Thursday, July 29, 2010

Niall Ferguson, and a little paranoia will fix the antipodean Chicken Little blues ...

(Above: eek, the Russians are coming).

It was inevitable that there'd be a plague of Ferguson.

Just as when Susan Greenfield came out to do her regular tours of the antipodes, the media fell over themselves to publish her views on screen culture - there's nothing like a scientific baroness to awe the chattering class of commentariat commentators and sundry editors - so Niall Ferguson's grand tour to collect gongs and wave at the peasants and preach to the chattering classes has attracted the media's attention.

The way the Ferguson touts the calamitous fall of empires is pure bonus. Why it makes for better reading than the Book of Revelation, and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, and makes Noah's flood seem like child's play for a long absent holocaust lord.

Just as Greenfield explained in apocalyptic terms that screen culture rots our brains and we're all about to turn into gormless screen entranced nerds, so Ferguson can trot out his apocalyptic views about how we're all doomed and soonish, replete with the odd historical example. We love our doomsayers. Let's face it, where would we and Hollywood be without 2012 just around the corner.

Naturally this means that The Australian feels compelled to publish Sun could set suddenly on superpower as debt bites, explaining that Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard University, while The Sydney Morning Herald offers Decline and fall of the US, explaining that Ferguson is a British historian and the author of The Ascent of Money, and that the piece is an edited version of his John Bonython Lecture for the Centre for Independent Studies, delivered in Sydney last night.

That's the extend of the product differentiation, for both pieces are one and the same in tone, and in the use of favourite metaphors, with bits of history picked out to offer delectable intimations of doom. Here's the Herald's version:

All empires, no matter how magnificent, are condemned to decline and fall. We tend to assume that in our own time, too, history will move cyclically - and slowly. The environmental or demographic threats we all talk about seem very remote. In an election year, who really cares about the average atmospheric temperature or the age structure of the population in 2050?

Yet it is possible that this whole cyclical framework is, in fact, flawed. What if history is arrhythmic - at times almost stationary, but also capable of accelerating suddenly, like a sports car? What if collapse comes suddenly, like a thief in the night?

Indeed. That must be the same glib accelerating sports car that infests The Australian's piece:

We have been raised to think of the historical process as an essentially cyclical one.

We naturally tend to assume that in our own time, too, history will move cyclically, and slowly.

Yet what if history is not cyclical and slow-moving but arhythmic, at times almost stationary, but also capable of accelerating suddenly, like a sports car? What if collapse does not arrive over a number of centuries but comes suddenly, like a thief in the night?

Great powers and empires are complex systems, which means their construction more resembles a termite hill than an Egyptian pyramid. They operate somewhere between order and disorder, on "the edge of chaos", in the phrase of the computer scientist Christopher Langton.

Well perhaps not a termite hill or a computer scientist's phrase, so much as a butterfly in the Amazon:

Great powers and empires operate somewhere between order and disorder. They can appear to operate quite stably for some time; they seem to be in equilibrium but are, in fact, constantly adapting. But a very small trigger can set off a ''phase transition'' from a benign equilibrium to a crisis - a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon and brings about a hurricane in south-eastern England.

Uh huh. The good old "butterfly effect". Just as with Greenfield, there's nothing like a hot button cliche to establish that any phrase can be deployed to produce a crisis.

But how about a decent analogy from history to whip up saucy doubts and fears? Easy peasy, here's how it's done for the Herald:

...empires exhibit many of the characteristics of other complex adaptive systems - including the tendency to move from stability to instability quite suddenly. But this fact is rarely recognised because of our addiction to cyclical theories of history.

The Bourbon monarchy in France passed from triumph to terror with astonishing rapidity. French intervention on the side of the colonial rebels against British rule in North America in the 1770s seemed like a chance for revenge after Great Britain's victory in the Seven Years War a decade earlier, but it served to tip France into a critical state.

In May 1789, the summoning of the Estates-General, France's long-dormant representative assembly, unleashed a political chain reaction that led to a swift collapse of royal legitimacy in France. Only four years later, in January 1793, Louis XVI was decapitated by guillotine.

