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Absolutely last Niall Ferguson post ever, in which I offer him serious advice

I made the mistake of reading this article by Niall Ferguson summarizing his notorious new book. Here’s the best bit:

Far more than in Europe, most Americans remain instinctively loyal to the killer applications of Western ascendancy, from competition all the way through to the work ethic. They know the country has the right software. They just can’t understand why it’s running so damn slowly.

What we need to do is to delete the viruses that have crept into our system: the anticompetitive quasi monopolies that blight everything from banking to public education; the politically correct pseudosciences and soft subjects that deflect good students away from hard science; the lobbyists who subvert the rule of law for the sake of the special interests they represent—to say nothing of our crazily dysfunctional system of health care, our overleveraged personal finances, and our newfound unemployment ethic.

Then we need to download the updates that are running more successfully in other countries, from Finland to New Zealand, from Denmark to Hong Kong, from Singapore to Sweden.

And finally we need to reboot our whole system.

I [Ferguson] refuse to accept that Western civilization is like some hopeless old version of Microsoft DOS, doomed to freeze, then crash. I still cling to the hope that the United States is the Mac to Europe’s PC, and that if one part of the West can successfully update and reboot itself, it’s America.

Huh? This guy’s like Thomas Friedman without the taxi-driver interviews. It’s just pitiful.

I really liked Virtual History when it came out, and it’s sad to see that Ferguson has come to this. When John Yoo became an empty-headed pundit, at least he had no choice: the guy had no scholarly reputation left so he had few options other than to reboot himself as a partisan hack. Ferguson, though, seems to have made this decision with his eyes open. Is it possible that he’s right, that he can have more influence on the world with sub-Friedman analogies than with serious scholarly work? It’s a scary thought.

Yeah, yeah, I know you could make the same argument about my blogging—but this is different. Speculative it may be, but no way does it reach the level of B.S. of Ferguson’s passage above. Also, I still do research.

If Ferguson really wants to be a pundit, I think he’d contributed much more by following the examples of economists Greg Mankiw and Paul Krugman, and political scientist Thomas Ferguson (no relation, I think). Each of them has a strong ideological position, each is more than willing to make the occasional over-the-top pronouncement, but they express their views with respect to their research experience and professional expertise. If you disagree with them, there’s something substantive to disagree with.

P.S. To get back to the quoted passage above: I’m wondering what “rebooting our whole system” means. I have a horrible feeling that “rebooting” means that we liquidate everyone’s bank account and we all start from scratch, all 300 million of us at the same starting line. That would totally suck. I admire Ferguson’s willingness to discard his Mac along with the rest of his earthly possessions (I assume the tenured Harvard gig would go too), but there’s no way I’m going along with him on this one. I’d hate to give up all my advantages and start over in a reboot.

32 Comments

  1. Jonathan says:

    Hey Andrew is this similar to the current discussion on the web about Krugman versus Brooks. I think you can apply the above post to that argument as well. Who should you believe? A noble prize economist or a sociologist.

    Nice post by the way.

    • Andrew says:

      Jonathan:

      The difference is that Ferguson has Krugman-like qualifications but is writing sub-Brooksian material. Brooks might be wrong a lot but he positions himself as a journalist who reads the social science literature, not as an expert himself.

      • Jonathan says:

        Thanks!

      • krippendorf says:

        To reiterate: Brooks is not a sociologist, he’s a journalist who plays a not-very-good sociologist on TV.

      • Sean Matthews says:

        It is, I think, a serious stretch to claim that ‘Ferguson has Krugman-like qualifications’. More qualified than Thomas Friedman, yes, but Paul Krugman is one of the world’s leading economists. I think you would have difficulty, in the course of a wander around a major history department or conference, in locating people who would endorse a statement to the effect that ‘Niall Ferguson is one of the world’s leading historians’.

  2. John Mashey says:

    I read the article, not the book. I wouldn’t have written it that way, but the analogy actually has something to say.

    Software systems:
    1) It has long been well-known that operating systems, languages and applications tends to grow over time. See Small is beautiful, a talk I gave often about 30 years ago.
    When I was managing software projects (any of the 3 types above), I used to sometimes have some of the most skilled programmers spend some time cleaning things up. See slides 30-33, 47-48, or for what might happen 5,000 years from now, see the first few paragraphs of this. We’ve only been doing software for~60 years, and there are already masses of code that people depend on where the ability to make major changes safely is dubious. We used to call this “code through which the armies have marched.”

