“But the real point of me isn’t that I’m good looking. It’s that I’m clever. I’ve got a brain! I would rather be called a highly intelligent historian than a gorgeous pouting one” – Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, Sept. 2011.
One of the predictable habits of the mainstream media is to seek out opinions on worldly matters from so-called academic “stars”. They’re given access to op-ed pages, interviewed on talk shows and their books widely promoted and gushed over. Few have burned as bright in this regard as Niall Ferguson, a handsome, arrogant 48-year-old Scot and one of the world’s most famous scholars. In 2004, Time magazine even listed him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Ferguson is a historian, a professor at Harvard University, as well as a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford. His focus is on economic history, shoving out a new tome every week, or so it seems: his books include Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation 1897-1927 (1993), The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild (1998), The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000 (2001), Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (2003), Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (2004), and The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World (2008).
Ferguson is a cocky often nasty piece of business, talking down to all of his interlocutors, no matter if they are Nobel Prize winners like Paul Krugman or others of similarly liberal and leftish hue. His entire manner is that he’s the smartest guy in the room and the rest of us are dunderheaded know-nothings.
Yet a closer examination of Ferguson’s scholarship and politics reveals that he’s a staggeringly stupid man in spite of his academic credentials and the shelves groaning under the weight of his hefty books. In short, he’s an academic fraud. Moreover, he’s a perfect example of those academics whose entire raison d’etre is to defend the corporate elites – similar to the idiot economists from Ivy League outposts like Harvard that Charles Ferguson skewered in his Academy Award-winning documentary “The Inside Job” for either A) failing to see the portents of the worst economic catastrophe since the 1930s or B) of being in bed with Wall Street and acting as gung ho cheerleaders and apologists for bankers’ criminal behaviour.
Last month, Ferguson got himself into hot water when he wrote a cover story for Newsweek magazine entitled “Hit the Road, Barack – Why We Need a New President” that argued that Obama had made a mess of the economy and the Republicans held the ticket to recovery. But in order to make his argument, Ferguson grossly distorted the source material he relied upon.
As documented by Matthew O’Brien, an associate editor at The Atlantic Monthly, Ferguson mangled the truth and prodigiously so. For example, in complaining that there were 4.3 million jobs fewer jobs since Obama’s election, he went back to January 2008 to begin his count – a full year before Obama had assumed the presidency. Ferguson also claimed that real median annual income had fallen 5% since the summer of 2009 without citing a source (O’Brien found that the Census Bureau indicated it had fallen 2.28%). On and on the mistakes went. But the worst was when Ferguson claimed that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) said that Obama’s health care plan would have a net cost of $1.2-trillion during the 2012-22 period to government deficits. In fact. the CBO said the health care plan would likely reduce federal deficits by $210-billion during that time period.
Meanwhile, one of Ferguson’s current (and appalling) projects is to rehabilitate the reputation of one of the West’s greatest unconvicted war criminals, Henry Kissinger. Ferguson is currently working on an authorized biography of Kissinger, someone who has become his chum. In fact, last fall, Kissinger was a guest at Ferguson’s wedding to Aayan Hirsi Ali in Boston. Recently, Ferguson penned a column for The Daily Beast delighting in the fact that Kissinger was welcomed back to Harvard (where he taught years ago) with open arms. You can bet that Ferguson’s biography of Kissinger will be a hagiography and omit or apologize for his well-documented war crimes, as laid out in Christopher Hitchen’s fabulous “The Trial of Henry Kissinger” and Seymour Hersh’s “The Price of Power” , who exposed Kissinger’s role in mass slaughters in Indochina, East Timor and Chile, among others.
But it’s in the realm of economics that Ferguson’s so-called “scholarship” reveals the true depths of his mendacity and stupidity (and even veiled racism). Ferguson is a champion of imperial empires, preferably those run by white men, like the British empire when it ruled much of the world, or today’s fading American version. Just after the invasion of Iraq, Ferguson wrote in the New York Times Magazine that he was “a fully paid-up member of the neo-imperialist gang.” He laments the demise of the British empire, noting in his 2003 work Empire: How Britian Made the Modern World that the British “undeniably pioneered free trade, free capital movements and, with the abolition of slavery, free labour. It invested immense sums in developing a global network of modern communications. It spread and enforced the rule of law over vast areas… Without the spread of British rule around the world,” colonised peoples, such as Indians, would not have what are now their most valuable ideas and institutions – parliamentary democracy, individual freedom and the English language. Yet Ferguson failed to point out that these technological developments were designed to suck as much wealth out of the colonies as possible, to the detriment of indigenous peoples and to the overwhelming benefit of Britain’s ruling elites.
As Pankaj Mishra wrote in 2011 in the London Review of Books about Ferguson, his “books are known less for their original scholarly contribution than for containing some provocative counterfactuals.” For example, Mishra noted that “he suppresses or ignores facts that complicate his picture of the West’s sui generis efflorescence. Arguing that the Scientific Revolution was ‘wholly Eurocentric’, he disregards contemporary scholarship about Muslim contributions to Western science, most recently summarised in George Saliba’s Islam and the Making of the European Renaissance. He prefers the hoary prejudice that Muslim clerics began to shut down rational thought in their societies at the end of the 11th century. He brusquely dismisses Kenneth Pomeranz’s path-breaking book The Great Divergence, asserting that ‘recent research has demolished the fashionable view that China was economically neck to neck with the West until as recently as 1800.’ But he offers no evidence of this fashion-defying research.”
In spite of Ferguson’s fraudulent scholarship, he has become the darling of the right and liberal chattering classes. Even after his Newsweek article on Obama was exposed to be riddled with distortions, documented by the likes of Krugman and others, the magazine simply said it no longer checks the facts of contributors and continues to employ him as a columnist, shrugging off Ferguson’s shoddy scholarship – very much how the Globe and Mail has shrugged off the overwhelming evidence of Margaret Wente’s plagiarisms and continues to employ her as a bankrupt polemicist.