The sun set on the British Empire almost as suddenly. So, what are the implications for the United States today?

Uh huh, but perhaps we need to tease out the fate of the British Empire a little more for The Australian:

Empires exhibit many of the characteristics of other complex adaptive systems, including the tendency to move from stability to instability quite suddenly. But this fact is rarely recognised because of our addiction to cyclical theories of history. The Bourbon monarchy in France passed from triumph to terror with astonishing rapidity. The sun set on the British Empire almost as suddenly. The Suez crisis in 1956 proved that Britain could not act in defiance of the US in the Middle East, setting the seal on the end of empire.

Uh huh. So much for Gandhi bunging on a do in the Dandi Salt March in 1930, followed by his 1942 Quit India civil disobedience movement. Not to mention all the other countries the British exploited and then suddenly found the welcome mat was being pulled off the porch. We can just mention the Suez crisis and it's all QED. Which tends to imply while some are hooked on cyclical history, others just love their apocalyptic history.

After all, you might think that Britain survived even the rigours of the second world war, and now has emerged in okay shape. Not that we're suggesting people try out a third world war so we can feel better about emerging into a Mad Max landscape, but even west and east Germany managed to get their houses in some kind of order over recent times.

Silly deluded optimist. You seem to have forgotten all that hard rain continuing to fall. Here it is falling in The Australian:

The CBO projects net interest payments rising from 9 per cent of revenue to 20 per cent in 2020, 36 per cent in 2030, 58 per cent in 2040 and 85 per cent in 2050. As Larry Kotlikoff recently pointed out in the Financial Times, by any meaningful measure, the fiscal position of the US is at present worse than that of Greece.

But that doesn't quite satisfy. Sure the United State's position is worse than Greece, and perhaps Spain, and quite likely Mongolia, but I'm feeling a little more-ish in terms of analogies. Let's see, the rain might be falling even more heavily in the Herald:

The fiscal position of the US is currently worse than that of Greece. But Greece is not a global power. In historical perspective, unless something radical is done soon, the US is heading into into Bourbon France territory. It is heading into Ottoman Turkey territory. It is heading into postwar Britain territory.

That's more like it. It's Bourbon France, heading into the Ottoman turf, and likely ending up a dwarf star, a black hole, like Britain. What a tragedy the Austro-Hungarian empire seems to have fallen out of historical discourse. Now that would be a tremendous example. Why lordy, we might even mention the decline and fall of the Soviet empire?

Oh sorry, give and take, and allowing for a lot of human suffering, that's a positive example of the benefits of fall of empire. Strike it from the record.

Instead it's surely time to whip up some paranoia about the Chinese, now that the Russians are no longer up to the task. Sure thing, we're up for that:

Quietly, discreetly, the Chinese are reducing their exposure to US Treasury bonds. Perhaps they have noticed what the rest of the world's investors pretend not to see - that the US is on a completely unsustainable fiscal course, with no apparent political means of self-correcting.

That has profound implications not only for the US, but also for all countries that have come to rely on it, directly or indirectly, for their security.

Oh indeed. The sky is falling in, or is about to fall in, or will likely fall in, and of course it will fall principally on Australia. Have we mentioned the Chinese?

And remember: half the federal debt in public hands is in the hands of foreign creditors. Of that, a fifth (22 per cent) is held by the monetary authorities of the People's Republic of China, down from 27 per cent in July last year. It may not have escaped your notice that China now has the second-largest economy in the world and is almost certain to be the US's principal strategic rival in the 21st century, particularly in the Asia-Pacific.

Oh indeed. Especially the Asia-Pacific. But wait, I'd like a set of paranoid steak knives with that. Can I have an elaboration on why American defence spending will be cut and we'll be left all alone in the Pacific and the yellow peril, the Asian hordes will pour down and take over Australia?

It is, in other words, a pre-programmed reality of US fiscal policy today that the resources available to the Department of Defense will be reduced in the years to come. Indeed, by my reckoning, it is quite likely that the US could be spending more on interest payments than on defence within the next decade.