    2) In 40+ years in computing, I have *never* once observed an operating system actually getting noticeably simpler in place. Especially when radically new requirements get bolted on, software gets increasingly difficult to deal with.

    What happens instead is that maintenance gets so painful, that somebody starts over and creates something simpler, whose design cleanly caters to the new requirements, and can learn from past mistakes and might have tighter security.

    3) The analogy between US legal system (and especially tax law) is one I’ve considered for 30 years. our legal system has had a lot more than 60 years.

    a) How well does the average system understand the law? [How many bytes does it take to record the local, state and Federal laws ot which a person is subject? What’s the rate of growth of size? How about of complexity? In software, the problem often is not the size, but structuring, where changing something one place breaks something far away.]
    Is there an explicit goal: make sure average citizens need a lot of help to understand the law? Or does it just happen?

    b) My father worked for the IRS a while, Back in the 1970s, I complained to him that tax forms looked like really bad software, and why on earth didn’t the IRS make them simpler. He said they tried as hard as they could, but they had to implement the law, and Congress didn’t make it easy.

    c) and then we have all the weird loopholes. For example, I know of entities hat have taken tobacco money, use their channels to reach legislators, and do it all tax-free as 501(c)3 “public charities” claiming to do research and education. Well, that makes sense, just like computer viruses and spam.

    d) In a country 2 of whose founders were good scientists of their time, we have a raft of Presidential candidates who strongly reject basic physics.

    4) I’ve often wished that in bicameral legislatures, one side should pass laws and the other should eliminate or simplify them.
    Programmers measured by Lines of Code written tend to write more code. The only way I’ve ever found to slow the growth is to explicitly allocate time and effort to removing things or simplifying them.

    5) Note of course, that the current Apple OS actually was completely rebooted once already. When Steve Jobs was at NeXT, he grabbed one of my best OS guys to help manage the UNIX port that became NeXTSTEP, and when Steve came back to Apple, the seriously-outdated MacOS was dropped in favor of NeXTSTEP.

    So, without commenting on the merits of his other arguments, I think the entropy of complexity applies both in software and political systems, so his analogy is not that bad.

  3. jamdox says:

    Interesting. My first impression of Ferguson was his panel discussion with Krugman, Robin Wells, Soros, Bill Bradley, and Roubini:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7Gyfq0pdvA

    The good stuff starts around 7:40… and continues onto the next clip. So I’ve never really respected the guy. But it’s interesting that he actually did work with merit at some point in the past. I always just figured he was one of these guys who gets made faculty so the institution will have an easier time getting donations from rich people with similar (retrograde) opinions.

  4. numeric says:

    P.S. To get back to the quoted passage above: I’m wondering what “rebooting our whole system” means. I have a horrible feeling that “rebooting” means that we liquidate everyone’s bank account and we all start from scratch, all 300 million of us at the same starting line. That would totally suck.

    For you. For the 100 million Americans who are in poverty or near poverty, that Rawlsian intervention might be just the ticket to a better life.

    Incidentally, while I agree that the analogy of society to a computer system is cliched, the fact is (just reading what you quoted) our system of government has failed the average American, as indicated by a steadily declining (or at least flat) standard of living over the last 30 years. The idea of importing systems that work in other countries is not a bad one. I remember when The Donald in an earlier incarnation (around 1992) suggested a 10% tax on wealth above 5 million to pay off the budget deficit–and boy, did “Very Serious People” rebel (Peter Jennings called it “ridiculous” on the air–didn’t explain why, but since it would have hit him, well…).

  5. frankcross says:

    What’s saddest is that he’s a historian. His references to quasi-monopolies, soft subjects, and lobbyists were all more true of the American past. He implies things are getting worse, causing America to fall behind, when they clearly have gotten better in these respects. Indeed one of the times of greatest American economic growth (late 19th and early 20th centuries) had actual monopolies, nearly everyone in college focusing on soft subjects as opposed to hard science, and lobbyists running aspects of government.

  6. Rebecca says:

    “Is it possible that he’s right, that he can have more influence on the world with sub-Friedman analogies than with serious scholarly work? It’s a scary thought.”

    I hate to say it, but I think he IS right. The nature of being an academic or serious scholar in this day and age appears to be one of increasing specialization to the point that only 10 other people on the planet care. Scholarly journals are not written for layman to understand; they are written to impress tenure committees and peers. This is why think tanks turning out bachelors-level research projects and the talking heads (spouting what they claim is “common sense” but which is usually frightfully one-sided and often ignorant) manage to change the national conversation, while nuanced discussions of the issues and potential solutions fall on deaf ears.

