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Niall Ferguson: The 6 killer apps of prosperity
October 4, 2011 1:19 AM   Subscribe

Over the past few centuries, Western cultures have been very good at creating general prosperity for themselves. Historian Niall Ferguson asks: Why the West, and less so the rest? He suggests half a dozen big ideas from Western culture -- call them the 6 killer apps -- that promote wealth, stability and innovation. And in this new century, he says, these apps are all shareable. posted by Foci for Analysis (97 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
I've got to say, it never occurred to me how clean an example the Cold War Germanies provided for the power that culture holds over economics. Trabants vs. Mercedes-Benzes!
posted by codswallop at 1:31 AM on October 4, 2011


He's right and Jared Diamond is wrong. It's all about culture, rather than resources.
posted by joannemullen at 1:32 AM on October 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Rabidly Neo-conservative Historian Niall Ferguson asks: Why the West, and less so the rest? He suggests hard work and private property rights.

We've heard this before. Thanks.
posted by Avenger at 1:38 AM on October 4, 2011 [43 favorites]


Oh, and Christianity, somehow.
posted by Avenger at 1:39 AM on October 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


Sounds like fairly unremarkable "Western market liberalism as logical and moral endpoint of historical development" wrapped in aching-to-be-hip-and-therefore-rather-embarrassing Silicon Valley metaphor.

My understanding is that Ferguson started his career with carefully-researched, very well-regarded academic work, and then discovered that playing house intellectual to American hawks was far more profitable. Do historians take Ferguson seriously at this point?
posted by col_pogo at 1:43 AM on October 4, 2011 [22 favorites]




But you know, this is a TED audience, and if I keep talking about institutions, you're going to turn off. So I'm going to translate this into language that you can understand. Let's call them the killer apps.

Heh. I wonder if the audience caught this part where he insulted them.
posted by vacapinta at 1:45 AM on October 4, 2011 [24 favorites]


Oh, and Christianity, somehow.

Erm, no. He specifically said that the work ethic wasn't really Protestant and he used examples of non-Christian countries that work harder then Western ones.
posted by codswallop at 1:48 AM on October 4, 2011


He's right and Jared Diamond is wrong. It's all about culture, rather than resources.
posted by joannemullen at 1:32 AM on October 4 [1 favorite +] [!]


One could argue that an excess of resources shifts the economic focus to them and away from culture, whereas a scarcity of resources, coupled with wealth, creates the economic space to develop culture.

So perhaps the problem for "the West" now is that culture has become its resource, there is a surfeit of it, and that is (paradoxically) choking the (further) development of a real culture.
posted by chavenet at 1:50 AM on October 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


He's right and Jared Diamond is wrong. It's all about culture, rather than resources.

For me, one of the weirdest human instincts is the urge to pick one side. I feel it too, but, like, must it really be one thing it's all about? Religion Poisons Everything? All You Need Is Love? It can't be, say, that culture and resources interface in meaningful, causal ways?

He suggests hard work and private property rights.

And four other things. I don't really believe in his thesis, but I also don't think it's fair to dismiss it based on 1/3 of its pretenses.
posted by liminalrampaste at 1:52 AM on October 4, 2011 [7 favorites]


Erm, no. He specifically said that the work ethic wasn't really Protestant and he used examples of non-Christian countries that work harder then Western ones.
posted by codswallop at 1:48 AM on October 4 [+] [!]


In all honesty I think he's being a little coy for his secular TED audience. He regularly goes on and on and on about how the West needs a strong Christian church to combat the various heresies of the modern age: socialism, Islam, deficit spending and so forth.
posted by Avenger at 1:53 AM on October 4, 2011 [13 favorites]


...video games, tabloids, laziness, labor unions...
posted by Avenger at 1:55 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


The value of culture and institutions is hard to overstate, but I don't buy that 'work ethic' is somehow one of the vital elements of prosperity. Doesn't a work ethic develop if you have institutions and culture that allow people to benefit from their effort? I don't understand how you can expect a society to work hard independently of that.
posted by Wemmick at 1:59 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Over the past few centuries, Western cultures have been very good at creating general prosperity for themselves.

*looks at the impoverished inner cities fed on cheap, fattening factory-farmed fast food*
*looks at the generally lame state of public transit*
*looks at the lack of state health care*
*looks at the insane income disparity between the average worker and the average ceo*

Over the past few centuries, Western cultures have been very good at creating prosperity for a very small percentage of their population. Kinda like feudalism, except with bigger scars on the planet! And a better quality of circus.

Admittedly I haven't watched TFV, I don't feel like doing more than skimming this and that's impossible with video.
posted by egypturnash at 2:01 AM on October 4, 2011 [20 favorites]


...video games, tabloids, laziness, labor unions...

Sure. He's a strident conservative. Agree with you 100%. Don't like his politics either. But that's just a cultural judgement for me -- I don't have any immediate evidence to disprove his thesis as it applies to the development of the West. If you do, I'd enjoy reading it.

Also, yeah, work ethic is a weirdly nebulous 'killer app'.

BUT: What's really sketchy to me about his thesis is that he seems to be proposing a set of universal axioms by which a civilization can succeed at any time in history -- China today, for example.

