain it to her, she replied "Well, you've just re-defined 'money' as 'value' but you still haven't made sense of it." So, knowing I was clearly out of my depth, I shut the hell up.

This exchange came to mind when I read that Ferguson, among others, was at the Aspen Ideas fest promoting a rather old idea: austerity is the way forward! (Leave it to a purported "ideas fest" to give a platform to an old idea that's been proven not to work, because, balanced opinion and all...) I don't think there's any way to make sense of that either, and if I had a decent scotch with which to toast my grandmother, I would. Near as I can tell, competent economists (and even some former supply siders) regard this idea as a bad one.

That Ferguson, a historian (albeit yes, a "financial historian"), should appear to be on the wrong side of an economic debate is no big deal. Smart people are often wrong about things (and Brutus was an honorable man). However, this is the same Niall Ferguson who made his stateside media persona on arguing that The United States ought to get its imperial ambition sorted out. In other words, he came down in favor of the biggest foreign policy mistake the US has made in decades. His only reservation was that we as a populace might not be sufficiently Spartan to see the job through.

Now I love all flavor of Brit (just look at my record collection) but it seems to me that we ought to be rather careful about taking advice from our Britisher Pals when their advice is simply an echo of what a rich minority wishes we would follow, whether they be Upper West Side Militarists or financier ideologues. In other words, we ought to learn to spot courtiers who've found a good gig before it's...oh. Crap.