Monday, July 26, 2010

Paul Sheehan, Niall Ferguson, Paul Krugman, and Felix the cat redux ...

Paul Sheehan is back at the Herald, and in the usual way, his morning's opus never fails to disappoint.

Mondays can now revert to a bout of rambunctious illogicality as a way to start the day, and Civilisation goes west, leaving empire on the edge of ruin is a fine opening salvo, or more accurately, spray, and not of grape shot, but of spittle.

Sheehan is enamoured of Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, and offers this as an example of groupie think as an intro:

Ferguson is not just a superstar within the international intellectual elite, the theme of his speech was sweeping in its scale and implications - ''Empires on the edge of ruin''. And he will not be just talking about the past, but also the present.

Yep, the next time you read Sheehan berating the unhappy, unfortunate influence of the international elite, or perhaps the inner west elite, just remember that there are elites, and elites, in much the same way as there are different boxes of chocolates.

Sheehan clearly has a taste for the millenarian elite.

He even evokes the word ''epoch''. As a professor of history at both Harvard University and the Harvard Business School, he has scanned the economic data over hundreds of years and come to this conclusion: ''I think it is reasonable to assume that we are living through the end of an epoch … Something that is really the end of 500 years of history … The great question is whether I'm right in believing that we're living through the end of the pre-eminence of the West … and the end of Western civilisation as we know it. This is a huge secular shift.''

Secular? Well in the sense of worldly rather than spiritual, we can gather what he means, but of course in the current debate, the word secular contains its own kind of dog whistle. And why five hundred years? Let's allow a decade here or there, but what's so significant about 1510 or 1500 or 1520 for that matter, that they should represent a starting point that we should now come to an end of?

As for epochs, it's the kind of mind set you will find amongst Victorian historians with a sense of Empire, a world into which Ferguson comfortably slips. It's quaint world, rather similar to the blonde blue eyed Nordic Jesus that manages to displace the coarse dark featured Jewish Semitic Jesus in the Anglo Saxon mind ...

But what, you might ask, has the Anglo Saxon mind got to do with things? Well first, a little detour to do with history ...

The trouble with Gibbon writing The History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire (all twelve volumes of which are handily available at Project Gutenberg here, if you want to bury yourself in long ago scribbling, the hardest and longest and most dire read in my entire time doing history) was that he had a thesis to hand, and then wrote his history in a way that justified the thesis, never mind the odd contradicting and contradictory event.

The trouble with Ferguson is that when he seeks to write a history of events that have yet to unfold, he's using the past as a prop so that he can become a prophet or a seer, or in this case a millenarian, predicting doom and gloom and downfall, when in reality, all he has is his personal prejudice and opinion, as to how things might unfold.

Sure things will change, history shows that, but the how and the why always somehow manages to trick the prophet. But that never shakes their eternal righteousness and conviction, and the willingness of others to listen to their tales of doom and gloom:

The global financial crisis and recession have exposed and accelerated this shift, he told a private conference at Coolum in Queensland on Saturday (having arrived from London the day before). ''We are watching the disintegration of Europe,'' he said. Observing this process is like watching ''a fascinating real-time train wreck''.

The sovereign debt crisis in Europe, the United States and Japan is, he says, ''far from over. The situation is dire''. But not in Australia. Instead, he posits a different challenge for this country: ''We are shifting into an era of Asian dominance … Australia is effectively part of the Chinese economy … Do you want to be a colony of the Chinese empire?''

Of course the same blather about the end of empire was spruiked at the end of world war two, and the utter ruination of Europe along with it. But back then Europe was in utter physical and mental ruin. These days the life of a Parisian ain't so bad, not when the burka is the main object of tabloid concern.

But note the Ferguson dog whistle "Do you want to be a colony of the Chinese empire?" Of course the world was so much better when the Opium Wars were being fought, and Hong Kong was a part of Empire, and the Chinese ... well the Chinese knew their subservient lickspittle place in the panoply dedicated to the British Anglo Saxon Empire.

Put that way, I guess it's not so much a dog whistle, as a full on shriek, so let's cut to the chase at the end of Sheehan's column, and see why the Anglo Saxons have come out to play:

Having come to Australia, he (Ferguson) is taking pleasure at being in an English-speaking country were the economy is sound and the mood is optimistic. ''You have a fantastic opportunity to do things that other Anglo-Saxon countries can only dream of. You should be setting up a sovereign wealth fund like Norway.'' This would serve as a buffer to the inevitable downturn in the global commodities market and any stumbles by China. ''You had the golden opportunity, but it was frittered away in a pseudo-Keynesian spending binge.''