    Making fundamental changes in our government requires getting elected and gathering power. Neither of those things happen if the “average american” can’t pick out the sound bites. What to an academic seems a scary dumbing down of a good scholar’s work is going to seem like grand new ideas in “real english” to the rest of the country. In the end, Ferguson and the like WILL be more likely to change the world this way. In a country where 40% of the population thinks that the planet is only 6000 years old, scholarly work isn’t going to change any minds.

    • Iconcur says:

      I concur with you. Krugman/Mankiw produced high-quality scholarly work that screwed us all in the past decade, we need the common sense from the not-so-seriously-academic historian Ferguson. After all, as Taleb metioned, economist is a sham occupation with tons of nonsense models that tend to fail in the long run.

      As for re-booting the system, we don’t need to empty everyone’s banking account of honest hard working smart professors such as Andrew, but we do need to empty the illegal earnings by Goldman Sachs as well as their fellow cronies in the congress.

      • Louis says:

        It is hard to see how Krugmans scholarly work screwed you (let alone all of us). If I think of his early work on exchange rate crises then I see someone who was deeply concerned with how such crises emerge and studied this in a theoretical fashion.

        Was his model (as all economic models apparently) nonsense?

        If your criterion is the prediction of financial crises, then for sure. But hey, I am not condemning my friends in the geology departments for tsunami’s and earthquakes, nor I am frowning upon my mother -an eye surgeon- who can’t predict my next eye illness.

        Economics is a subject (probably a whole range of subjects) and anyone is invited to think about it or to write something useful about it. If you feel disdain for the title economist, please keep referring to yourself as mathematician, sociologist or whatever you feel like. I haven’t seen much spectacular contributions from physicists or antropologists.
        Of course, many of the young ‘best’ economists come from the pool of high potential hard scientists i.e. multiple IMO gold medal winners (google Yuliy Sannikov, Mihai Manea, …) or in the older generation Kreps, Maskin, etc.

        I am agnostic about what the criterion for nononsense models is, but if someone can do this stuff they should definitely apply this to economics, the rewards would undoubtly be great. Moreover, the past decade, empirics has gained a larger importance, especially in relation to policy advice.

        Taleb, entertaining as he is, has not provided many solutions or suggested any ways to tackle real world problems. He enjoys mumbling about the problems of simple risk management tools. Indeed Value-at-Risk in its original form was flawed. But is was always just a tool, in the end people decide.
        What is especially distasteful is the fact that Taleb as a former trader, quant and hedgie; with a phd in mathematical finance (under Geman) a perfect example of the breed that “did” screw us all.

        • Iconcur says:

          It is understandable that your friend in the geology departments can not predict tsunami’s and earthquakes, nobody else could anyway; it is also understandable that your mother can’t predict your next eye illness, nobody else (yourself included?) could anyway; it is a LITTLE bit upsetting (maybe still understandable) that Krugman [2008 Nobel Economics Prize winner] did not predict the 2008 financial crisis [http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/06/magazine/06Economic-t.html] while many others did (enter John Paulson, Nassim Taleb…)

          As for Taleb, he did point out the problems in the finance sector as early as (if not earlier than) 2001 [fooled by randomness]. Not to mention his book and numerous interviews, even as of recently he did offer some suggestions/solutions [http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/08/opinion/end-bonuses-for-bankers.html]. Rather than being the distasteful trader/quant/hedgie type, Taleb is more likely on the opposite side having been trying to hunt them down for years. Unfortunately our government is continuously bailing out the greedy Too-Big-To-Failers, and our world-renowned economists [enter Krugman/Summers type] are continuously supporting the ever-expanding government spending [aka ‘let our grandchildren pay back’], which remind me of a quote I learned recently from McCarthy in Andrew’s blog [“A declining institution often experiences survival of the unfittest.”] Now enter the quote from Ferguson [“What we need to do is to delete the viruses that have crept into our system: the anticompetitive quasi monopolies that blight everything from banking to public education”], maybe Ferguson is not that bad!

