Posted tagged ‘Niall Ferguson’

The Evil That Men Do

January 28, 2012

Charles Murray is pimping a new book, alas. TBogg and Roy have already taken a couple of whacks at the most risible bits of his latest attempt to promote the natural order of things.

It’s hard to see this one making much of a splash, outside the usual quarters.  In it, Murray looks specifically at pale America, and he argues that white folks here divide along class lines. That’s a phenomenon he sees separating the effete, smart, rich folks living in enclaves unclear on the concept of real Amerigeist (See! Ha! You knew I was one of those, didn’t you!), and the Nascar loving, not-so-smart, Applebee eating (truly — see the two posts linked above), meth sucking (I made that up) folks who don’t have passports that let them into Prospect Park or SoMa.

Leaving aside that David Brooks already botched this one, albeit in more facile prose, Murray’s key move is to declare that whatever else may construct class in America, it ain’t income, or more precisely, income inequality.

Which is of course what this always outcome-oriented writer needs to say.

His public-intellectual career, vapid though it may seem anywhere actual rigor is demanded,* turns on finding some kind of essentialist reason to preserve current social hierarchies and racial privilege. Here, abandoning a genetic tack, he can be seen to perform one of David Brooks patented’ double backflips, to land on what he claims are deeply rooted differences in culture.

The cleverness there is that such arguments evoke the kinds of responses most likely to be palatable to his and our overlords.  Or, in the words of one reviewer — a more famous man than Murray, yet equally certain of assumptions not in evidence — the authoritative prescription for the Republic runs like this:

What the country needs is not an even larger federal government but a kind of civic Great Awakening–a return to the republic’s original foundations of family, vocation, community, and faith.

That’s from Niall Ferguson, whose review captures the bad faith that runs through Murray’s enterprise — really, one of the original that runs through the whole right-wing culturedammerung.Usefully, Ferguson’s gloss on Murray’s prose strips it down to the essential poverty of its argument.

That is: it may gratify our Galtian masters to be told that just a bit more church and keeping one’s privates in their proper place is all that is needed to render the US governable by the governing class.  But no one committed to actually studying society as it lives on the ground of contemporary America could argue that “community” for example is simply a unitary value to be trotted out at as needed.  The word is as vulnerable as are the real people involved to such realities as 8+% unemployment, gutted town and school budgets and so on — the actual material framework of community in which families, you know, live.  I’ll grant you lots of factors at play, but cash is definitely a huge one, despite Ferguson’s ritual endorsement of Murray’s claim:

Murray is dismissive of the standard liberal prescription of higher taxes on the rich and higher spending on the poor.

Sorry, folks.  It’s simply hard to construct community when you can’t keep street lights on.**

Yet more egregiously, see what’s missing in Ferguson’s deft opposition:  the middle class, for whom as much as for the poor it kind of matters to be able to drive to work on streets without sinkholes, depend on cops on the beat, find a book or two in the library and so on.

More deeply, if I took Ferguson seriously as a public writer at this point in the diminishment of his intellectual career (as opposed to the upper-middle-brow blockblusterer role he’s embraced with equal gusto and skill), I’d go into a bit more detail about the shocking ahistoricity on display.

Just to give the merest hint of what’s missing — only one, small example out of a universe of them — a historian actually interested in the practice of the craft might stop to think about what happens to community when the average radius of daily travel changes by orders of magnitude in the time lapsed from when John Adams strode his Quincy farm.  Or what the change in the cost and capacity of medicine to intervene in illness and dying from that day to this might do to the way families act, or how we parse the roles of government vs. individual autonomy and responsibility.

To restate the point my father spent a professional life thinking about:  it’s not just what is said that matters, the bare words someone might utter about liberty, for example, or about the exceptionalism of the American experiment.   The “when” is key, the particular context of thought and historical moment.  You have to ask to what other ideas, emotions, social facts those words speak each time you hear them.  The concept of American exceptionalism in 1783 had a specific sharp tang: George Washington was to be our President, not our king.

Now?  The meaning and feeling of that same language has shifted enormously.

And so it is with Murray’s and Ferguson’s constructed nostalgia.  I’ve learned not to psychoanalyze at a distance, so I won’t speculate on what it is about the pleasures of contrarianism that seems not just to capture clever young folks like Ferguson (and his Oxford undergraduate friend, Andrew Sullivan) — but to freeze them for a very long time.  As John Rogers pointed out long ago, some escape such youthful folly, and some don’t.

But none of this is what truly gets my goat here.  Rather,  it’s this:

Quite unjustly, that book [The Bell Curve] was anathematized as “racist” because it pointed out that, on average, African-Americans had lower IQ scores than white Americans.

I understand  on a technical level why Ferguson might feel compelled to write this.  The Bell Curve is Murray’s claim to authority as an observer of America.  If it falls, the residue of Murray’s intellectual capital evaporates as well.  Unfortunately, The Bell Curve is one of the most thoroughly eviscerated books in recent memory. (See Cosma Shalizi’s take down of the whole race-IQ-outcomes for just one, very sharp example.)