Anglo-Saxon? Well I don't think I've heard Australia called Anglo-Saxon in such a naive way since the nineteen fifties, or perhaps since Percy Grainger peddled his Nordic visions, and it certainly wasn't true as long ago as the first gold rush, which brought in unseemly hordes from all over the place and began to trouble the natural Anglo Saxon order of things, but even before then, before gold invited in the celestials and the Europeans, there were significant numbers of perfidious Celts of the kind so disliked and distrusted and mocked by Sheehan in previous pieces.

Since those long ago days there have been substantial changes to the make-up of the country, and to speak so glibly of the country's population as Anglo Saxon marks the good professor down for an F.

Let's be handsome and make sure it's an Anglo-Saxon F, lest he have an anxiety attack over it being a Chinese or Asian F.

Oh sorry, I got that wrong, he's giving others an F:

So much for Kevin Rudd's and Julia Gillard's claim to have saved Australia from the global economic crisis. The world's most famous economic historian has just given them an F.

Never mind, since there's a long standing feud running around Ferguson, involving the matter of Keynes, which Sheehan barely manages to grasp:

Not everyone is enamoured with Ferguson. For some time he has engaged in a celebrated debate with the most recent Nobel laureate in economics, Paul Krugman, the economics columnist for The New York Times. At the weekend Ferguson described their skirmishing as ''a sometimes ill-tempered debate''.

Ill-tempered? Well for that, let's troop off to The Times archive, lurking behind Chairman Rupert's paywall, but which you might manage if you're going there directly to view Professor Paul Krugman at war with Niall Ferguson over inflation as the pair got to arguing over stimulus and Keynes:

Krugman, an ultra-Keynesian, argued for stimulus spending. Ferguson put the case for fiscal conservatism, warning of a “rapid explosion of federal debt”. At some point, the “financial credibility of the United States will be called into question”, he said.

A few days later, Krugman returned to the argument in a withering put-down on his blog, describing Ferguson’s views as “really sad” and “depressing” and belonging to “the dark ages of economics”.

Ferguson shot back in a piece in the Financial Times. “It is a brave or foolhardy man who picks a fight with Mr Krugman,” he wrote. “Yet a cat may look at a king, and sometimes a historian can challenge an economist.” Krugman was “patronising” he said, before offering him a “refresher course” in the historical context of Keynes’s work.

You can’t offer to lecture Krugman on Keynes, however, without expecting the return punch to be a big one. Earlier this month, Ferguson wrote another piece for the FT, comparing Barack Obama to Felix the Cat: “Felix was not only black,” he wrote. “He was always very, very lucky.”

Krugman saw the opportunity to deploy the nuclear weapon of American academic arguments — an accusation of racism. “I cannot fathom the state of mind that led Ferguson to think this was a good way to introduce a column,” he blogged furiously. “Admittedly, it doesn’t really distract from his larger point, since as far as I can tell he doesn’t have one.”

As it was succinctly put in the posters for Jaws: The Revenge, this time it was personal. Over on the influential Huffington Post blog, Ferguson defended the intro, rather amusingly pointing out that Felix was just a black cat, “not an African-American cat”. Krugman shot back on his blog: “He’s a whiner too.”

Yes, it's a classic spat between right and left, between liberal and conservative, dressed up in low falutin' terms, and with the future unknown, neither in a position to be called a winner, though if you happen to be a free market small government non regulatory type of player, then surely it was Wall Street that managed to bring about the recent mini-collapse, rather than the Chinese, and as Krugman noted at the time, suddenly government had a role to play. (And there's a neat summary of Niall Ferguson v Paul Krugman at the Metropolitan debate here).

Sheehan of course is happy to forget the recent financial past, and the causes of the world-wide recession - it seems it's a problem created by Celts and by Europeans.

Krugman is an advocate of classic Keynesian stimulus by big government to ride out the current downturn. But Ferguson believes we have passed the point where deeply indebted governments can rely on yet more stimulus. He wants a gradual deflating of the debt balloon and more expansive monetary policy. He worries more about deflation than inflation.

While Krugman is an economist, Ferguson is an economic historian. It is a significant difference. ''Financial history can illuminate our experiences better than any economic model,'' he says.

His point is helped by the failure of most economics prognosticators to anticipate the near-meltdown of the global financial markets in 2008 and the near-depression this caused.

Yep, that's how to do a switcheroo. Let's ignore the silliness of saying that financial history can illuminate our experiences better than any economic model. Any historian will say that. It's a bit like those gherkins who say how understanding the causes of World War 1 is certain to help us understand how to stop World War 11 from happening. What's that, it happened anyway?

Never mind, let's admire the double flip with pike, and so avoid noting the way that most prognosticators, especially of the anti-government, non-regulatory intervention, let the banks and the markets and Wall Street do what they like, and invent whatever bizarre financial instruments they can invent, failed to realise the stupidity and profound implications of their posturing?

