Niall Ferguson is a Charlatan


In the history of drama, and that includes melodrama, there’s a difference between the Fool and the Charlatan.  The Fool is motivated and animated by irony doubled unto absurdity.  He’s typically empowered by the King, or by the local authorities, as diversion from the real action, as comic relief—as the man whose utterance won’t make sense to the actors on stage until the play is concluded and just about everybody is dead.

The audience is differently empowered, because it’s always in on the joke of the Fool’s mistaken identity—we get the disguise, the dissembling., from the very beginning of his act.  We know this Fool is not the man he pretends to be, and, more significantly, we know him as our informant on stage, on screen, in the space where we can be only spectators, and he plays this role for us no matter how devoted he is to the cause of the King or the local authorities.  So he turns irony and absurdity into information for the audience long before the dramatic action is over.

The Charlatan is the figure who is merely absurd, or simply evil, because he skips the stage of irony—because, unlike the Fool, he doesn’t know that the power to which he’s indentured himself, and this includes the effect of his own utterance, is itself divisible.  The difference I’m trying to describe here is the difference between Edgar and Edmund in “King Lear.”  The audience knows the Charlatan lacks either conviction or evidence, and he may know this as well, but, unlike the Fool, he doesn’t care: he’s the pawn who would be king.  Like Hamlet, who only plays the Fool, Iago is either the exception to or the epitome of these rules (and that’s why these two remain the formative characters of modern literature and 20th-century film).

Niall Ferguson is a Charlatan in these terms.  He is merely absurd, or simply evil, I can’t decide which.  He has made a fool of himself, of course, but his performance doesn’t deserve the dignity that would derive from this designation.  He’s not a Joker, he’s a Thief.  He remains a moron, in any case.


Take a look at his latest, front cover “story” for Newsweek, which has received a lot of attention because it’s so strongly stated: Obama has failed as our president, whether judged as a policy-maker or a political leader, and Paul Ryan is riding to the rescue.  Seriously.  The man on the white horse is the moral philosopher from Wisconsin, the guy who says he’s in public office because Ayn Rand inspired him to destroy what’s left of the public sector.  Our Niall, our Fredo, clearly hopes to be the Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. of the Romney White House.  He’s “fired up by the rise of Ryan.”

There are three parts to Ferguson’s argument: the failure of economic policy, the failure of political (world) leadership, and the practical alternative who rides that Republican white horse.

If you read backward, you realize that he’s got a huge crush on the man from Wisconsin.  And no wonder.  “He blew me,” Niall says, in describing their first encounter at a Washington dinner party: “I have wanted to see him in the White House ever since,” he moans, like Monica, but that’s an insult to Ms. Lewinsky because the economist, as against the intern, has no scruples: power is everything.  That’s what  makes him a Charlatan.

Actually, Ferguson is more discrete, he says “Ryan blew me away.”  The effect is the same: let’s ride this horse!  “The pollsters say that Paul Ryan’s nomination is not a game-changer,” Niall acknowledges, “indeed he is a high-risk choice for Romney because so many people feel nervous about the reforms Ryan proposes.”

No matter, because “one thing is clear: Ryan psychs Obama out.”  The italics are Ferguson’s, and you, dear reader, are back in high school, wondering what your vote for prom queen could mean in the grand scheme of things, and, if you’re in the running, who you could blow to get you over the top.  I’m not making this up.  Niall Ferguson is such a shameless and stupid Charlatan that he has reduced the choice of president (oops) to who’s the superior narcissist:  “And the reason he psychs him out is that, unlike Obama, Ryan has a plan—as opposed to a narrative—for this country.”

Now if you actually read the “Path to Prosperity,” the congressman’s budget proposal of April, 2011, which was adopted by the Republican majority in the House as its plan, soon after celebrated by David Brooks, and now embraced by the cyborg at the head of the ticket, you will find that it makes no sense as a set of numerical designations and arithmetic projections—none.  It’s not supposed to, because it’s a moral screed, a jeremiad, and a call to arms.  When Paul Krugman calls Ferguson on the numbers, he’s missing the point, as Bush senior did when he called Reagan’s supply-side tax cuts “voodoo economics.”

So Ferguson is exactly wrong: Ryan has no plan, but he has a powerful narrative.  Here’s a sample from his budget proposal.  “A government that buries the next generation under an avalanche of debt cannot claim the moral high ground in the world. . . . From a moral perspective, these [social] programs are failing the very people they are intended to help. . . .The safety net should never become a hammock, lulling able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.”