In that context, Ferguson does what he has to do in quite cleverly sliding by what Murray and his co-author Richard J. Herrnstein were actually on about.  The root claim in their book wasn’t a statement about the raw results of certain tests; rather, it was what such scores mean — their claim that the numbers they selected revealed something both real and relevant to social outcomes.

This is what anathematized the book.  Not that it said that African-Americans scored as they did on a particular test, but that it claimed, in the teeth of much evidence, that such data captures an essential quality of African-American mental capacity that has real world consequences.  There are facts and there are interpretations, and while there were problems with both in the Murray/Herrnstein account, this assertion of meaning was what mattered.

Which meas that you don’t have to go to all the finer grained methodological critique of Murray and Herrnstein — their use of what are essentially achievement tests as proxies for IQ tests, for just one of many available examples — to see how Ferguson is playing an old trick here.  If you can’t deal with the argument your antagonists actually made, then…What the hell! Run up a straw man, something the other guys didn’t say…and put both boots in.

The hollowness thus implied would be sad — tragic, really — if what Ferguson actually wrote weren’t so bloody corrosive. It’s 2012, goddamn it.  Someday soon — as in many yesterdays ago — we’ve got to get past these quasi-scientific glosses on what is the same damn justification slave-owners offered for holding some people as property: that those slaves were in irreducibly essential ways less than their white masters.

Ferguson here sets that day back once more.

For shame.

*I.e., not The Daily Dish

**Old story, I know, but still a good one.

Images:  Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Two Acrobats, 1932-33.

Titian, Charles V With Dog, 1532-33.

Now I Remember Why I Never Read the Daily Beast: LLoyd Grove/”Elites” (sic) edition

July 19, 2010

Here I am, sitting at my desk, trying to get my head around an email inbox of more than 1700 items, and procrastination takes me to this gem by Lloyd Grove.

There, according to the teaser, we will learn that

Even the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual gathering of the country’s brightest lights, isn’t Obama country anymore.

And what, exactly is the evidence that, Obama is suffering from “the waning support of the intelligentsia?”

This:  Harvard cheerleader of empire Niall Ferguson doesn’t like Obama, and nor does real estate gazillionaire and sometime magazine mogul Mort Zuckerman.  There’s someone Grove identifies as a “Silicon Valley guru” who is actually Applied Materials chief and (former Intel exec) Michael Splinter, and Huffington Post founder (and woo-provider) Arianna Huffington.

And?  You ask.

That’s it.

Oh — and Grove quotes one other luminary, Barbara Streisand, who described Ferguson’s presentation as “breathtaking” and “wonderful.”

In other words, what you have here is a bit o’ feckless conventional-wisdom mongering.  This isn’t some new trend.   None of those he cites are making points different from what they have been arguing for some time.  There is no change here; these are figures with well-known positions restating them.  Intelligentsia or no, this isn’t an example of a “waning” of support, this is a repackaged statement of pre-existing opposition.

Not to mention, there is the stupidity of what is being said:  I know Grove gets to transcribe at will, but it is depressing to read a report about an “Ideas Festival” that does not put any of the self-styled ideas to the test.

For example. Groves uses Ferguson as his major voice.  Ferguson, of course is a well known historian, perhaps best known as a controversialist both in the form and the content of his historical writing.*

But to the point of this post, Ferguson was an early informal source for John McCain’s campaign, an early supporter of the Iraq fiasco (a stance he has tried to cloak with mouthings to the effect he never would have stood with Bush if he’d known that the affair would be so badly run.  To which I reply that if he did not understand the fecklessness with which that administration approached war, he wasn’t paying attention.  But I digress).

And he is someone who has for some time argued that deficits are a greater problem than short term stimulus, all the while making what appear to me, whose opinion is not worth much, and to others, who do know better, the elementary mistake of seeking to contract demand in the middle of a recession.*

The point of all this in the context of Grove’s attempt at a trend piece, is that while what Ferguson said at Aspen was poorly argued, and marked by a willful refusal to engage actual data, it is in no way a signal that the intelligentsia has given up on Obama.  Ferguson has, certainly — but he had a long time ago.

And so it goes with the rest of the luminaries.  Mort Zuckerman has been saying the same stuff about Obama for the better part of the year.  He, at least, is historically pro-Obama, but what he said at Aspen does not represent some kind of new departure for him.  (I disagree with Zuckerman on his analysis of health care in the link above, as do most of those, including the CBO who’ve actually run the numbers, and I think he drastically underestimates the ability of any US administration to get stuff through Congress, but I can’t say I dissent from his desire to spend more stimulus money more quickly.  But I would say that he might want to reserve some of his rage for a GOP  that has made good on its promise to but party before country in its desire to make sure that the economy remains broken long enough for them to steal back into power.