I think this is a crowd-pleasing but cowardly intellectual approach that conveniently ignores how mutable humanity's variables are -- from year to year, even, let alone the millennia that he's talking about.
posted by liminalrampaste at 2:03 AM on October 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


I consider my home (Norway) a Western contry, egypturnash, and none of your points apply. Well, maybe the public transit system isn't all that hot.
posted by Harald74 at 2:05 AM on October 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


I think this is a crowd-pleasing but cowardly intellectual approach

Well, it IS a TED talk after all...
posted by chavenet at 2:06 AM on October 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


Well, it IS a TED talk after all...

Yeah. Totally. My favourite TED talk, far and away, is magician Lennart Green's. He's an incredible magician, the best I've ever seen, and I've wasted many hours on YouTubes of close-up card magic. I'm way more entertained by physical sleight of hand than I am by intellectual legerdemain.
posted by liminalrampaste at 2:11 AM on October 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


He's right and Jared Diamond is wrong. It's all about culture, rather than resources.

Because we all know the type of culture your society has is arbitrarily decided by a cruel and merciless god at the dawn of time, and not at all dependent on the geography and history of your society.
posted by kithrater at 2:18 AM on October 4, 2011 [21 favorites]


Do historians take Ferguson seriously at this point?

In case this wasn't rhetorical, the answer is no, definitely not. He hasn't practised history for years; he's an op-ed person now. *shudder*
posted by smoke at 2:19 AM on October 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


This "killer app" business still has me alternately fuming and chuckling. He's serving up a figurative dish that even Tom Friedman would have passed over as too cheesy.

Harald74: Good point (seriously: I don't disagree that those points don't apply well to Norway).

Surely the answer is that "The West" is not a monolith and that its constituent states, regions, classes, and peoples may have "downloaded" a series of "apps" of varying effectiveness. Some even doing good and bad at the same time, to different parties? We could call this collection of "apps" and their effects "history" and then do real work to analyze them.

(At a guess, and from a position of considerable ignorance, could we say that Norway's "killer apps" were good old-fashioned Northern European social democracy, oil, and the good sense not to blow all the money at once? Plus small population, large land area, ethnic homogeneity (and accompanying xenophobia)? And fish and lumber? The good fortune (or canny ability) to gain many benefits of close economic cooperation with the EU without actually joining it? I seriously doubt that Ferguson's App Store best-of really covers it.)
posted by col_pogo at 2:19 AM on October 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


My understanding is that Ferguson started his career with carefully-researched, very well-regarded academic work, and then discovered that playing house intellectual to American hawks was far more profitable.

Exactly. He is very, very right wing and anything he says needs to be taken with a desk sized pinch of salt. I am most familiar with his work on the British Empire, which is very poor: he claims in the opening chapter that the book will prove various theses about the British Empire (all of which flatter and support a conservative worldview and include "the Protestant version of Christianity" as one of the benefits that the empire spread).

This introductory chapter is full of attacks on other ways of approaching the subject which are so shallow and vague as to be not even wrong. There is also a dishonest attempt to present conservative accounts of history as somehow the underdog by claiming that the BBC's official website on the British Empire writes the whole imperial experience off as robbing people less sharply armed than the British. The quote that Ferguson uses to 'prove' this is actually from a user edited Wiki loosely affiliated with the BBC whose purpose is explicitly comic. The actual BBC website on British Imperial history is rather good - at least partly because, the last time I looked, it was mostly written by genuine experts, rather than trolls looking for lulz. Or dishonest conservative hacks wearing massive ideological blinkers.

Having made all these grand claims in his introduction, Ferguson then goes on to give a rather bland narrative history of the British Empire almost entirely based on secondary sources (ie other people's books). The rest of his book doesn't prove any of his arguments at all and skates over the more sordid and violent episodes in British colonialism to boot (which I expected, but it doesn't help avoid the impression that he doesn't really have much more than a glib Friedmanesque Big Idea based on no real evidence).

So - yes. In an area of history that I do know a lot about, he is not an historian or an expert: he is a mediocre journalist whose main selling point seems to be flattering the interests of the powerful and being a bit bitchy. He writes fluidly, but ignorantly.

He does lead me to wonder - Why is it that conservatives these days seem so ugly and small? Always reaching for the same failed answers, always rushing to give more credit to the strong and the greedy... And so often using the kind of nasty, waspish tone that Ferguson always uses, full of unearned sneering superiority and hauteur. It's such a shame. They feel like people pretending to be experts, rather than people motivated by a love of knowledge. And that's just... Sad.
posted by lucien_reeve at 2:26 AM on October 4, 2011 [42 favorites]


Over the past few centuries, Western cultures have been very good at creating general prosperity for themselves.

Another way to put this would be to say "Over the past few centuries, Western cultures (and, more recently, other cultures) have been very good at running down the world's irreplaceable stocks of fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources in order to create temporary conditions of prosperity".
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 2:44 AM on October 4, 2011 [10 favorites]


Krugman has argued that Ferguson's view is "resurrecting 75-year old fallacies" and full of "basic errors". He has also stated that Ferguson is a "poseur" who "...hasn't bothered to understand the basics, relying on snide comments and surface cleverness to convey the impression of wisdom. It's all style, no comprehension of substance."

