Niall Ferguson, the John Yoo line, and the paradox of influence

Life is continuous but we think in discrete terms. In applied statistics there’s the p=.05 line which tells us whether a finding is significant or not. Baseball has the Mendoza line.

And academia has what might be called the John Yoo line: the point at which nothing you write gets taken seriously, and so you might as well become a hack because you have no scholarly reputation remaining.

John Yoo, of course, became a hack because, I assume, he had nothing left to lose. In contrast, historian Niall Ferguson has reportedly been moved to hackery because he has so much to gain. At least that is the analysis of Stephen Marche (link from Basbøll):

Ferguson’s critics have simply misunderstood for whom Ferguson was writing that piece. They imagine that he is working as a professor or as a journalist, and that his standards slipped below those of academia or the media. Neither is right. Look at his speaking agent’s Web site. The fee: 50 to 75 grand per appearance. . . . That number means that Ferguson doesn’t have to please his publishers; he doesn’t have to please his editors; he sure as hell doesn’t have to please scholars. He has to please corporations and high-net-worth individuals, the people who can pay 50 to 75K to hear him talk. That incredibly sloppy article was a way of communicating to them: I am one of you. I can give a great rousing talk about Obama’s failures at any event you want to have me at.

But I don’t think it’s just about the money. By now, Ferguson must have enough money to buy all the BMWs he could possibly want. To say that Ferguson needs another 50K is like saying that I need to publish in another scientific journal. No, I think what Ferguson is looking for (as am I, in my scholarly domain) is influence. He wants to make a difference. And one thing about being paid $50K is that you can assume that whoever is paying you really wants to hear what you have to say.

The paradox, though, as Marche notes, is that Ferguson gets and keeps the big-money audience is by telling them not what he (Ferguson) wants to say—not by giving them his unique insights and understanding—but rather by telling his audience what they want to hear.

And so he slips under the John Yoo line.

This is too bad; I was a big fan of Ferguson, back before he jumped the shark.

Just to clarify

No, I don’t think the act of taking a political stance is enough by itself to put you below the Yoo line (recall the definition: “the point at which nothing you write gets taken seriously, and so you might as well become a hack because you have no scholarly reputation remaining”). For example, I don’t think Paul Krugman or Greg Mankiw are there, or even close. Krugman and Mankiw are partisans and go over the top on occasion but if they have something to say, people will listen. Similarly, I’d have no problem taking seriously the future publications of Tim Groseclose—when he’s not tossing out red meat for Fox News, he’s a scholar. And some of you might still read my political science research (we have a new paper coming out soon), even if you don’t love my blogging.

But it’s hard for me to imagine Niall Ferguson coming back from where he’s gone. It’s possible—Ferguson has the ability, time, and financial resources to do whatever he wants—but I think it would be tough for him to recover the trust of his readers.

On the other hand, if his scholarly reputation disappears entirely, he’ll have to compete with Thomas Friedman on his own merits. That’s tough too. Right now, people are listening to Ferguson partly for his fun Obama-bashing and partly from his credentials as a world-famous scholar. Without that scholarship part, he’s just another ranter—and there are a lot of bloggers out there who are willing to do that part for free.

P.S. Further discussion here (in particular, see the P.S. where I explain why I believe that Ferguson is hackish rather than sincere in his recent writings).

15 thoughts on “Niall Ferguson, the John Yoo line, and the paradox of influence

  1. But do you have to be a currently renowned scholar to be perceived as such?
    Isn’t it enough for Ferguson to have his tenured Harvard professorship and be able to sign his articles with it to pass as a renowned academic? In other words – can the scholarly reputation of someone with “Professor at Harvard University” ever disappear entirely.

    • I think unless you go down the Jerry Sandusky route you always maintain some of that top university reputation.

      Maybe that’s part of the danger. I don’t know Krugman’s academic work at all. I know him as a political hack (from his highly partisan NYTimes work) and as a guy who appears on public radio shows (recently on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” and earlier picking his favorite rock music on “Sound Opinions”). But I know he must be a smart guy and a hard worker because of that Nobel and the other laurels. He always has that Nobel, even if he never publishes another scholarly article. But there’s always the lure of popular fame.

      And, there’s the fact that as you get older it can be harder to make original contributions to mathematical and scientific fields. B.F. Skinner once said something along the lines of — I became a novelist (Walden II) because I felt my best scientific work was behind me and needed to make a contribution in another area. I saw others go into administration as a substitute, but I didn’t want to be an administrator.

      • Zbicyclist:

        I don’t know Ferguson or Krugman or Mankiw, but my impression is that Krugman and Mankiw are open partisans and are trying to make the best case for their side using the economics tools they understand, whereas Ferguson seems more in the John Yoo camp of willing to write just about anything. I just can’t believe that Ferguson believes what he writes, which is why I label him a hack. (See here for further discussion of the “hack” concept.)

        • …except that Krugman and Mankiw (I think, but I read him less) don’t hesitate to criticize anyone who they see as in error (such as Obama regarding the size of the stimulus, housing policy, and the “pivot” to the deficit). I’m assuming you mean “partisan” as “supporter of one of the two dominant political parties”, not as supporter of something more abstract such as Keynesianism.

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  3. Why do you think the big money in public speaking is in attacking a Democratic President? It looks more like the huge money is in being a Democratic ex-President: Bill Clinton “earned” $13 million in speaking fees last year.

    In general, what makes big money on the speaking tour is high-minded globalist cant.

    • Steve:

      There’s more than one way to make big money in public speaking. I assume that Ferguson generally agrees with the conservative positions he is presenting, he thinks Obama is a bad president, etc., but I suspect he is adapting the specifics (i.e., the area where he has expertise) to the audience.

