Niall Ferguson crosses the John Yoo line: The paradox of influence

I don’t think Ferguson is just about the money. By now, he must have enough to buy all the BMWs he could possibly want. To say that Ferguson needs another 50K is like saying that I need to publish in another scientific journal. No, I think what Ferguson is looking for (as am I, in my scholarly domain) is influence. He wants to make a difference. And one thing about being paid $50K for a lecture is that you can assume that whoever is paying you really wants to hear what you have to say.

The paradox, though, is that Ferguson gets and keeps the big-money audience is by telling them not what he (Ferguson) wants to say—not by giving them his unique insights and understanding—but rather by telling his audience what they want to hear.

The paradox is not insurmountable—talented entertainers ranging from George Carlin to Bob Dylan seem to have been able to say what they want to say and still maintain an audience. And Ferguson could go that route, indeed that’s what he used to do, back when he was merely an extremely successful academic historian and bestselling author. He didn’t need to sell out, he was doing just fine back when he was a serious thinker—but I think the promise of influence (and, sure, the money too) sucked him in. Again, the paradox is that the anticipated influence becomes valueless if you end up saying whatever it takes to keep it.

Longer discussion here.

P.S. To anyone who would reply that, no, Ferguson’s no hack, he really believes the stuff he’s writing: I say, No way! Yes, I think he’s politically conservative and is happy to do his part to help defeat Obama, get the world back on track with free enterprise and economic growth, etc.—but it’s hard for me to believe that Ferguson takes seriously the specific claims he’s made in his shark-jumping columns. As we’ve discussed before with the Don Draper analogy, this shouldn’t be such a shocker: hacks exist and hackery is an accepted mode of operation.

What I’m trying to explore in this post is, what does Ferguson think he’s getting out of his hackery? I don’t think it’s just the money, nor for that matter do I believe that he’s impaling his scholarly reputation purely as a personal sacrifice in order to decrease Barack Obama’s probability of reelection by some small amount. I’m sure both these are contributing factors, but my guess is that Ferguson’s big goal here is influence, hence my discussion of the paradox.

9 Responses to Niall Ferguson crosses the John Yoo line: The paradox of influence

  1. RobC September 12, 2012 at 1:51 pm #

    Yeah right, if you oppose Obama you can’t possibly believe what you’re saying and are therefore a hack. Such arrant nonsense. One hopes that Professor Gelman is more clear-headed when he’s opining on his areas of expertise.

    • Andrew Gelman September 12, 2012 at 2:16 pm #

      Rob:

      Please read the linked post, where I wrote the following:

      Just to clarify

      No, I don’t think the act of taking a political stance is enough by itself to put you below the Yoo line (recall the definition: “the point at which nothing you write gets taken seriously, and so you might as well become a hack because you have no scholarly reputation remaining”). For example, I don’t think Paul Krugman or Greg Mankiw are there, or even close. Krugman and Mankiw are partisans and go over the top on occasion but if they have something to say, people will listen. Similarly, I’d have no problem taking seriously the future publications of Tim Groseclose—when he’s not tossing out red meat for Fox News, he’s a scholar. And some of you might still read my political science research (we have a new paper coming out soon), even if you don’t love my blogging.

      • RobC September 12, 2012 at 5:20 pm #

        Professor Gelman, I did read your linked post before I commented. And I have no problem taking seriously your future publications, because when you’re not tossing out red meat for Obama, you’re a scholar.

        • Andrew Gelman September 12, 2012 at 5:55 pm #

          Rob:

          Given what I wrote above, I don’t understand how you can write that I am saying that “if you oppose Obama you can’t possibly believe what you’re saying and are therefore a hack.” Let me reiterate that hackdom is not the same thing as partisanship.

          Regarding Groseclose’s red meat, I have a particular statement in mind which I linked to here (scroll down to “501(c)(3)”). As I wrote at the time, I found Groseclose’s reaction to be understandable given the unpleasant criticism directed at him, nonetheless I think he went too far in accusing his critics of “violating the spirit of the law” when they were doing nothing more than taking advantage of the same line in the tax code that is used by many other organizations of varying political stripes.

    • fuller schmidt September 13, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

      According to psychology, RobC, the only way you can think that someone is dismissing something because it is by the other side is that you have done so yourself. Unfortunately that makes you a hack.

  2. Thomas September 12, 2012 at 2:03 pm #

    If by “influence” you mean affecting how people who have power think and, therefore, having some effect on the course of events, then I don’t think you’re right, mainly for the reasons you give. He’s not actually conveying his beliefs, so he’s not getting people to believe what he believes. (I agree with you that he also can’t be doing this in a sincere belief that it’s really important to make sure Obama does not get re-elected.) But he might well want influence in some other sense, namely, getting access to the right circle of luminaries, even membership in the right country clubs, and the ability to choose his neighbors. That sort of thing. But I don’t think that’s really any different from wanting the money, it’s the same motive: status. He just wants to hang out with powerful people. Here the image of Ferguson in Kissinger’s pool will always be emblematic for me.

  3. James September 12, 2012 at 6:26 pm #

    Great article. I have been assuming this to be the case for the past little while — mostly as a result of the recent hackery Ferguson has been writing for Newsweek. Does previous scholarship have a diminishing affect on early prestigious works that don’t stand up to new hackery? I’m not sure if this is implied by the article, but if it is, then the consumption of scholarly literature will be bound to cannoned lists by authors deemed to be unmarred by hackery. Are there any that don’t cede to the greater power of readership at some point? Or perhaps I’m naive by ranting.

  4. Frankly Curious September 14, 2012 at 1:37 am #

    I don’t know. What I see in Ferguson is someone who has become addicted to celebrity. I don’t see how he gets out of the “I create red meat for them today so I can create red meat for them tomorrow” loop. The same, I fear, can be said for his wife. I understand very well the appeal of this loop: I do the same thing with eating food.

    PS: RobC is a troll; he shouldn’t be encouraged. But his photography is *really* good.

  5. Barry September 14, 2012 at 12:36 pm #

    Andrew: “I don’t think Ferguson is just about the money. By now, he must have enough to buy all the BMWs he could possibly want. To say that Ferguson needs another 50K is like saying that I need to publish in another scientific journal. No, I think what Ferguson is looking for (as am I, in my scholarly domain) is influence. He wants to make a difference. And one thing about being paid $50K for a lecture is that you can assume that whoever is paying you really wants to hear what you have to say.”

    If he’s looking to move from the 1% to the 0.1% (let alone higher), he does need a bunch more $50K gigs, and more importantly the open doors and crony benefits.