I find that this generally applies to anything Ferguson says.
posted by mek at 2:51 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I like how he breezed over Gandhi's philosophy and accomplishments in saying merely that he "institutionalized poverty". From the moment I saw the entire list I was thinking "well shit, why do I want prosperity if it essentially means selling my soul to the free market?" I think Western culture needs to download a "Be Here Now" app to counteract those "killer" ones.
posted by Mooseli at 2:53 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


The last thing Ferguson wrote that could fit comfortably in an academic bibliography (provided the topic of the article weren't actually dangerous pseudo-historians with TV shows) was The Pity of War (1998). And even that only has fragments of useful stuff (mainly on prisoner taking/killing) buried amid arid deserts of tendentious claims and wrong-headed conclusions.
posted by Sonny Jim at 3:09 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


He's right and Jared Diamond is wrong. It's all about culture, rather than resources.
In fact if you had actually read any Jared Diamond you would know that he talks a lot about the effects of culture on the success of a civilisation, not just their natural resources.
posted by Joe Chip at 3:11 AM on October 4, 2011 [10 favorites]


What a farcically poor set of lies; he singles out the Chinese examination system as an example of backwardness. At the time, it so impressed Westerners on first learning of it that it was swiftly adopted in a conscious emulation, by Britain for example, doing away with the previous practice of giving jobs to the scions of the aristocracy. It's widely seen as one of the essential turning-points in the emergence of British imperialism. China of course also had private ownership of the land for millennia.
If you look at de Vries and others on the 'industrious revolution', it's clear that the Dutch Republic had the Protestantism and other institutions he claims are key long before Britain, but it was in Britain that the industrial revolution happened.
The rest is equally a pile of cock-eyed nonsense.
posted by Abiezer at 3:12 AM on October 4, 2011 [19 favorites]


The true killer app right now is Angry Birds. Everybody is angry now.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:36 AM on October 4, 2011 [9 favorites]


Angry Birds as a model for social reform? It could work. Although we're gonna need a bigger slingshot as the towers the pigs lock themselves in are rather tall.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:00 AM on October 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


The other term he trots out is Huntington's 'Great Divergence'. Kenneth Pomeranz wrote a great book using this as its title, and makes a cogent argument that were it not for the New World and certain resource endowments, there's no reason to believe Western Europe would have outstripped China. It hadn't previously.
Longish, critical review from DeLong here; he doesn't buy all of Pomeranz's arguments, but does give it a fair shake of the whip so you can get an idea of what's being said. I recommend you read it yourself if you get the chance.
I think both Pomeranz and DeLong miss other factors unique to the imperialist model too, but save that for a different argument.
posted by Abiezer at 4:07 AM on October 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


He does lead me to wonder - Why is it that conservatives these days seem so ugly and small? Always reaching for the same failed answers, always rushing to give more credit to the strong and the greedy... And so often using the kind of nasty, waspish tone that Ferguson always uses, full of unearned sneering superiority and hauteur. It's such a shame. They feel like people pretending to be experts, rather than people motivated by a love of knowledge. And that's just... Sad.

I think that's just TED.
posted by michaelh at 4:21 AM on October 4, 2011


Over the past few centuries, Western cultures have been very good at creating prosperity for a very small percentage of their population. Kinda like feudalism.

Well, it takes some stretch of imagination to say that more than a "very small percentage" of Western population has benefitted from this prosperity. The average European today lives better - and longer - today than a king did 200 years ago.
posted by three blind mice at 4:31 AM on October 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


Because we all know the type of culture your society has is arbitrarily decided by a cruel and merciless god at the dawn of time, and not at all dependent on the geography and history of your society.

Seriously, if the starting civ doesn't have Industrial or Financial, count me out.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:35 AM on October 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


egypturnash,

I think the only reasonable conclusion that we can draw is that the US isn't a western country. I think Ferguson is talking about, like, Denmark or Netherlands or somewhere.

It helps if you think of the US as some sort of Sultanate.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:37 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Angry Birds as a model for social reform? It could work. Although we're gonna need a bigger slingshot as the towers the pigs lock themselves in are rather tall.

Go ahead and try, but last time it got us the Patriot Act.
posted by michaelh at 4:37 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Can anyone post the "six killer apps" so I don't have to watch Niall Ferguson for a half hour?

If they don't include the West's advances in the centralization and organization of state power then they're just wrong.
posted by zipadee at 4:44 AM on October 4, 2011


1. Competition
2. The Scientific Revolution
3. Property rights
4. Modern medicine
5. The consumer society
6. The work ethic
posted by michaelh at 4:54 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


How come all these neo-cons who worry about the collapse of Western values always have broken marriages?
posted by melissam at 4:58 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Seriously, if the starting civ doesn't have Industrial or Financial, count me out.

Who else would I be referring to other than the Random Number God?
posted by kithrater at 5:04 AM on October 4, 2011


It's all about culture, rather than resources.

Yes and no. Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle examines this in great detail - comparing and contrasting the Dutch and the French in the 1600's, and how England started with one model - land-based wealth - and evolved into the other - trade and commerce.

There does come a point when the Dutch aren't able to compete with the English, and that's when the English develop a merchant fleet. Their ship designs aren't limited to the shallow draft of the Dutch, because there are a number of natural deep water ports in England and its colonies in the Americas, but none in the Netherlands.

So, you need a culture of intellectual freedom, rights and liberties for all of your citizens - noble or not - and a healthy environment for commerce. You also need resources, and you need to take care of them and use them judiciously.

I find it interesting that modern conservative argument is essentially in favor of granting every wish of the monied class over all other concerns - in essence, restoring aristocracy and undoing the Enlightenment.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:06 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


1. Competition - The right bribes...um..."political contributions" solves that pesky problem
2. The Scientific Revolution - as long as it ain't evolution or stem cells
3. Property rights - Eminent Domain
4. Modern medicine - as long as you're not poor, or a woman making her own choices about reproduction (see also: stem cells)
5. The consumer society - might as well put it on the plastic, the money isn't staying here anyways
6. The work ethic - a person who inherited wealth is inherently better than a poor person on unemployment
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 5:08 AM on October 4, 2011


call them the 6 killer apps --

No.