    • “what makes big money on the speaking tour is high-minded globalist”

      I think the difference between Clinton’s fees and Ferguson’s fees is not their message – it’s the difference between being a former president and being an academic who wrote a few well-known books. I’m sure that Rudy Giuliani, Henry Kissinger, George W. Bush and other right-wingers charge similar fees as Clinton, and only one of them is an ex-President.

    • “In general, what makes big money on the speaking tour is high-minded globalist cant.”

      Really? I think the different fees are a result of the profile of the speaker, not the specific type of message. Guiliani and Bush Junior both charge over $100k per speaking engagement, and Kissinger is not far behind. While I haven’t attended any speeches by any of them, I don’t imagine their speech would fit into your “high-minded globalist cant” category.

      Clinton is a highly-popular ex-President, and Ferguson is an academic who has published a few famous books – it’s not hard to see why the former would “earn” a lot more than the latter.

  4. Harry Frankfurt (Princeton professor emeritus of Philosophy) has succinctly described what Niall Ferguson does as ‘bullshit’ in his prescient and great book “On Bullshit”. Bullshitters (according to Dr. Frankfurt) are different from those who lie. Bullshitters just do not care for truth (or its opposite, lies). Bullshitters will say anything (or everything) as they hope to make you to see things the way they see them. Their bullshit is to manipulate your thinking, not merely about making you believe deliberate lies. Because they have no relationship whatsoever with truth, Prof. Frankfurt thinks bullshitters are more dangerous to free social discourse than are liars.

    With Niall’s writing one sees what Frankfurt has told us, clear as a day.

  5. Paul Krugman or Greg Mankiw

    Amazing that you can create an equivalency between these two. Mankiw had an example quoted in this web site (which I commented on) where his marginal tax rate was greater than 100%, which is impossible (like Romney’s tax plan as stated, which I suppose qualifies him as a defender of that plan). Krugman is partisan but never offers an impossiblity to prove a point. Where Krugman really hits too close to home, and, I suspect, where your underlying dislike of him comes from, is his habit of calling out fellow academics when they offer transparently false explanations of economic phenomenon (google “Culture of Fraud” and Krugman to get the gist). If that type of analysis was every applied to academic political science (or ever allowed–usually it is suppressed, eithr by refusing to publish or by removing the insolent objector from the field), a very appreciable percent of academic political scientists would fall under it.

    • Numeric:

      I don’t think Kruggy and ManQ are equivalent; I just don’t think either of them is a hack. They each go a bit over the top sometimes but in different ways: Krugman prefers the all-out attack, whereas Mankiw has a more playful style. Sometimes that playful style leads Mankiw to write things that are ridiculous (for example, his claim that his marginal tax rate is 90%), but I don’t think he’s writing such things in a hackish way, I think it’s more that he considers it ok to take the logical extension of an argument, even when the conclusions make no sense.


        “The big story of the week among the dismal science set is the Romney campaign’s white paper on economic policy, which represents a concerted effort by three economists — Glenn Hubbard, Greg Mankiw, and John Taylor — to destroy their own reputations…And when I talk about destroying reputations, I don’t just mean saying things I disagree with. I mean flat-out, undeniable professional malpractice. It’s one thing to make shaky or even demonstrably wrong arguments. It’s something else to cite the work of other economists, claiming that it supports your position, when it does no such thing — and don’t take my word for it, listen to the protests of the cited economists.”

        I think Krugman is correct on this because this doesn’t require any knowledge of economics–merely the ability to read what people write (the “cited economists”). Krugman’s explanation:

        “Can Hubbard, Mankiw, and Taylor really be that out of it? I don’t think so. They just believe that they can pull one over on the rubes, and pay no professional price. Let’s hope they’re wrong.”

        I think the institution of tenure has simply destroyed social science practice in this country. In the sciences, one can’t do something like this because your funding gets cut off, your lab goes away, and your university tells you to take a hike. You’re out. In economics, political science, sociology, etc, you can pull one over on the rubes–and you stay around forever. Unfortunately, social science theories get latched onto by politicians and cause immense suffering–supply-side economics, “broken window”, financial innovation, etc. Recall that Hitler was brought up in an environment where a social Darwinistic racism was accepted social scientific theory–and he incorporated that into his world view and applied it. The broken window example is a modern-day analogue–incarcerated populations went up by a factor of 8 from 1970 to 2005 and just hammered the African-American population–one has to go back to Stalinist Russia to find a group as impacted by arrest and imprisionment (“inside” meant the same thing in black areas and the USSR). In both situations, it was a means of social control, and we had broken window and the USSR had class conflict as scientific justifications.

        • Numeric:

          Good point, I’ll have to think that over. I bet Niall Ferguson’s colleagues at Harvard are pretty embarrassed by him, but he’s tenured so he can keep waving around the Harvard name for the rest of his life (although, who knows how much time he actually spends in his office there). But, for many biology professors, if you lose your NIH grants your career is over.

          Also, interesting point about racist policies and mass incarceration as a confluence of bad politics and bad social science. I’ll have to write something longer on this, but for now let me just note that the same problem has occurred with physical and biological sciences as well. Two examples: massive irrigation projects, which (according to “Cadillac Desert”) are ruining the soil, and factory feeding of antibiotics to farm animals, which I’ve read is hastening the progress of drug-resistant superbugs.

        • P.S. Regarding Mankiw, I just checked his blog to see what he wrote on the “47%” speech where Romney displayed a distressing misunderstanding of political arithmetic. He hasn’t posted on it yet, though. (Not that he has any obligation to, I was just curious what his take on it would be, given our above discussion.)

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