Niall Ferguson and the Rage Against the Thought-Leader Machine

Harvard historian Niall Ferguson ran into an online buzzsaw this week. He says the "liberal blogosphere" was out to do him in, and that was part of it. But there's something bigger at work: a groundswell of resentment for and frustration with the "thought leaders" who craft our conventional wisdom, get paid big speaking fees for it, yet often behave in ways that don't accord with this status. First Jonah Lehrer, then Fareed Zakaria, now this — and surely there will be more such brouhahas to come. It may be that this groundswell is driven entirely by frustrated would-be speechmaking thought leaders. But I think it's more than that (then again, as a would-be speechmaking thought leader, I would).

What got Ferguson — whom I know, although not well, and like — in trouble was his Newsweek cover story "Hit the Road, Barack." The article looks like something a smart, busy guy who really likes Paul Ryan, kind of dislikes the President, and loves to tweak the American liberal establishment — but hasn't had much time to delve into the issues lately — might throw off in a couple of days while vacationing on Martha's Vineyard. It's not good, but it's not exactly an abomination, either.

So why the firestorm of criticism? 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.

Some of it was clearly partisan: I have tried and failed to imagine a situation where a sloppy pro-Obama or anti-Romney screed by a Harvard professor would have caused the Atlantic's James Fallows to declare, "As a Harvard Alum, I Apologize." But it was also driven by people like Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal, Politico's Dylan Byers, and Slate's Dave Weigel who had no political axe to grind but 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 — I'm all for experts broadening their reach and sharing their knowledge. But Ferguson has been so good at it, and can express himself so charmingly, and handsomely, and swashbucklingly, that some people are willing to pay him to yammer on about pretty much anything. Tina Brown of Newsweek/The Daily Beast is one of those people, but far more important, as Stephen Marche pointed out on, are the conference organizers who are 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. Zakaria is a hugely accomplished thinker and writer (go back and read his breathtakingly good October 2001 Newsweek cover story "Why Do They Hate Us?" for a sample) who seems to have stretched himself too thin. Lehrer is a smart young upstart — his third book, Imagine: The Art and Science of Creativity, had been tearing up the bestseller lists before scandal hit — who seems to have made good storytelling a higher priority than the truth. That progression may tell a lot. 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. (For a bracingly nasty recent example of the latter, check out think tanker Evgeny Morozov's recent New Republic evisceration of the TED ethos.) I don't know if this marks a changing of the guard, an uprising, or just a bunch of Twitter chatter that we should all ignore and get back to work. But it'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. (I should credit futurist Eric Garland, who has been making this argument a lot lately.)

All of which means that if you're a high-profile thought leader like Niall Ferguson, or Fareed Zakaria, or Jonah Lehrer, watch out. What got you there may not keep you there.

Update: Dan Drezner has a great piece, posted about 20 minutes before this one, that explores the same topic.

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