I won't be doing that.

Thanks anyway.
 
posted by Herodios at 5:09 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


*looks at the impoverished inner cities fed on cheap, fattening factory-farmed fast food*
*looks at the generally lame state of public transit*
*looks at the lack of state health care*
*looks at the insane income disparity between the average worker and the average ceo*

Over the past few centuries, Western cultures have been very good at creating prosperity for a very small percentage of their population. Kinda like feudalism, except with bigger scars on the planet! And a better quality of circus.


I'll assume you consider the USA to be the entire west, as many western countries have expansive public transit, and almost ALL of them have state-run healthcare. I don't know the stats on income disparity, but I'd be willing to bet that the USA is once again "leading the world".
posted by blue_beetle at 5:13 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


col_pogo: This "killer app" business still has me alternately fuming and chuckling. He's serving up a figurative dish that even Tom Friedman would have passed over as too cheesy.

Ah. Never mind. I see you've already covered the salient rhetorical points. Well done.
 
posted by Herodios at 5:16 AM on October 4, 2011


1. Competition
2. The Scientific Revolution
3. Property rights
4. Modern medicine
5. The consumer society
6. The work ethic


OK I admit to not having watched the video, but at first glance this seems more to be defining the terms of a particular kind of prosperity, instead of identifying the necessary conditions for it.
posted by polymodus at 5:19 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]




Is it just me or is TED full of the most ridiculous pop-science garbage now? Killer Apps? Niall Ferguson rehashing the same warmed-over garbage that the British used to justify their empire 200 years ago? I mean TED is supposed to be about "Ideas worth Spreading" but in this Ferguson is literally re-spewing an idea you can read about in highschool history classes. And I mean come on:
I want to explain to you that there were six killer apps that set the West apart from the rest. And they're kind of like the apps on your phone, in the sense that they look quite simple. They're just icons; you click on them. But behind the icon, there's complex code.
That metaphor is really annoying.

What's next, a TED talk about America prospered in the 1800s because of the puritan work ethic? Oh wait he goes over that, but claims that "anyone can have a work ethic now!" Maybe we could talk about how this is the best possible world due to how awesome god is.

Also mindblowing is that the chart he talks about (at 2:14) only goes up to the 1970s!

Plus one of my pet peeves:
At the top of the international league table according to the latest PISA study, is the Shanghai district of China. The gap between Shanghai and the United Kingdom and the United States is as big as the gap between the U.K. and the U.S. and Albania and Tunisia.
You're comparing a single city to an entire country. What happens if you compare Shanghai to Manhattan or Boston or Palo Alto? I'm sure you could find specific cities in the U.S. with better educational attainment then Shanghai.

Meanwhile lots of poor rural areas in China have very little educational opportunity at all A better test would be to compare the education you get in small-town Iowa to what you get in rural china. He's also, weirdly, arguing that test scores correlate with work ethic. It may be that upper class Chinese people put a lot of focus on doing well in school, but what if the focus on school takes the place of focus on other types of work? Maybe kids get out of school feeling like they're entitled to slack off for the rest of their lives? Maybe in the US there's more of a focus on entrepreneurship and "hustle" that means people are willing to work harder on things that make them money then school?

---
Finally, from a scientific point of view this stuff is totally post-hoc. You say the west is doing well, on the one hand and then on the other hand you say 'what are some differences between the west and the east?' and then you say that whatever those differences are is the reason the west is doing well. But that's not how science really works. Of course, it's very difficult to do controlled experiments in social policy, but governments can do them. If you look at China right now, it's high growth rate is happening without a lot of the stuff Furgeson talks about. They have the work ethic, but that's about it. It seems to me that if your concern is GDP growth and not a humane society then a corrupt, autocratic, command society can do really well.

For example, Compare the Chinese solar companies to the ones in the U.S. Everyone knows (or should know) that the world is going to turn to renewable energy eventually, and by the time that happens the Chinese will be way a head. In a democracy like the U.S. the government represents the incumbent interests and has become obsessed with quarterly results, so we poor money into oil companies because they can buy off our (cheap) politicians. The Chinese, on the other hand, can look 20, even 50 years into the future and optimize the situation to maximize GDP over that time. Because they know that they are still going to be in power. American politicians are fixated on the next two-year election result. An only slightly attenuated version of wallstreet's quarterly fixation.

Now that I wrote all that out (the last paragraph) I'm feeling kind of depressed about the future of the U.S compared to China and democracy vs totalitarianism. That's why I think the goal needs to be a humane society compared to one that just focuses on GDP growth. But that said China has a much lower portion of it's population in Jail, and the US and China's wealth inequality is about equal, but while the US wealth inequality is going up, while in China it's going down.
Well, it takes some stretch of imagination to say that more than a "very small percentage" of Western population has benefitted from this prosperity. The average European today lives better - and longer - today than a king did 200 years ago.
Ferguson has like half a paragraph on the Scientific Revolution, and he doesn't say much about it other then that it happened. But is probably the biggest impact on how our everyday lives are better. The scientific revolution centered in the UK, for the most part and remember that scientific papers were written in English That gives English speaking countries (mainly the US) a huge leg up compared to the rest of the world in the ability to absorb science from other countries. I think the rest of the world has caught up, but that's because for the most part scientists from around the world have learned English themselves, and of course over time science can be translated into other languages. One institution that China has definitely adopted is our scientific and academic structures.