Again — irrelevant bile there; but sufficient for this screed to note  that Zuckerman is not some newly regretful supporter turning more in sorrow than in anger from his President.

Next there’s Splinter, cast by Grove as complaining that it’s Obama’s fault that the US tax code isn’t supportive enough of business.  No less than that socialist rag the Wall St. Journal calls the bullshit there:  in an op-ed by two Cato Institute writers, we find that  the US corporate tax code is the product of several decades of bad design, with choices made under Bush that exacerbate its inefficiency.  Again: Splinter isn’t so much a convert from Obama worship as he is one more figure seeking redress for a particular problem in his own industry.  Nothing wrong with that — and I would strongly favor a corporate tax system that was simpler, flatter, and more universally applied.**  But once more, in a “trend” piece, where is the evidence of an actual change in opinion over time?

(The way Grove wrote the piece, it’s not absolutely clear that Splinter himself blames Obama for the tax issue itself, as opposed to some broader dissatisfaction with economic results over the last year or so.  But Grove presents Splinter’s views as if he did say that.  So either Splinter was making an argument that ignores the actual history of his problem, or Grove is playing a particularly slimy bit of sleight of hand here.  Either way, we’re still looking for this alleged waning of support, as distinct from disagreement or complaint.)

And last, there’s Arianna Huffington.  Again, I don’t think she’s wrong in saying that Obama’s administration has dropped the ball on jobs and unemployment.  But did Grove just discover this view?

Enough.  I’ve done my usual, letting off a howitzer at a gnat of crappy reporting.

But if you’ll forgive one last bit of bile…this kind of work is acid, eating away at public discourse; it’s a parody of actual journalism, and its easy, lazy, pig-ignorant reliance on the argument from authority makes real discussion of real issues increasingly difficult.  Niall Ferguson says Obama’s wrong — and so he is, and so this one intellectual (sort of) demonstrates that all thinking folk are getting ready to abandon ship.  That this is a blatant misrepresentation of the implications of what Groves actually documents should not be allowed to get in the way of a tale that fits the pre-existing conclusion…

…from which I conclude that friends don’t let friends bother with The Daily Beast. (Or perhaps better:  Trust that rag? “Up to a point, Lord Copper.”)

*That is, in cartoon version:  fresh water economists and useful idiots hold that public spending cannot produce lasting economic growth because for every federal dollar spent, one private one won’t be.  There’s much more to the argument, of course, having to do with expectations of future taxes to be levied to pay off present spending, but this is a cartoon, remember.  Salt water economists and much experience of the real world says, no:  when you spend at a time of reduced demand and available capacity within the economy — factories that aren’t being used, people who aren’t working — the stimulative effect of public money spent exceeds the long term cost of repaying the sums borrowed for the purpose.  Ferguson very publicly had this argument with Paul Krugman, who is, unlike Ferguson, an actual economist. Krugman won, both in the judgment of those competent to make such appraisals, and by the imperfect measure of the market’s judgment of the appropriate price for US government obligations

All this to the point:  Ferguson has been arguing for years what he restates at the Aspen Institute:  high deficits are the engine of imperial decline.**  We therefore should be spending less.  He also says that unemployment insurance is a bad idea, as it encourages sloth.  He has, it seems to me a typical and callow fear among British Tories of an age to remember Maggie Thatcher, but not much before:  that somehow Michael Foote will rise again and eke 270 electoral votes sometime soon.   To avoid the risk of a social welfare state that no one has proposed, he would rather the unemployed learn the consequences of their feckless refusal to work at jobs that do not exist than to pump needed cash into the economy and on the way preserve just a bit of a shot for millions at a better future.

**He is a proponent of “counterfactual” history — as in one of his best known works, The Pity of War, in which he argues that the world would have been better off if only the British Empire had had the good sense to stand aside and allow that non-belligerent power, Imperial Germany, to win  its war in 1914 or 15.  My own research for Einstein in Berlin suggests otherwise, but that’s why they allow printing presses to spit out more than one book.  So that’s an example of controvesial content.  The technique though?  I find the counterfactual stuff to be a crutch for lazy thought.  It can be fun, and it can be suggestive — but that’s it.  It is a proof of nothing — and if you already have an axe to grind it becomes a distorting lens, coloring your ability to assess each and every fragment of actual fact  your research may uncover.

***If you want to see the nonsense that is the corporate tax system, google this title: “2006 Statistics of Income,” published by the IRS.  Be prepared for several hundred pages of enlightening tables.  You will find that the notional high corporate tax rates are that high for a minority of firms…but access to the deductions and credits used to lower bills are highly imperfectly distributed across different sectors and scales of corporate activity.  No way to run a railroad.)

Images:  Vincent van Gogh, “The Potato Eaters,” 1885.

Richard Jack, “The Battle of Vimy Ridge” (loading a 4.5in howitzer), 1918.