Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Niall Ferguson on Decline

Last month Niall Ferguson published an article in Newsweek approaching the issue of American decline.

While Ferguson has done some interesting work as an academic in the past (his book The Cash Nexus has been useful to me in the past, and I've appreciated his interest in counterfactuals), given how he has settled into his cozy position as "court historian" of American neoconservatives (how many college professors get to pitch their next book in a forum such as that?), I didn't expect much, and got even less.

Discussing the U.S.'s difficulties in recent years, Ferguson could have pointed to any of its manifold errors of policy: the favoritism shown to services over production, and especially financial speculation over manufacturing; the basing of consumer demand on increased borrowing, instead of rising wages; the treatment of every conceivable service as a profit-making opportunity for a vested business interest, instead of the demonstration of a healthy respect for public goods, and the public good; a disdain for the facts that natural resources cannot be squandered and debt accumulated indefinitely without consequences, that imports must actually be paid for by exports, that a functional country cannot be that for long unless it funds a functional infrastructure, and that a vision longer than the past and next quarters is essential to the sustenance of national prosperity.

Predictably, he does not mention any of these things as such, touching on only a few of them indirectly. He notes that consumer debt is a problem, but gives no thought to how it mounted so high. He acknowledges the financially ruinous nature of the health care system, but is evasive on the issue of why the return on the money is so poor. While he mentions some surprising statistics reflecting the worsening reputation of the U.S. for corruption (bribery, poor auditing and accounting standards, and the like), and this is indeed worrisome, he does not dare consider how this came to be, never approaching the sordid story related by authors like Jonathan Chait in The Big Con (2007), Thomas Frank in The Wrecking Crew (2008), and Matt Taibbi in Griftopia (2010).

Indeed, Ferguson is more plain-spoken when giving the "safe" answers one would expect given his well-known positions, answers that essentially translate to the charge that Americans are not pushing hard enough to win globalization's race-to-the-bottom: that American workers put in less hours than, for instance, South Koreans (never mind that the American work year has long been increasing, so that Americans now put in more hours than anyone else in the Western world, running harder just to avoid falling behind too much); that American students aren't studying enough math and science (never mind the true complexity of this particular story).

The result is a reminder that, even amid this protracted economic crisis, the orthodoxies that have been so ruinous remain unchallenged, the real issues are still ignored, and the same facile answers pass for serious thought – "the truism still made to seem like the deeply pondered notion," to paraphrase C. Wright Mills. But alas, we hardly needed reminding of that.

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