Niall Ferguson and the Rage Against the Thought-Leader Machine: "Harvard historian Niall Ferguson ran into an online buzzsaw this week...:
...He says the ‘liberal blogosphere’ was out to do him in, and that was part of it. But there’s something bigger at work: a groundswell of resentment for and frustration with the ‘thought leaders’ who craft our conventional wisdom, get paid big speaking fees for it, yet often behave in ways that don’t accord with this status. First Jonah Lehrer, then Fareed Zakaria, now this — and surely there will be more such brouhahas to come. It may be that this groundswell is driven entirely by frustrated would-be speechmaking thought leaders. But I think it’s more than that (then again, as a would-be speechmaking thought leader, I would).
What got Ferguson — whom I know, although not well, and like — in trouble was his Newsweek cover story ‘Hit the Road, Barack.’ The article looks like something a smart, busy guy who really likes Paul Ryan, kind of dislikes the President, and loves to tweak the American liberal establishment — but hasn’t had much time to delve into the issues lately — might throw off in a couple of days while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard. It’s not good, but it’s not exactly an abomination, either.
So why the firestorm of criticism? A lot of it had to do with one little passage about the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare:
The president pledged that health-care reform would not add a cent to the deficit. But the CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation now estimate that the insurance-coverage provisions of the ACA will have a net cost of close to $1.2 trillion over the 2012-22 period.
What Ferguson left out is that the Congressional Budget Office also said that other provisions of the law (reductions in Medicare spending and increases in taxes) will more than make up for that cost, resulting in a net reduction in the deficit. His wording was clearly misleading: Obama’s ‘health-care reform’ included both the insurance-coverage provisions and the other provisions. When Princeton economist and frequent Ferguson sparring partner Paul Krugman pointed this out, Ferguson could have easily said something like Oops, I worded that poorly. But the point stands that increasing health coverage is going to cost a lot. Instead, he doubled down and argued that because he’d written ‘insurance-cost provisions’ he’d been entirely correct. Along the way, he again selectively quoted from the CBO in a way that completely misrepresented the meaning of the passage he cited. Which was when the piling on really began.
Some of it was clearly partisan: I have tried and failed to imagine a situation where a sloppy pro-Obama or anti-Romney screed by a Harvard professor would have caused the Atlantic‘s James Fallows to declare, ‘As a Harvard Alum, I Apologize.’ But it was also driven by people like Business Insider’s Joe Weisenthal, Politico’s Dylan Byers, and Slate’s Dave Weigel who had no political axe to grind but were flabbergasted at Ferguson’s sheer shamelessness. These are all leading members of a rising digital media elite, closely connected via social media, who are pretty sure their peers and readers would never let them get away with nonsense like that.
Which is where my thought leader idea comes in. Ferguson is a great financial historian — his history of the Rothschild family is brilliant. In recent years he’s become more of a generalist, and has focused more on current events. That’s not a bad thing — I’m all for experts broadening their reach and sharing their knowledge. But Ferguson has been so good at it, and can express himself so charmingly, and handsomely, and swashbucklingly, that some people are willing to pay him to yammer on about pretty much anything. Tina Brown of Newsweek/The Daily Beast is one of those people, but far more important, as Stephen Marche pointed out on Esquire.com, are the conference organizers who are pay Ferguson $50,000 to $75,000 to entertain and edify a hotel ballroom full of business types about ‘Chimerica’ or ‘the six killer apps of Western civilization.’
That’s the link with Lehrer and Zakaria, who are (or probably were, in Lehrer’s case) big on the speaking circuit as well. Zakaria is a hugely accomplished thinker and writer (go back and read his breathtakingly good October 2001 Newsweek cover story ‘Why Do They Hate Us?’ for a sample) who seems to have stretched himself too thin. Lehrer is a smart young upstart — his third book, Imagine: The Art and Science of Creativity, had been tearing up the bestseller lists before scandal hit — who seems to have made good storytelling a higher priority than the truth. That progression may tell a lot. The path to lucrative thought-leaderdom blazed over the past couple of decades was to establish yourself with dense, serious work (or a big, important job) and then move on to catch-phrase manufacturing (I spent a few weeks following Tom Friedman around in 2005, and learned that he had made this transition very deliberately). Nowadays ambitious young people looking to break into the circuit often just aim straight for the catch-phrases. Speakers bureaus need pithy sales pitches, not complex erudition — and while speaking fees might be spare change for Mitt Romney, for journalists and academics they often represent their only real shot at a top-tax-bracket income.
The result is an intellectual environment that seems to increasingly reward the superficial, and keeps rewarding those who make it into the magic circle of top-flight speakers even if they don’t have anything new or interesting to say. Or at least: a part of the intellectual environment is like that. There’s also a lively, seemingly much more meritocratic intellectual scene in the blogosphere and on Twitter. ‘The growth of online venues,’ wrote blogger and international relations scholar Daniel W. Drezner in a journal article in 2008 ‘has stimulated rather than retarded the quality and diversity of public intellectuals.’
Where things get combustible is when the two scenes collide — when speaker’s-bureau pundits get called out online for misdeeds, errors, or just inanities. (For a bracingly nasty recent example of the latter, check out think tanker Evgeny Morozov’s recent New Republic evisceration of the TED ethos.) I don’t know if this marks a changing of the guard, an uprising, or just a bunch of Twitter chatter that we should all ignore and get back to work. But it’s fair to say that our thought leaders have as a group done a disastrously poor job of leading our thoughts over the past decade, so some kind of shake up is in order. (I should credit futurist Eric Garland, who has been making this argument a lot lately.)