          Ron Paul 2012! [For this part, I do disagree with Ferguson]

          • Louis says:

            Your and my definition of prediction is pretty different. Putting money on what you believe (or hope?) is not the same as predicting. Visit a casino if you are not convinced. Moreover, playing Cassandra and constant yelling that doom is upon us, is bound to give you a hit once in a while (cfr. Roubini).
            There is a difference between conditional and unconditional prediction. Within a reasonable time frame, one is doable, the other is not. Yes, I am happy to predict a big crisis this century, also a big war the next decade -is that anything worth?

            Plenty of people pointed out “problems” in the financial sector. Read Fault Lines or another book by someone stressing how they did saw it coming (people, certainly Taleb, like to mention this is every five seconds). But I certainly agree that these voices were not heard and even ignored. Moreover, Krugman belongs to that group too -as he points out occasionally.

            The “solution” of Taleb is a) not a solution (as it hardly solves the big picture but focuses on some narrow, easy to sell, issues) although I do agree on this. Taleb was a trader and is a hedgie (if he has not been whiped out). Paulsons predictive skills have been under pressure it seems. You’d better given your money to me than to him this year.

            I like the cherry picking in your reply to my initial reply. You have convinced me of your argument. Moreover I wish your candidate all the best for the upcoming elections. And the quote of McCarthy is certainly to the point although I fail to see the relevance of it.

          • Nick Cox says:

            It’s a side issue but I am surprised that no-one has picked up on the examples of earthquakes and tsunamis [sic] which are thrown in here without serious discussion.

            For example, we can predict tsunamis given knowledge of earthquakes in the ocean bed; it is just that the warning time is horrifyingly short and “given knowledge of earthquakes” is key. Also, we can predict earthquakes very well in the sense of knowing where they are likely to occur; of course, timing is also what people want to know.

            So, the key point is utterly elementary but also fundamental: what exactly is meant by prediction?

            Tidal predictions in the Earth Sciences tend to be very good indeed.

    • Yep, that’s what I was going to say too.

      We invaded Iraq. Score one for Tom Friedman over anyone who knows anything about anything.

      • Louis says:

        Dear Nick,
        I realize that comparing the prediction of earthquakes and tsunami (the additional s referred to several events of tsunami, as a nonnative speaker far away over the internet, the grammar police is not a real threat) with economic disasters is a bit shaky, yet it seems that people have much different (higher?) standards for the prediction of these disasters. What I wanted to point out is that few people criticize geologists for not being able to predict an earthquake sufficiently in advance (a few years?) so that we can evacuate the proper area. A similar argument goes for the recent tsunami in Japan.
        The standards for economic disasters are different. Economists should be able to predict these years in and advance so that these could have been predicted (a bit paradoxical). And then we do not mention the fact that many economic disasters are induced by men: failing to reach political agreements, etc.

        That was the only thing that I wanted to point out. Few examples in the discussion are analyzed in great detail, the gist of the argument seemed clear. You can criticize economists for many things but I often have the feeling that people tend to shoot at economists for the wrong reasons. I find it unreasonable to be mad at a geologist that he could not predict the past tsunami in Japan sufficiently in advance and with great accuracy. Similarly I find it unreasonable to pick on economists that they could not predict 10 year ago the current state of the European bond markets let alone do something to ‘alter the future’ .

        Moreover, doesn’t this hold for many economic disasters too? : “it is just that the warning time is horrifyingly short and “given knowledge of earthquakes” is key”

        I agree with your key point: What is meant by prediction?

        PS: I do not criticize the Earth Sciences as I do appreciate the Medical Sciences, I just wanted to point out the different standards we have for each profession. I do not believe that economists are a separate group of people who do it more wrongly than others could. If another group of people (mathematicians, sociologists, …) could solve some big economic issues then this would have happened (an arbitrage argument if you’d like). Finally, pointing out the merits of the Earth Sciences does not bring the victims of the earthquake back alive. This is an unreasonable argument given the complexity of predicting earthquakes and I feel that people have similar unreasonable sentiments towards the economic profession.

        • Nick Cox says:

          Louis: I think our views are close. I am not an economist but I do not feel entitled or inclined to be over-critical of economists. Evidently we need better models and lots of smart people are trying very hard to produce them.

          On my [sic]: the objection is to the apostrophe. The plural of tsunami can be tsunami or tsunamis, but the apostrophe is not defensible.

  7. Such a timely post–I actually been toying with the decision to stop speaking to the media and stop doing presentations to nonacademic audiences because I felt like I was losing my intellectual core. I’m also thinking of shutting down my blog for the same reason. It’s just not good discipline to speak and write about difficult subjects *over and over* without review. It’s not good for me, much as the sick little attention junkie in me likes it, and I don’t think it’s good for the discourse, though Rebecca is probably right about impact.