As for the rest of Sheehan's column, it's really just a bout of star fucking, as he celebrates Ferguson as a celebrity. Ferguson was married to journalist Susan Douglas, but now hangs around with Ayaan Hirsi Ali (wiki here), and he's prolific in his role as public right wing intellectual, ready to tour to the antipodes to give the Anglo Saxons advice on how to deal with dissident cultures in seminars and lectures, and ready to scribble books and front television series presenting his views.

While star-fucking is an admirable and estimable activity, especially for elites of an eastern suburbs persuasion, as they tuck in to their favourite fifteen dollar loaf of bread, it doesn't create much of a sense of depth. For that you might be better off reading Ferguson's apology for the British empire, Colossus and Empire, or perhaps watching or reading The Ascent of Money.

The television documentary version struck me as glib and superficial, the kind of thing you make in a way to bring the complex set of financial structures operating in the world down to thought bubbles capable of holding the attention a viewer's attention, without bothering to draw attention to the way this dumbing down favours simplicity over complexity. In that, Ferguson is truly a new age guru, and a child of screen culture, and surely as much part of the problem as any solution.

But since we're not really at that level of debate, we're actually down at the Paul Sheehan thought bubble star fucker level, there's one deeply disturbing aspect that might affect Anglo Saxons, though not someone like me, with my sordid mix of Celtic and Germanic blut in the distant past.

You see, Ferguson was born in Glasgow, and with that name, it's reasonable to have a suspicion that there's a little Celt there in the past.

And thanks to previous scribbles by Paul Sheehan, we know a deep truth:

England makes, the Celts take.

Oh no. Anglo Saxons everywhere, take guard ... your world is coming to an end ...

(Below: found here).


  1. You do historians so very well ...

    I appreciated the sly hint of the Duke of Gloucester in your reductio.

    But you actually read all of 'The Decline and Fall ...' ? A "damned fat book" such as that ? Maybe it's true after all what they say about Catholics (even lapsed ones) and masochism.

  2. "The Decline and Fall" is responsible for more intellectual horse-shit than any other book I can think of. And I'm pretty sure it's Ferguson's favourite book. I've recently read "Empire" and am still reeling at the thought that the Indians would be so much better off if they were still in the Empire, and should be jolly well grateful to us "Anglo-Saxons"!

  3. Yes I was once quite mad and read a lot of history, and now am madder still.

    It was when I studied economic history for several years, and suffered from bouts of reading Sir Lewis Namier that I understood insanity, or sounding like Ferguson was where it would all end, and I stopped ...

  4. Ahh, well you have my sincere commiserations for the tortures laid on impressionable youth.

    But I think I'd rather read Sir L B Namier "taking ideas [sic] out of history" than read Ferguson putting crass prejudices and zombie ideologies into history.

    But here is a serious question for you: what, picked from your catholic (with the small 'c')erudition, would be your list of "things that you must read in order to be an informed citizen of the 21st century". Of course, you may have this list already prepared for just such a gratuitous request.

  5. Dear lord, weighed down by words, I stopped reading long ago. But if you must, get your iPad, and start with the bible, King James of course, since you have to know what you're disagreeing with, Shakespeare, a decent dictionary, key Roman and Greek texts, the pick of medieval and Renaissance thought and fiction, the key texts of the English and American literary tradition, a sprinkling of European texts, including Spanish, Russian, Italian German and French classics, but not forgetting each country has their own representative master or three responding to the that unique world and social order nearby, a good round of Asian texts, including zen and Chinese history and the Buddha and Confucius, throw in sundry classics from the twentieth century, too many to name, tackle Joyce as you would Everest, with no fear if you only make it to base camp, add in a dash of post modernist up to the moment works for contemporary flavour and thinking, dabble with a few philosophers but generally feel free to forget politicians and their useless memoirs, never forget poetry, distilled essence of truth, or film and plays, embodiment of words and actions, and soon enough you'll have spent an entire lifetime closeted with words.

    It's at this point you'll hear my mother saying ... why don't you go out and play a little dear, the sun's out and physical activity is ever so important ...

    But as you already know that Ferguson is a populist historian of the second water, I think you're already there ...

  6. I thank you for that. It is a short but daunting list, even for one whose formative need for sunshine and physical activity is long past.

    And aye, there's the rub: "... an entire lifetime closeted with words." But how else are we to know ourselves and the thoughts, ideas, feelings and works of our kind ?

  7. A related reference perhaps.

    There was a brief review in the Oz last week which referred to Ferguson as a polymath. Plus in the Spectator his hugeness Christopher Pearson described Peter Coleman as a polymath too.

    And yes the empire is on the edge of ruin--courtesy of his friends at the AEI and the Heritage (lies, lies and more lies) Foundation.


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