All of which means that if you’re a high-profile thought leader like Niall Ferguson, or Fareed Zakaria, or Jonah Lehrer, watch out. What got you there may not keep you there.
Update: Dan Drezner has a great piece, posted about 20 minutes before this one, that explores the same topic.
Oh, Niall…: "Over the weekend Niall Ferguson got himself into intellectual hot water...:
...over an off-the-cuff response to a question about Keynes in which he suggested that Keynes didn’t value the future too much because he was gay, had no heirs, and therefore didn’t care about future generations. Now, Keynes’s writings here and here would betray the claim that he didn’t care about the future. And the whole 'someone who’s gay must have a reduced shadow of the future' stereotype is hackneyed in the extreme. So, Ferguson was doubly wrong — and to his credit, he offered up a real apology (not an 'I’m sorry if this offended anyone' variant) pretty quickly.
Critical wounds run deep, however. In response to a lot of online discourse that noted his prior observations on Keynes’s sexual orientation, Ferguson penned an open letter in the Harvard Crimson. Some highlights:
I was duly attacked for my remarks and offered an immediate and unqualified apology. But this did not suffice for some critics, who insisted that I was guilty not just of stupidity but also of homophobia. I have no doubt that at least some students were influenced by these allegations. Nobody would want to study with a bigot. I therefore owe it to students—former and prospective—to make it unambiguously clear that I am no such thing.
To be accused of prejudice is one of the occupational hazards of public life nowadays.…
Not for one moment did I mean to suggest that Keynesian economics as a body of thought was simply a function of Keynes’ sexuality. But nor can it be true—as some of my critics apparently believe—that his sexuality is totally irrelevant to our historical understanding of the man. My very first book dealt with the German hyperinflation of 1923, a historical calamity in which Keynes played a minor but important role. In that particular context, Keynes’ sexual orientation did have historical significance. The strong attraction he felt for the German banker Carl Melchior undoubtedly played a part in shaping Keynes’ views on the Treaty of Versailles and its aftermath.…
What the self-appointed speech police of the blogosphere forget is that to err occasionally is an integral part of the learning process. And one of the things I learnt from my stupidity last week is that those who seek to demonize error, rather than forgive it, are among the most insidious enemies of academic freedom.
Now there are two things going on here. First, to what extent does a person’s biography affect his or her role in history? And second, just who are these 'self-appointed speech police of the blogosphere'?
Ferguson is correct on the first point in general, though I’m not so sure about this particular instance. I’m in the middle of Jeremy Adelman’s magisterial biography Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman, for example. One would be hard-pressed to suggest that Hirschman wrote what he wrote about without paying some attention to his life story. So it is entirely appropriate for a historian to talk about Keynes’s personal background in trying to suss out why he argued what he argued.
The thing is, Ferguson keeps eliding important details when he talks about the effect of Keynes’s sexual preferences on his policy pronouncements. Take the claim that Keynes’s attraction to Melchior affected his views on Versailles. Eric Rauchway points out some additional facts not in evidence:
Keynes made early calculations for what Germany should pay in reparations in October, 1918. In ‘Notes on an Indemnity,’ he presented two sets of figures – one ‘without crushing Germany’ and one ‘with crushing Germany’. He objected to crushing Germany because seeking to extract too much from the enemy would ‘defeat its object by leading to a condition in which the allies would have to give [Germany] a loan to save her from starvation and general anarchy.’ As he put in a revised version of the same memorandum, ‘If Germany is to be ‘milked’, she must not first of all be ruined.’
Keynes also worried that too large a reparations bill might distort international trade. ‘An indemnity so high that it can only be paid by means of a great expansion of Germany’s export trade must necessarily interfere with the export trade of other countries.’
The point of mentioning it is that Keynes developed these concerns prior to going to the negotiations and meeting Carl Melchior.
So even if Ferguson is right on general principle, he’s misleading on this particular point.
It’s the last paragraph of Ferguson’s letter that’s quite … quite … 2004 in its formulation. Just who are these 'self-appointed speech police of the blogosphere' anyway? The most damning indictments of Ferguson’s past discussions of Keynes’s homosexuality, Ferguson’s more contemporary and woefully wrong economic predictions, and Ferguson’s recent intellectual dust-ups come from either Business Insider or the Atlantic. Other prominent online critics of Ferguson over the past week have been Justin Wolfers, Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, and Rauchway. That’s three full professors of economics and a full professor of history.
Ferguson’s rhetorical trick here is to try to denigrate the content of their criticisms by pointing to the medium. It’s a cute gambit in public discourse, and I suspect it will make him and his acolytes feel better. Intellectually, however, that dog won’t hunt.
As much fun as it is to dissect Niall Ferguson — and I won’t lie, I’ve had a lot of fun at his expense — this sort of thing gets tedious after a spell. So, please, Niall, try to wade into more interesting intellectual waters the next time you make a mistake.
Oh, and stop claiming 'academic freedom' as a shield to protect you from public critiques of something you said at an investment conference. That’s not how academic freedom works.
Am I missing anything?