Ignoring the still ongoing Scientific Revolution is a huge flaw in analyzing the prosperity differences. enormous
posted by delmoi at 5:36 AM on October 4, 2011 [15 favorites]


1. Competition
2. The Scientific Revolution
3. Property rights
4. Modern medicine
5. The consumer society
6. The work ethic


Nope. If you want an answer for why the West has been so prosperous, it's battleships. Battleships all the way down.
posted by dunkadunc at 5:37 AM on October 4, 2011 [3 favorites]



1. Competition
2. The Scientific Revolution
3. Property rights
4. Modern medicine
5. The consumer society
6. The work ethic


Ooh, let me play:

1. Driving on the left side of the road.
2. Things that are on top of other things.
3. That shade of blue between cyan and teal.
4. Ludwig Wittgenstein.
5, The GNP of all 50 US states, excluding West Virginia.
6. All The Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother.
posted by Herodios at 5:40 AM on October 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


Ferguson is a joke. He's not even trying at this point.

Is it just me or is TED full of the most ridiculous pop-science garbage now?

Yes, if this is what TED has become then it's garbage.

But there is a great opportunity for humor. Imagine if somebody ever decided to be honest about why the West "won" and dress it up in cutesy terms? I'm seeing a kind of self-help seminar: "You too can enslave, pillage, and rape half the world to achieve world-historical wealth." Or maybe something about "Colonization Computing." It's difficult but it's worth a shot. Who says history shouldn't be fun, after all?
posted by nixerman at 5:43 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Over the past few centuries, Western cultures have been very good at creating general prosperity for themselves.

*looks at the impoverished inner cities fed on cheap, fattening factory-farmed fast food*
*looks at the generally lame state of public transit*
*looks at the lack of state health care*
*looks at the insane income disparity between the average worker and the average ceo*


Yes, all those things are rather difficult, but they really don't compare with famines that go so deep that people eat their own children or plagues that wipe out large percentages of the population. Fattening food is still food. Terrible healthcare is still healthcare. Comparatively few Western Europeans and North Americans are selling their own kids into servatude or prostitution.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 5:51 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


joannemullen: "He's right and Jared Diamond is wrong. It's all about culture, rather than resources."

Such a slippery word, this "culture." What sort of culture are we talking about, and do we want to make a value judgement on it as Ferguson is doing?

When Sulla was sacking Athens, we had a clash of two cultures. One (the one that lost) is held up as the foundation of Western Civilization's most prized virtues - reason, equality, artistic endeavour, scientific and philosophical curiosity. The other has left a profound mark on the world in terms of civil engineering and military doctrine. Which is the culture we should hold up as more worthy of emulation and to what end?

The most immediate issue I have with Ferguson's talk is the cherry-picking of evidence - how come so much of it was 1900 and after, even though the graph started at 1500? But the primary problem is that he never makes clear what he looks at as the outcome of a superior culture. He mentions wealth (as a ratio!) and a small nod at medicine. But it seems to me that the underlying thesis is: this is what your culture needs to be like, if it wants to beat the crap out of other cultures and take all their stuff - "Empire wasn't all bad!"

There are plenty of useful things that the rest of the world can learn from the West, but if this guy is the mouthpiece it's just a waste of everybody's time.
posted by vanar sena at 5:56 AM on October 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


Is "ability to jump on bandwagons" one of those "killer apps"? Because Ferguson has proved how it's possible to get very rich doing just that, and by making the leap to the TED bandwagon, he's trying it again.
posted by holgate at 6:24 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


The scientific revolution in the west wouldn't have happened without Islamic academic culture filtering into the west via Spain and Italy, particularly math from India and Baghdad.
posted by empath at 6:27 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ferguson's killer app is self promotion.
posted by LarryC at 6:28 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Hilarious how Ferguson excuses the horrible 'killer app' thing by saying he was making it something the TED audience would understand. Previously in interviews he has said he chose to call them that so it would be something his kids would be interested in. Make your mind up man.
posted by Megami at 6:28 AM on October 4, 2011


He hasn't practised history for years; he's an op-ed person now.

And it's not as if he's lacking the graduate students at Harvard to do all the primary research for him.
posted by holgate at 6:28 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Even in the Civilization games different starting locations are better than others. The idea that all nations in the world started out equally well-situated and it was the West's superior culture that made the difference is totally preposterous. It might explain some things at the margins (like Diamond's anxiety over "Why not China, at least not yet?" in the last chapter of Guns, Germs, and Steel), maybe, but it's a transparently terrible explanation for the general arc of modern history. To the extent that they're even arguing with each other, Diamond's "the shape of the continents and the internal geography of Europe" has far more explanatory power than "property rights" and "the work ethic" -- which is just a desperate casting about for some explanation that doesn't involve mass murder.
posted by gerryblog at 6:36 AM on October 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


The scientific revolution centered in the UK, for the most part and remember that scientific papers were written in English

Papers relating to the most recent waves of scientific innovation. Before this, they were written in German, and French before that. Bacon, Newton, Copernicus and Galileo all wrote their important works in Latin. I think it's important to understand the conditions around these different scientific revolutions, and why they may have taken place in specific countries, with texts in specific languages.