    Is anybody fact-checking anything any more?

  8. Sean Matthews says:

    Oh yeah, and a serious scholar would surely, unlike Ferguson, give credit to Mancur Olson, who got there first with this sort of analysis, without the bad metaphors, and with a supporting theoretical model, in ‘the rise and decline of nations’.

  9. Gabe says:

    actually, sometimes you do approach that level of BS. But I still keep reading because I’m not going to throw the baby out with the bath water.

    also, Krugman (Nobel winner he may be) has been shown over and over to be a partisan hack who shouts down his detractors. I would link to some of them, but I trust you can google it.

    • Popeye says:

      Never seen Andrew write something as stupid as “five killer apps,” but your sense of tribal pride is palpable.

      • kjetil halvorsen says:

        I do think you in all honesty must count in the fact that NF says his lSt book is an attempt to present history so that 17-yeR olds will actually read and understand it! That is good goal to set!

    • Horatius says:

      I have seen Professor Krugman deal with children like you. Did you ever look in the mirror to see if his rebuttals were more than shouting you down? I’ll bet on not.

  10. Charles says:

    I’ve read some reviews of Ferguson’s work, and can’t say that I would ever be interested in it – it sounds populist, appealing to the masses and dumbing down complex issues (not on purpose, simply his style). His performance in this discussion says a lot to me:

    http://youtu.be/hWT_kYZ_ttk

    (let me know if the link doesn’t work)

    • concerned says:

      I think youtu.be might be a website that attempts to invade computers. Andrew – you should either remove the link or check that it is ok (i’m not going to !). And if it is a virus may be you can work with Columbia University (IT) to track down the source. Public service and all that.

  11. AJ says:

    As a sociologist I have to say I know sociologists, Brooks is no sociologist, I’m not sure what he is other than very lucky to get paid and a column in the NYT. Its not clear how Krugman’s research screwed anyone. And when did he shout down his detractors as opposed to showing when they were full of it? As far as Ferguson is concerned I find him to be sometimes astute and sometimes full of it.

  12. A. Zarkov says:

    Charles:

    I watched the video and Sachs simply ignores data that contradict his narrative. I don’t understand your problem with Ferguson. Nor do I understand Andrew’s obsession with him either. This is Wegman redux.

    • Andrew says:

      Zarkov:

      Ferguson has written some work that I really like (see my discussion of Virtual History) and some stuff that seems downright stupid. He also made the obnoxious move of threatening to sue a critic. Put it together and it’s an interesting package, worth blogging about. If Ferguson had never done the good work earlier, I agree there’d be little of interest here. I’m not obsessed with the guy, I just find it interesting (in a car-crash sort of way) what seems to have happened to him.

      Wegman is a prominent statistician who is apparently a plagiarist and a liar. I don’t think people should be able to get away with that sort of thing. I’ve never heard of him apologizing for his transgressions. This seems disgraceful to me. Of course there’s lots of bad behavior out there, but Wegman’s a statistician, and it bothers me more. Sort of how you might feel if you had a distant cousin who was a con man, had somehow avoided prosecution and was still out there besmirching the family name.

  13. A. Zarkov says:

    Andrew,

    I completely agree that plagiarism on the part of Wegman is reprehensible, and should get attention. But how much? After a certain point it becomes obsession.

    I was not aware that Ferguson threatened to sue a critic. That’s pretty bad and lowers my opinion of him. However, I do think you’re over reacting to his computer metaphor– I really doubt he thinks the government should drain our bank accounts.

    I also agree that Ferguson should stay away from punditry, but the same applies to Krugman. There are two Krugmans: one a sensible and intelligent scholar; the other an over-the-top partisan who seems to think his critics are necessarily stupid. According to a New Yorker article, Krugmans’s wife edits his columns to make them angrier. From the article, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/03/01/100301fa_fact_macfarquhar

    “When he has a draft, he gives it to Wells to edit. Early on, she edited a lot—she had, they felt, a better sense than he did of how to communicate economics to the layperson. … But he’s much better at that now, and these days she focusses on making him less dry, less abstract, angrier.”

    Perhaps this explains the Jekyll-Hyde aspect of Krugman.

  14. I hate to make a non-ironic comment in this forum, but has Ferguson been to New Zealand lately? I am not sure it’s separation from the US has any positive dot product with the vector he is promoting.