The moral deficit at the heart of Ryan’s budget, and Ferguson’s advocacy, is the profoundly bizarre notion that your neighbors are shirking, and by not working—by staying on the dole—they’re putting you deeper in debt to the federal government.  Unemployment is your fault!  Maybe the deficit, too.  So if we remove the safety net, you will understand these facts, stop applying for Social Security disability benefits (“a staggering 3.6 million Americans have been added to Social Security’s disability program” since 2008), and get a real job.

When you do get that job, you’ll no longer be a citizen of the welfare state, the place called the USA: “We are becoming the 50/50 nation—half of us paying the taxes, the other half receiving the benefits.”  You will have left this benighted country, where 110 million individuals “received a welfare benefit in 2011, mostly Medicaid and food stamps.”  Not because they needed it in these hard times, mind you, but because they wanted those stitches in the ER and they just had to have those Twinkies.

Meanwhile, we’ll keep giving tax cuts to those “job creators” whose investments cause growth.  Except for the last ten years.  Also the last 100 years (see my Against Thrift [2011], and if you want the technical details, Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution [1994], chaps 1-4).

I wish I could say that Ferguson’s pathetic celebration of Paul Ryan’s pathology is, on some level, amusing.  But it’s not anymore.  It’s intellectual sado-masochism of the kind that produces political catastrophe.  The man is a Charlatan.


As for political and world leadership, well, our Niall says this “is where [Obama’s] failure has been greatest.”  Ferguson lists three problems the president has not been able to address.  First, “excessive financial concentration and excessive financial leverage.”  Second, the costs of health care.  Third, the “challenges to American power,” particularly but not only China.

I will leave the costs of health care to Paul Krugman, whose number crunching is better than mine.  But I will note in passing that two of the “core defects” Ferguson cites in health care as it is now delivered—the “link from employment to insurance” and the “excessive costs of liability insurance,” both functions of private enterprise, not public largesse—are remedied, not ignored, by Obama’s ACA.  But who cares about reality?  Not Niall.  And not the main squeeze, the man from Wisconsin.

Now about those “challenges to American power”—it seems they can’t be met by a reversion to neoconservative nation-building through foreign wars.  Ferguson almost acknowledges this simple fact, but he can’t quite make himself admit that the disasters the US has created in Iraq and Afghanistan—the disasters Obama inherited from the war criminals in the previous White House—are the real problems in the so-called Middle East.

No, he’s the perfect Charlatan: he complains that we’re killing too few Arabs: “The real [war] crime is that the assassination program destroys potentially crucial intelligence (as well as antagonizing locals) every time a drone strikes.  It symbolizes the administration’s decision to abandon counterinsurgency in favor of a narrow counterterrorism.”  Got it?  We ought to be at war with Pakistan.  Or deploying troops somewhere, for god’s sake, how’s a nation supposed to express itself without making people—combatants, friends, enemies, whatever—die in great numbers?

And that brings us back to what our Niall calls “the central problems—excessive financial concentration and excessive financial leverage.”  Once upon a time, Ferguson endorsed Milton Friedman’s explanation of the Great Depression: it was a financial crisis turned into a much larger debacle by the Fed’s mistakes in raising real interest rates, ca. 1929-31.  Now he’s adopting the anti-monopoly program of the Populist Left—Simon Johnson, Matt Taibbi, William Greider, & Co.—and suggesting that no bank is too big to fail.  Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

The “financial fix” that solved the Great Depression, according to both Friedman and Ferguson, has happened, but the Great Recession is still very much with us.  So we’d better get all competitive, break up the big banks?  What kind of reasoning gets us to this dead end?

The kind that comes from a Charlatan, the character who’s willing to say anything to keep his place in power.  The Fool knows better–he knows that he can’t speak truth to power because there’s no such thing.



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3 responses to “Niall Ferguson is a Charlatan

  1. This is a beautifully and extremely strong (in the Bloomian sense) Article.
    I very much enjoyed both the subject and your handling of it.

    Dr. Lewinsky did her Ph.d at The London School of Economics, which is slightly humorous given your contrast of the two – which I, by the by, totally agree with. What makes your writing style so wonderful in this this Article is that you manage to walk a line between ‘foolishness’ and ‘austerity’ that few can manage.
    You juggled everything in the Article so well. It’s downright inspiring.

    It’s scary that the Pawn, once Passed, may promote to whatever he likes – well, he cannot become a King, which, I can only assume, is Ryan’s ultimate intent. But, for now, being a Queen on Romney’s Board is perfect for Mr. Ryan.

  2. Sergio

    An absolutely lovely article

  3. Having read this I thought it was really enlightening.
    I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this short article together.
    I once again find myself personally spending a lot of time both reading and
    posting comments. But so what, it was still worth it!

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