August 20, 2010

Niall Ferguson - Empires on the Edge of Chaos

Niall Ferguson spoke a few weeks ago at something called the CIS, supposedly a right-wing thinktank in Australia. He's well known for his Ascent of Money series, which is the thing you buy on DVD if you want to tell your Mum about economics and the way the world works. He's also that rarest breed in economics - he's not an economist at all, he's a historian.

His speech is here. It's a very big video download (26Mb), it seems, so I'll post this *after* my download else I'll never see it. Also, see it on vimeo directly which might work better.

Other writings on the same theme can be found in An Empire at Risk and America, the Fragile Empire. But frankly, the words in print don't do justice. It's a great presentation, both in terms of the picture it draws, the evidence assembled, and how well it was presented.

(The introduction of around 8-9 minutes is very skippable...) (Slightly edited to incorporate new links.)

Posted by iang at August 20, 2010 05:10 AM | TrackBack

A trio of recommendations

1. He seems overwhelmed by complexity and asymmetry. Ferguson would do well to read up on Jeannette Wing's Computational thinking

2. He seems not to understand bottom up emergence

3. He is preoccupied with the 19th century, granted a fascinating chapter in history, is Tom Barnett's take on Ferguson's similar piece called

"Historians Failing as Futurist"

America's "empire" could all come crashing down tomorrow!


Well, it just could--just like the USSR fell so fast.

Oh, and a bunch of complexity stuff too.

It could happen! So America has been warned.

An amazingly empty piece. Even by ass-covering, "I predicted this!" standards, this one feels phoned in.

Ferguson has a gift for simultaneously overselling America and misrepresenting it as an "empire" while predicting its imminent demise. You get the feeling that he can't see the Bell for the curves, or maybe he just likes saying out-there things all the time.

Historians should stick with their, "I've seen it all before" smugness, because once they use it to project forward, they kill useful imagination.

Posted by: gunnar at August 20, 2010 01:57 PM

Hi Gunnar,

1: overwhelmed by complexity? I didn't think so. What he said and wrote indicated to me he's been informed on systems thinking. In business, the leading writer for this was Peter Senge, it was quite hot in the 1990s, but much of the sciences and engineering has the same view. (These days systems thinking would be seen like McCrystal's powerpoint, too complicated to be useful for the real soldier.)

2: for example?

3: yeah, what to say? It's easy to rubbish something complex, especially if it insults your motherhood, but what does that prove? Age exceeds 15, is all I can conclude...

Posted by: Iang at August 20, 2010 09:26 PM

For me the highlight of reading the FT is reading Wolf, Tett and Kay, and the lowlight is when Ferguson files a story. I love history, I dislike being bludgeoned with 19th Empire models that disregard both the nature and the degree of change in terms of connectivity, integration and scale.

Posted by: Gunnar at August 21, 2010 08:51 AM

Ferguson is a wonderful entertainer. What he's doing here is a combination of flattery and amusement for the particular audience. I agree with Gunnar, it was amazingly empty.

There are big changes taking place in the world. That's not new, or particularly frightening. What is Ferguson afraid of? A war? Somebody attacking the U.S.?

The USG, in collaboration with transnational corporations, is in the process of capturing and consuming for itself, the economic surplus of the world. The US population and resource base is only one of the targets. This process is so large, visible and slow moving it's hard to imagine that Ferguson doesn't see it. It's called class war-- by a global plutocracy or oligarchy, against the people of the world. And that's what all these endless wars are about.

Ferguson seems to think this is about American empire. What idiocy. More accurately it could be called the global north, but even that phrase misses the real structure of this-- And it was the same oligarchs who ran the empires of the past, who funded every war, WW2 and centuries before that.

Posted by: Todd Boyle at August 21, 2010 03:00 PM

Pentagon to cut spending by $78 billion, reduce troop strength

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2011; 12:00 AM

For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon is confronting the reality that inexorable increases in defense spending are no longer a sure thing and that cuts that actually shrink the military's bottom line could be on the horizon.

Under direction from the White House, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Thursday announced that the Pentagon will cut projected spending by $78 billion over the next five years and shrink the size of the Army and Marine Corps. The changes mean that the military would see annual budget increases that barely exceed inflation in coming years and that its budget will effectively remain frozen in 2015 and 2016.


Posted by: Did Ferguson get one right? He prediction that the Pentagon's Budget will suffer... at January 7, 2011 06:50 PM
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