Needless to say, Ferguson's inquiry is miles from this level of nuance. He's basically dealing in poorly thought out ideal types, and Weber did it better the first time around.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:45 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Papers relating to the most recent waves of scientific innovation. Before this, they were written in German, and French before that. Bacon, Newton, Copernicus and Galileo all wrote their important works in Latin.

And not to harp on the muslim thing, but most of it wouldn't have been possible without Fibonacci introducing Arabic math to the west.
posted by empath at 6:48 AM on October 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


empath,

Agreed.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:54 AM on October 4, 2011


Over the past few centuries, Western cultures have been very good at creating general prosperity for themselves.

*looks at the impoverished inner cities fed on cheap, fattening factory-farmed fast food*
*looks at the generally lame state of public transit*
*looks at the lack of state health care*
*looks at the insane income disparity between the average worker and the average ceo*


It's already been said, but the US is not the whole of Western culture; this guy's name is Niall for crying out loud, he's not American.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:07 AM on October 4, 2011


The "West" is a flame that burns very, very hot but consumes its fuel very, very quickly. What looks like prosperity is actually tragic waste.

The next empire will be chastened by the brevity of the West's dominance. And nobody will remember this assclown.
posted by klanawa at 7:38 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


In fairness to Ferguson, he has published four articles in decent economic history journals in the last five years, as well as a biography of Siegmund Warburg which was well-received. So it's not as if he's entirely abandoned serious scholarship.
posted by mattn at 7:48 AM on October 4, 2011


*looks at the insane income disparity between the average worker and the average ceo*

Both of which are richer than about 90% of the world.
posted by the jam at 8:09 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


The value of culture and institutions is hard to overstate, but I don't buy that 'work ethic' is somehow one of the vital elements of prosperity. Doesn't a work ethic develop if you have institutions and culture that allow people to benefit from their effort? I don't understand how you can expect a society to work hard independently of that.
posted by Wemmick at 1:59 AM on October 4
The work ethic, as I understand it, is something that doesn't need institutions. It's what builds institutions. Some people are just born with it, and many other people learn it from their families. Whether it is positive learning (the whole family in encouraged to do their chores) or negative (nobody in the family does anything, and one or two individuals in the family compensate by being hard workers).

The work ethic transcends negative culture and institutions. If you plant crops and then the king takes it all away, you are undaunted. You plant even more next year. Maybe you gather together some of your other serfs and figure out a way to organize and stop the king from taking so much. The work ethic is what drives people to figure out how to build their huts out of better materials, so they don't have to waste so much time fixing the roof every year. When the typhoon comes, they look around and see the stuff that survived and replace their broken homes with stuff that survived.

People without the work ethic tend to be complacent. Complacency doesn't build, it merely survives.

The six values listed here are good values. They are indeed what differentiates prosperous societies from those that aren't. What many of the commenters here are missing is the conservative filter. They parrot these things as if they believe in them, but they just say them to try to defeat some other idea that they don't like. "Work ethic" means to them, "I shouldn't have to pay taxes". "Property rights" means, "I shouldn't have to pay any taxes". "Competition" means "don't tell me what to do, if I am doing wrong, someone besides you will stop me."

It's like the invisible hand of the market thing. It is a real concept. But it is misused by conservatives, just so they can win some argument. If you are getting your education from people's biased misuse of concepts, you are no better than them. When the Tea Baggers say "2+2=3", do we go around saying math is wrong?
posted by gjc at 8:11 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Which is to say we're not really the 99%.
posted by the jam at 8:11 AM on October 4, 2011


I haven't had time to watch this video yet... Does Ferguson talk about how Western colonialism has wreaked havoc on other societies that were reasonably prosperous prior to colonization? And that the current "lack of success" in these countries is directly tied to the legacy of colonialism?
posted by KokuRyu at 8:14 AM on October 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


The work ethic transcends negative culture and institutions. If you plant crops and then the king takes it all away, you are undaunted. You plant even more next year. Maybe you gather together some of your other serfs and figure out a way to organize and stop the king from taking so much.

I suspect it's more like this than you even think, that it is specific to sedentary agrarian cultures. And that this "work ethic" (The Georgic mode so valued by Enlightenment thinkers) that is supposedly universal is actually devalued by other cultures. But anyway, none of this is to say that those cultures "build" and others just "survive," it's simply to say that different cultures value things differently. Now, it is certainly true that these agrarian cultures which produced highly-transportable, non-spoiling calorie surpluses had huge militaristic advantages... that right there is fundamental to the mechanics of the state. Soldiers gotta eat. But I don't think we want to equate military might with moral rights, do we?
posted by mek at 8:58 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


gerryblog: "Even in the Civilization games different starting locations are better than others."

You don't have to look as far as Civ. There are plenty of countries still using access to petroleum and uranium as geopolitical tools.
posted by vanar sena at 9:00 AM on October 4, 2011


I always find it wicked funny that somebody named Niall is so gung-ho about the British Empire.
posted by Skeptic at 9:01 AM on October 4, 2011


delmoi: "Also mindblowing is that the chart he talks about (at 2:14) only goes up to the 1970s! "

I'm not going to defend Ferguson's message, but he leaves off the last three decades from the first chart so that he can show the data up through the 00s as part of a reveal about how China and India are catching up.

vanar sena: "There are plenty of countries still using access to petroleum and uranium as geopolitical tools."

