Universities began primarily as religious institutions, endowed with land and entrusted with studying eternal mysteries of existence. The modern university, developed in the 19th century first in Germany and then in the rest of the western world, largely put its theological mission aside, but assumed a critical social and even political role in post-Enlightenment civilization. To professors, given lifetime tenure, fell the task of studying and evaluating the modern world and teaching a growing elite how it had worked in the past and how it worked in the present. The social sciences--of which history has sometimes claimed to be one--aspired in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries not merely to understand the world, but to order it according to rational principles of justice. Professional economists certainly played an important role in creating and sustaining the postwar western world, but their embrace of free-market orthodoxy in the last 40 years has inevitably involved an abdication of that role, since they trust market forces, not human reason applied on a large scale, to produce the best possible economic outcomes.
The modern university, as I have had occasion to note in several different contexts in recent decades, has undergone huge changes in the 47 years since I started my college career in 1965. Colleges and universities are now both richer and much more expensive--about three times more expensive in constant dollars--than they were then. They depend upon rich people and institutions more than ever, and they owed much of their growth in the 1990s and 2000s to the decision to turn their endowments into hedge funds--a strategy that led to a disastrous crash in 2008-9 at Harvard and elsewhere. And sadly, as their faculties have gotten bigger and bigger, the concerns of individual faculty members have, for the most part, gotten narrower and narrower. I remarked to a very distinguished historian some years ago that the dirty secret of academia was that so few of its practitioners actually enjoyed it. He immediately agreed.
This week a very famous academic is in the news: Niall Ferguson of Harvard University. An economic historian, Ferguson in the 1990s showed a talent for writing quickly and lucidly, and he followed up a two-volume history of the Rothschild family with a relatively short, provocative, and eccentric book on the First World War, The Pity of War. Ferguson speculated that the world would have become a much better place had Britain stayed out of the First World War in 1914 and allowed Germany to win. The Germans, he said, would have proceeded to create something like the European Union forty years earlier, and the world would have been spared both National Socialism and Communism. Historians who failed to be impressed by the argument of the book included his fellow Anglo-American Paul Kennedy at Yale and yours truly. Still, he suddenly became the most sought-after historian in the US, where academics can rarely resist a British accent, and Harvard wooed him away from NYU.
Although Ferguson has been commissioned to write the authorized biography of Henry Kissinger, he does not spend much of his time being what I would call a historian. He has become a pundit, similar in tone to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, never lacking an opinion on any subject and always certain of himself, even if what he is saying now is more or less the opposite of what he said last year. (He now appears to have changed his mind about the Iraq War twice: he supported it, then regretted it, and is now criticizing President Obama for abandoning it too soon.) Ferguson is an unabashed imperialist who still thinks the United States has a responsibility to determine the destiny of the Middle East. Economically he is a deficit hawk. And he wrote the cover article in the latest issue of Newsweek, a piece of typical Republican boilerplate translated into academic prose calling for the defeat of Barack Obama and implying that Romney and Paul Ryan will save the country and the world.
Like all current Republican propaganda, the piece generally gives the impression that history began on January 21, 2009. There isn't a word about how the combination of Middle East Wars, tax cuts, and de-regulation--all dearly beloved by Ferguson--created the permanent deficit and the economic catastrophe with which Obama has had to deal. This is not altogether surprising: Ferguson also spends a good deal of time speaking to hedge funds and other financial institutions, earning a reported $100,000 per appearance. (Another source gives his normal speaking fee at $50-75,000.) Nor, while berating the President for not doing more to help the economy, does Ferguson say a single word about the total obstructionism practiced by his own party for the last four years. His portrait of his adopted country is straight out of a script by Limbaugh or Hannity: "Welcome to Obama’s America: nearly half the population is not represented on a taxable return—almost exactly the same proportion that lives in a household where at least one member receives some type of government benefit. We are becoming the 50–50 nation—half of us paying the taxes, the other half receiving the benefits." (As any educated person should know, while many poorer working Americans pay no federal income taxes, they pay payroll taxes that are higher than what some millionaires pay.)
I was most struck by Ferguson's comments about Obama's foreign policy. I have never been introduced to Ferguson, but I once had an email exchange with him relating to his support for the war in Iraq. Several years after it began, I wrote him that he, and many others, who had brought up the British experience in Iraq, had failed to mention a rather critical fact: that the population of Iraq had increased about tenfold since the British went in in 1919-20, making the possibility of subduing it much harder. He replied that his remarks had been misinterpreted as an endorsement of neoconservatism. Now, however, he seems firmly in the neoconservative camp. He argues that American soldiers will be angry that the fruits of their sacrifices in Iraq and Afghanistan are being abandoned. May I say that at the Naval War College, I don't think I meant a single officer who felt that way. He is concerned thar present predictions show China's GDP surpassing ours in ten years--ignoring that that means that their per capita income will still be only 1/4 of ours, a truly astonishing omission for someone who calls himself an economist. He complains that Obama hasn't done enough to channel the effects of the Arab spring--whose whole point is a rejection of western direction. and so on.
But he saves the punch line for last, and it has to be quoted to be believed.
"Now Obama is going head-to-head with his nemesis: a politician who believes more in content than in form, more in reform than in rhetoric. In the past days much has been written about Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s choice of running mate. I know, like, and admire Paul Ryan. For me, the point about him is simple. He is one of only a handful of politicians in Washington who is truly sincere about addressing this country’s fiscal crisis.
"Over the past few years Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” has evolved, but the essential points are clear: replace Medicare with a voucher program for those now under 55 (not current or imminent recipients), turn Medicaid and food stamps into block grants for the states, and—crucially—simplify the tax code and lower tax rates to try to inject some supply-side life back into the U.S. private sector. Ryan is not preaching austerity. He is preaching growth. And though Reagan-era veterans like David Stockman may have their doubts, they underestimate Ryan’s mastery of this subject. There is literally no one in Washington who understands the challenges of fiscal reform better. . . .
"I first met Paul Ryan in April 2010. I had been invited to a dinner in Washington where the U.S. fiscal crisis was going to be the topic of discussion. So crucial did this subject seem to me that I expected the dinner to happen in one of the city’s biggest hotel ballrooms. It was actually held in the host’s home. Three congressmen showed up—a sign of how successful the president’s fiscal version of “don’t ask, don’t tell” (about the debt) had been. Ryan blew me away. I have wanted to see him in the White House ever since."
Historians and journalists like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Theodore White used to be accused of fawning over the Kennedys, but I honestly don't remember them writing anything quite like that. Moreover, the Kennedys had genuine intelligence and ability. Paul Ryan, as one analyst after another has repeated, has no plan: just the same discredited supply-side fantasy that Ronald Reagan, in his second term, had to repudiate. He promises more tax cuts to the extremely wealthy but never lays out the loopholes he hopes to close to make up for them. His budget, he has to admit, would not be in balance until 2030. He promises a return to the Bush era, only more so, and weirdly, he promises to keep Medicare for my generation while taking it away from his own. I can only imagine one reason for Ferguson's crush on him: he recognized a kindred spirit, a young man in a hurry who knew how to put his ideas into an irresistible package and create a constituency among the rich and powerful. Ferguson's eminence is yet another sign of the leadership crisis in the United States. Our leading academics, like our leading politicians, reach the top by mysterious processes that do not seem to serve the long-term interests of the institutions they inhabit or of the nation.
P.S. After writing this post I discovered an extremely insightful review of Ferguson's work by Pankaj Mishra, which led to a lengthy exchange. It can be read here.