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Trying and Failing to Understand Niall Ferguson's Behavior

For some reason I do not understand, James Fallows and Ta-Nehisi Coates like this from Stephen Marche:

The real issue isn't the substance of Ferguson's argument, though, which is shallow and basically exploded by this point in time. It isn't even the question of how such garbage managed to be written and published. It is, rather, why did Ferguson write it? The answer is simple but has profound implications for American intellectual life generally: public speaking. 

Ferguson's critics have simply misunderstood for whom Ferguson was writing that piece. They imagine that he is working as a professor or as a journalist, and that his standards slipped below those of academia or the media. Neither is right. Look at his speaking agent's Web site. The fee: 50 to 75 grand per appearance. That number means that the entire economics of Ferguson's writing career, and many other writing careers, has been permanently altered. Nonfiction writers can and do make vastly more, and more easily, than they could ever make any other way, including by writing bestselling books or being a Harvard professor. Articles and ideas are only as good as the fees you can get for talking about them. They are merely billboards for the messengers. 

And so does Justin Fox:

Niall Ferguson and the Rage Against the Thought-Leader Machine: So why the firestorm of criticism [of Ferguson]? A lot of it had to do with one little passage about the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare:

The president pledged that health-care reform would not add a cent to the deficit. But the CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation now estimate that the insurance-coverage provisions of the ACA will have a net cost of close to $1.2 trillion over the 2012-22 period.

What Ferguson left out is that the Congressional Budget Office also said that other provisions of the law (reductions in Medicare spending and increases in taxes) will more than make up for that cost, resulting in a net reduction in the deficit. His wording was clearly misleading: Obama's "health-care reform" included both the insurance-coverage provisions and the other provisions.

When Princeton economist and frequent Ferguson sparring partner Paul Krugman pointed this out, Ferguson could have easily said something like Oops, I worded that poorly. But the point stands that increasing health coverage is going to cost a lot. Instead, he doubled down and argued that because he'd written "insurance-cost provisions" he'd been entirely correct. Along the way, he again selectively quoted from the CBO in a way that completely misrepresented the meaning of the passage he cited. Which was when the piling on really began….

[P]eople like Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal, Politico's Dylan Byers, and Slate's Dave Weigel who had no political axe to grind… were flabbergasted at Ferguson's sheer shamelessness. These are all leading members of a rising digital media elite, closely connected via social media, who are pretty sure their peers and readers would never let them get away with nonsense like that.

Which is where my thought leader idea comes in. Ferguson is a great financial historian — his history of the Rothschild family is brilliant. In recent years he's become more of a generalist, and has focused more on current events. That's not a bad thing…. But Ferguson has been so good at it…. Stephen Marche pointed out on… [that] conference organizers… pay Ferguson $50,000 to $75,000 to entertain and edify a hotel ballroom full of business types about "Chimerica" or "the six killer apps of Western civilization."

That's the link with Lehrer and Zakaria, who are (or probably were, in Lehrer's case) big on the speaking circuit as well…. The path to lucrative thought-leaderdom blazed over the past couple of decades was to establish yourself with dense, serious work (or a big, important job) and then move on to catch-phrase manufacturing (I spent a few weeks following Tom Friedman around in 2005, and learned that he had made this transition very deliberately). Nowadays ambitious young people looking to break into the circuit often just aim straight for the catch-phrases. Speakers bureaus need pithy sales pitches, not complex erudition — and while speaking fees might be spare change for Mitt Romney, for journalists and academics they often represent their only real shot at a top-tax-bracket income.

The result is an intellectual environment that seems to increasingly reward the superficial, and keeps rewarding those who make it into the magic circle of top-flight speakers even if they don't have anything new or interesting to say. Or at least: a part of the intellectual environment is like that. There's also a lively, seemingly much more meritocratic intellectual scene in the blogosphere and on Twitter. "The growth of online venues," wrote blogger and international relations scholar Daniel W. Drezner in a journal article in 2008 "has stimulated rather than retarded the quality and diversity of public intellectuals."

Where things get combustible is when the two scenes collide — when speaker's-bureau pundits get called out online for misdeeds, errors, or just inanities…. [I]t's fair to say that our thought leaders have as a group done a disastrously poor job of leading our thoughts over the past decade, so some kind of shake up is in order.

My impression was that at Ferguson's level of this--not at mine--there are many, many more groups of people that want you to come speak than you could possibly accept and still get anything done, and so you reject every invitation to travel and speak that comes along unless it (a) advances your broader personal intellectual agenda, or (b) comes with so much money attached that you would feel guilty and like a foolish schmuck for turning it down. Niall's current feel-guilty-and-like-a-foolish-schmuck level appears to be $50K.

But it is, IMHO, highly, highly unlikely that he is crafting his print message in order to try to raise that level from $50K to $100K.

More important, chopping off 2/3 of a sentence from a CBO report so that you can claim it says something very different than it actually says is not a way to boost your feel-guilty-and-like-a-foolish-schmuck level.

It's a way to get your peers to shift from saying "he is highly entertaining and has a definite point of view that will wake you up" to "he will tell you some things that just aren't so: you can use your money better on somebody else".

Contrary to what Stephen Marche says, this kind of misrepresentation is not a good career move on Ferguson's part--not even with the shortest-run speaking-fee-maximization definition of "career"…