It's my (mediocre) understanding of economics that having valuable natural resources is not necessarily a good thing for an economy. Certainly most of the countries that have oil right now have some very, very wealthy individuals, but most of the oil money is going to them and not to the broader economy in those countries.
posted by Copronymus at 9:13 AM on October 4, 2011


And the seventh app that outweighs all the rest: COLONIALISM.

I always find it wicked funny that somebody named Niall is so gung-ho about the British Empire.

Scots were actually totally gung ho about imperialism/colonialism - it was one of the major reasons that Scots supported the union of 1707 - economic access to the English colonies.

posted by jb at 9:13 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wasn't that only because they'd made such a terrible lash of it in Darien and were mightily in debt, jb?
posted by Abiezer at 9:16 AM on October 4, 2011


It seems his scholarship is questionable, but I don't see a lot of discussion here about his example of Germany. If militaristic oppression and colonialism were the sole determiner of a society's success, how do you explain the difference between East and West Germany? It must be more complicated than that. If anything, during the twentieth century, the Soviets were a major colonizing empire and still managed to do poorly.
posted by Wemmick at 9:18 AM on October 4, 2011


He's right and Jared Diamond is wrong. It's all about culture, rather than resources.
posted by joannemullen at 4:32 AM on October 4 [1 favorite +] [!]


Are you a historian? Niall Ferguson likes to pretend to be one, but a) is not and never has been an expert in economic history and development (he began as a cultural historian of war) and b) thinks that evidence is a pesky non-necessity.

Jared Diamond is not trained as a historian, but none-the-less put together an impressive synthesis of research from many disciplines in his work. His thesis is really most useful for explaining population density and disease differences between North America & Africa versus Eurasia - it doesn't explain differences in development between Eurasia and Europe. For that, Pomeranz's Great Divergence is excellent.
posted by jb at 9:20 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wasn't that only because they'd made such a terrible lash of it in Darien and were mightily in debt, jb?
posted by Abiezer at 12:16 PM on October 4 [+] [!]


Darien was their hope for establishing the kind of colonies the English already had going in the Carribean; its failure probably added to the pressure to try to get into the money-making that was happening, but even if it had succeeded, I could see certain Scottish elites still being interested in the economic/colonial union that 1707 brought.

But one of the reasons that the Scots got so heavily involved in colonialism after 1707 is that English merchant families had already sewn up a lot of the most lucrative Continental-English trading routes; the colonies (whether the Americas, Asia, or - later - Australia and New Zealand) were places where newcomers could get in on the ground floor. Any Canadian or New Zealander certainly should be aware of our very Scottish-colonial history; so many of our elites have had names like MacDonald and MacKenzie.
posted by jb at 9:25 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'll bin my copies of Parcel of Rogues then :D
posted by Abiezer at 9:29 AM on October 4, 2011


My understanding is that Ferguson started his career with carefully-researched, very well-regarded academic work, and then discovered that playing house intellectual to American hawks was far more profitable. Do historians take Ferguson seriously at this point?
posted by col_pogo at 4:43 AM on October 4 [14 favorites +] [!]


His earliest work was in cultural and political history; it was well-researched, but still had some problems in interpretation (overstating his conclusions). But that is something currently endemic to academic history and only likely to get worse because overstating your conclusions is the way to get kudos these days.
posted by jb at 9:30 AM on October 4, 2011


I enjoyed rating the speech obnoxious 3 times, but otherwise think I just wasted 20 minutes.
posted by efbrazil at 9:32 AM on October 4, 2011


If you look at de Vries and others on the 'industrious revolution', it's clear that the Dutch Republic had the Protestantism and other institutions he claims are key long before Britain, but it was in Britain that the industrial revolution happened.
The rest is equally a pile of cock-eyed nonsense.


The Dutch Republic - like China and Rome before it - was awesomely advanced - but remained what E.A. Wrigley (a truly great historian) has called "an advanced organic economy". Basically, they were just about as productive as it was possible to be based on human and animal labour; we have only acheived the riches we have today through the use of mineral-energy (and, as pointed out upthread, this may not be at all sustainable).

see his book Continuity, Chance and Change for a thorough discussion.
posted by jb at 9:40 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I will seek that out. What I was hinting at in my other comment as to what was unique about British imperialism was the capitalist social relations which had emerged there first, which do strike me as unique. Ellen Meiksins Wood has an interesting take on how they emerged; not sure how far I agree, as I've appreciated Arrighi's world systems theory view on early globalisation.
posted by Abiezer at 9:58 AM on October 4, 2011


Scots were actually totally gung ho about imperialism/colonialism - it was one of the major reasons that Scots supported the union of 1707 - economic access to the English colonies.

Except that Niall of the Nine Hostages wasn't Scottish, but Irish, and that lore has him dying on one of his many raids against Britain/the Roman Empire...
posted by Skeptic at 10:03 AM on October 4, 2011


3. That shade of blue between cyan and teal.

Where do I sign?
posted by Scoo at 10:04 AM on October 4, 2011


Except that Niall of the Nine Hostages wasn't Scottish, but Irish
Of course, all the Scots were Irish, and displaced the charming Picts and Welsh-speaking Britons. And any hostage-taker surely deserves to be on some watch list or other.
posted by Abiezer at 10:08 AM on October 4, 2011


sorry - didn't realise that Niall was also an Irish name. Yeah, the Irish have a serious bone to pick with colonialism (considering that Ireland was like the dress rehursal for the American colonies).
posted by jb at 10:13 AM on October 4, 2011


"The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. And you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy West."
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:28 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Funny how, the elephant in the room in these sorts of discussions always seems to be the crucial role that the development of the modern state and its various bureaucracies have played in providing the proverbial development platforms and operating system that hosts these "killer apps."

