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Harvard’s Grumpy Ferguson Says World Is Going to Hell

'The Great Degeneration'
The cover jacket of "The Great Degeneration" by Niall Ferguson. Source: The Penguin Press via Bloomberg

June 18 (Bloomberg) -- Niall Ferguson has written an old man’s book.

Not too many years ago, in “Colossus” (2004), Ferguson was advocating that the U.S. face up to its Imperial destiny. And in “Civilization: The West and the Rest” (2011) he described how “six killer apps” made the West great.

No more Churchill’s sunny uplands for us, apparently, as “The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die,” makes clear. Ferguson writes, “My over-arching question is: What exactly has gone wrong in the Western world in our time?”

Surely, “everything’s going to hell” is the old man’s lament. Ferguson, who once personified the Oxford history don as sex symbol, turned 49 this year, so “Degeneration” feels a bit rushed, premature. On the other hand, looking at the last five years would depress anyone.

Slender by Ferguson standards at 174 pages, the book is based on the author’s four BBC Reith Lectures delivered last year. Ferguson, who has been a professor at Harvard since 2004, diagnoses the maladies facing the U.S. and, to a lesser degree, the U.K.

And these are? We spend too much, especially on intergenerational transfer programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. We seek redemption in elaborate regulation, which is guaranteed to throttle the economy. We are in danger of replacing the rule of law with the rule of lawyers. Our system of education perpetuates the existence of a mandarin class. Finally, we have abdicated our responsibility as citizens in favor of the state.

Choppy Going

Ferguson made his reputation as a historian who combined a non-academic style with statistical analysis, most notably in “The Pity of War” (1998), a history of World War I. What works at book length is decidedly less pleasing in the much-shorter “Degeneration,” where frequent quotation and reliance on data make for choppy going.

Or perhaps I am inured to the necessarily selective use of data, even by a writer as normally persuasive as Ferguson. “According to the International Monetary Fund, the gross government debt of Greece will reach 182 percent of GDP in 2012,” Ferguson writes. “For Italy the figure is 128, for Ireland 119, for Portugal 124 and for the United States 112.”

Alarming, indeed, I guess. But also stale. In revising its outlook on the U.S. to stable last week, Standard & Poor’s said that government debt as a percentage of gross domestic product would remain around 84 percent over the next several years, the result of an improving economy and the sequestration’s cuts in spending.

Africa Rising

Further on, in his chapter on the rule of law, Ferguson notes that it may be declining in the U.S. but it is markedly improving in Africa.

“I recently delved into the World Bank’s treasure trove, the World Development Indicators database, to see which countries in Africa” were ranked highly in terms of public administration, the regulatory environment, property rights and rule-based governance, public-sector management and institutions, transparency, accountability and corruption in the public sector, Ferguson writes. The countries that appear in the top 20 developing economies in four or more of these categories are Burkina Faso, Ghana, Malawi and Rwanda.

And I thought -- actually, I didn’t know what to think. I gather we’re supposed to think that unless we let business run riot, they’ll all move away. And then I thought: Really? You go do business in Malawi or Rwanda.

I’m a big Ferguson fan, and so I’ll chalk this effort up to the author’s cogitating during the bleakest days, or getting into dustups with Paul Krugman, or hanging out too much with John McCain and Mitt Romney. Cheer up, Niall. Better days ahead.

“The Great Degeneration” is published by Penguin Press (174 pages, $26.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Joe Mysak is editor of the Bloomberg Brief: Municipal Market. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Patrick Cole on philanthropy, Philip Boroff on theater.

Related News and Information: Book reviews: {TNI BOOK MUSE <GO>} Top arts and lifestyle stories: {MUSE <GO>} Stories about Harvard: {3252Z US <Equity> CN <GO>}

To contact the writer of this review: Joe Mysak at jmysakjr@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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