Lovely evisceration by James Fallows of Niall Ferguson’s ludicrous attack on Obama.
Three years ago, I got crosswise of Niall Ferguson when I noted his remark that President Obama reminded him of Felix the Cat. Like Obama, Ferguson observed, “Felix was not only black. He was also very, very lucky.” A little earlier I had a testy on-stage exchange with him about the United States and China. He said that U.S. budget deficits would lead to the certain collapse of the U.S.-China relationship, since China would cut off further credit to the spendthrift Yanks. I said that might sound like a neat theory but reflected no awareness of actual Chinese incentives and behavior, and that the showdown he considered “inevitable” in fact would not occur. As it has not.
Again, anyone can be wrong, and I often have been. But scholars are supposed to be different from mere pamphleteers and journalists. We give the judgments of academics — like those of doctors, scientists, renowned jurists, etc. — extra weight because we assume that scholars have considered evidence, precedent, and probabilities more carefully before offering conclusions. Think: E.O. Wilson on ants and ecological patterns.
The big claims and conclusions Ferguson has offered in recent years, with the extra authority of his academic standing, have been attention-getting and mostly wrong. Joe Weisenthal of Business Insider has an analysis here (and please also see this from Noah Smith). For instance:
– U.S. budget deficits were going to lead to a US-China breakup. They didn’t.
– U.S. budget deficits were going to drive bond rates sky high. The opposite has occurred.
– U.S. budget deficits would make us like Greece. They have not.
– A year ago, Ferguson warned that we were on the verge of a damaging new round of inflation. We were not.
You can say these things if you’re a talk-show host or a combatant on some cable-news gabfest. To me this is not what the tradition of Veritas and the search for scholarly enlightenment is supposed to exemplify. Seriously, I wonder if one of Ferguson’s students will have the panache to turn in a similar paper to see how it fares.
Spot on. I can’t understand why anyone takes Ferguson seriously. Like many an historian before him, he has become a media whore. As Daniel Pat Moynihan famously observed, everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts. If Ferguson were a Fox News commentator then nobody would turn a hair. But — as Fallows observes — he’s trading on the credibility derived from occupying a Chair at a major university. If I were a Harvard academic I’d say he has now got to the point where he is bringing the university into disrepute.