1. Competition - Without the courts and modern contract law, without anti-trust laws and regulations, and without the various state enforcement mechanisms that give them teeth, we couldn't have what we call fair, free market competition. The markets would be dominated and corrupted by swindlers, speculators, monopolists, and various other forms of rent-seeking capitalists seeking to leverage their inherited or ill-gotten wealth to force others into a state of involuntary debt servitude, as has been the prevailing case throughout much human history.

2. The Scientific Revolution - Without the massive Federal research programs that lead to the development of Nuclear technology, the space program, DARPA, and so many other crucial scientific research and development projects, many major post-industrial era advances in the "scientific revolution" have benefited tremendously from government spending programs. Even the telegraph technologies that eventually gave us the modern telephone system were heavily state subsidized. Science and the state have been the greatest of lovers.

3. Property rights - Ahem. Again, before the existence of the modern, tax funded state, property rights were only for the aristocracy and those with inherited social position or wealth. Without the state to protect property rights, enforcement of property rights belongs to whoever can afford the strongest police force, and over time, that has a way of consolidating the control of property into fewer and fewer hands in a sort of arms race effect for control of property. That, too, has been tried and failed.

4. Modern medicine - Sigh. Without the state and organizations like the NHS, we wouldn't have a lot of modern medicine either. Before modern regulatory systems, the markets were choked with almost nothing but snake oil, and medical progress was hindered by rampant charlatanism. The FDA might not always be popular, but there was a time when its influence on the market revolutionized the quality of medicine in the US.

5. The consumer society - The fact that the modern American middle class came about at all is largely a result of the major social, institutional and infrastructural investments made during the New Deal and WWII eras. Even historians who don't agree that the New Deal policies brought the Great Depression to an end still attribute the recovery to government spending--the military spending required by US participation in WWII--so there really is no controversy about it. Consumer society, too, is in many ways a creation of the modern state.

6. The work ethic - This is just a dumb dog-whistle to the pseudo-conservative, cultural warriors in the audience. America didn't invent the work ethic anymore than Abner Doubleday invented baseball. And its a crude confidence-man-worthy rhetorical trick to flatter his target readers' sense of moral superiority by implying that they, alone, uniquely among all others in human history, are the true cultural stewards of the American work ethic. What a lame "killer app" this one is--more like vaporware.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:53 AM on October 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


"...many major post-industrial era advances in the "scientific revolution" have benefited tremendously from government spending programs might not have occurred."
posted by saulgoodman at 10:56 AM on October 4, 2011


Hillaire Belloc was more forthright about what was the British Empire's real "killer app".
posted by Skeptic at 12:22 PM on October 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


People like this are exactly why academic historians are so frustrated with "popular histories."
posted by Stagger Lee at 1:14 PM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


He suggests hard work and private property rights.

I have a sneaking hunch that Niall is unfamiliar with 'hard work' in the sense that most of us appreciate.
posted by Twang at 6:42 PM on October 4, 2011


I'm late and haven't read anything yet, BUT, I have thought about this. My main notion is about climate. European climate will make your ass cold and very uncomfortable. That's very motivating! But it's not likely to kill. Summer isn't so hot, usually, you can't get anything done, either. The combination meant we had the energy and motivation to figure out how to stay warm. That led to technology.

I go this idea after moving to Europe. I'm from Michigan, and I notice the different lengths of days here, quite a bit. But in spite of being so much further north, the climate is way more mild. Amazingly so, it seems to me (Because, after all, anything American is 'normal', the standard by which all else is compared. Right? LOL!)
posted by Goofyy at 5:55 AM on October 6, 2011


Goofyy: climate based theories of technology have long been discredited. Especially since a great deal of technology was developed in the middle east (eg windmills, chemistry, sophisticated irrigation systems), sub-Saharan Africa (had iron smelting long before Europe), China (porcelain, silk-spinning, more sophisticated irrigation, oh yeah, and gun powder). Southern China is very hot; northern China has a continental climate (hot summers, cold winters) like north America.

European technogical development c1500-1800 relied heavily on importing ideas from elsewhere in the world (like windmills, though those were imported in the middle ages, porcelain, gunpowder, etc) and they mixed together and gave birth to new technologies. The economic development that supported this technogical development relied heavily on the importation of capital (gold, silver) and slave labour and raw materials from the colonization of the new world.

Also, you should know that c1750, there were no appreciable technological differences between the metropoles of India, China and Europe. The lower classes in Asia also had a living standard comparable to or better than European lower classes. The big increase in disparity happened over the 19th century - and colonialism is a bit part of the story (though in China, the history I know better, there were also lots of internal factors: fuel and resource crises, massive political upheaval and civil war partly related to that, governance issues, etc).
posted by jb at 8:50 AM on October 6, 2011


But if you haven't read Guns, Germs and Steel, you should. Diamond does shownhow climate could make a difference - the climatic similarities across Eurasia meant that plant crops could more easily pass throughout the continent than they could in subSarahan Africa or North America.
posted by jb at 8:55 AM on October 6, 2011


Pankaj Mishra reviews Civilisation: The West and the Rest in the LRB.
posted by Abiezer at 11:55 PM on October 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


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