By golly, that sounds alarming. But doesn't that mean they'll still be spending a huge amount on defence, so they can still fight totally useless wars in Afghanistan, to keep the opium trade flourishing? And pay interest for the pleasure?

No, no, no. It's all coming to an end, and possibly by noon tomorrow.

You see, all the two dollar stores flogging Chinese junk in America are going to collapse, and that will mean the Chinese will start selling their shoddy two dollar goods to ... Mongolia ...

Steady, no need to brood on the intricacies at play in a global world where any one economy is deluded if it thinks it can escape the flu from the sneezes of its neighbours.

No, instead let's get cracking again on that paranoia:

Australia's post-war foreign policy has been, in essence, to be a committed ally of the US.

But what if the sudden waning of American power that I fear brings to an abrupt end the era of US hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region? Are we ready for such a dramatic change in the global balance of power?

And quite possibly, having a view to the suddenness of historical change, by 12 noon on Friday week, if not tomorrow, and then where will we all be?

Judging by what I have heard here since I arrived last Friday, the answer is no. Australians are simply not thinking about such things.

A favourite phrase of this great country is "No dramas". But dramas lie ahead as the nasty fiscal arithmetic of imperial decline drives yet another great power over the edge of chaos.

Oh well played Chicken Little, a stout hearted knock in two rags simultaneously and on the same day.

But then it's truly wondrous that based on historical analysis, we can at last and in a forthright way conclude that dramas lie ahead. Who'd have thought it, clearly based on only a cursory study of the last few thousand years of human history.

But just what the fuck is a country of 21 odd million going to precisely do about the activities of a billion or so to the north, not to mention the carry on of 300 million plus in the grip of a deluded tea party?

Never mind, I'm sure that we'll all miss the United States when it goes, perhaps not by Friday but certainly in a fortnight, but here's hoping that on the way out, they remember to turn off the lights.

And turn on the nukes. That's right, what better way to prove Ferguson right, and wrong, all in the same breath, by dropping a few nukes here and there ...

You know, if there's going to be a big bang apocalypse, let's do better than Sydney's fireworks on new year's eve.

Meanwhile, what to do in Oz? Well we could decide to ban wandering itinerant ratbags who've been doing the tour to the colonies sounding the alarums about dangers confronting the country for a hundred years or more.

Yep it started as long ago as the nineteenth century when rumours of a Russian invasion were cranked up by The Times in 1864, and there's a nice summary of early visits of Russian warships to Australia here.

Of course the one time the British might have come in handy in relation to a possible actual invasion (and never mind those who say the Japanese never contemplated invading Australia), the guns of Singapore proved spectacularly useless. Well that's one bloody useless empire the world is well shod of, and now we have a bloodless commonwealth, even if the Indians can't put on a games to shower bread and circuses on the punter s...

So what to do? Well I guess we can always follow the example of Pig Iron Bob and keep on shipping that iron ore over to the Chinese ... and living off the fat of the land ... until they ship it back.

Or hang on, perhaps we could build a nuke and nuke 'em.

Or perhaps I should just stop reading double bunger offerings of paranoia and fear mongering ...

No dramas, dinkum Oz Amazonian butterfly.

(Below: eek, we got that wrong, it ain't a flood of Ruskis, it's a flood of Celestials).


  1. Well Greenfield is surely a walking, talking advertisement for her own febrile imaginings, non ?

    As to Ferguson, well, it was only a matter of time before somebody imported Eldridge and Gould's 'punctuated equilibria' into human history. No 'non-overlapping magisteria' for our Niall.

  2. Well, our "committed" defence relationship with the U.S.seems pretty weak if you take a cold, hard look at it. Since being screwed in Vietnam we have been pretty quick to send troops into U.S wars...when it suits us. And we tend to send as few as possible, mostly away from combat situations, and pull out as soon as possible. Not exactly a massive commitment.

  3. Never has so much been written, with so little consequence, delivering such microscopic incremental insight into a subject matter of such collosal significance for so many people, without conveying any truly valuable critique of the content of the work under review.

    Must be written by a mate of the Ruddster and the Ranga, those other Australian world champions of talking endlessly about almost any subject, without actually saying anything!


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