History matters! And Niall Ferguson says it with emphasis of the voice and excitement of the body. With a multiple lined affiliation: Harvard, Oxford, Hoover Institution, Ferguson writes popular books on finance and business history. He was writing on Empire(s) on the wake of 9/11 and after the housing bubble he moved to financial history.
Recently he wrote and presented for PBS (American public broadcasting TV) a documentary on the history of finance. In it he replays the parallel march of commerce, finance and political history. It is not a work for new insight. It is an exercise on breadth and an attempt to fit one and all in the same tidy box. Ferguson wants us to believe that financial innovation rules the world, and that only the historically minded can survive in the modern world.
My disquiet is that the documentary seems to assume that the economic past is easily knowable and interpretable and the sole key to our futures. I think that is slightly overselling it.
Here is an interview he gave to University of California TV a propos of his book, Ascent of Money.
Writing for the Atlantic, the magazine titled after an Ocean that signifies two opposing ideologies depending on the coast you stand on, Benjamin Schwarz reviews books from the Depression era.
Atlantic June 2009
The short article is interesting because it takes seriously the emotional weight of such words as “depression” and “recession”. Schwarz remarks that it was President Herbert Hoover that named the post 1929 slump as depression, to avoid more current, yet dramatic, labels such as panic or crisis. But the sterilizing did not work. Depression and now recession, trigger feelings of dread and insecurity and define our age. This is what Schwarz discovers in the Depression era literature, not famine, nor misery, but “unrelenting fear and dashed hope.”
Economic history often comes in the small print of TV and movie scripts, a passing image, a headline in a fading newspaper. And then it happens that depression, inflation and oil prices becomes the text, explicit and explosive.
It’s up there with the Grapes of Wrath… Let’s all scream:
“I am mad as hell and I am not taking it anymore.”
a not-for-profit, anti-consumerist organization founded in 1989 [that] describes itself as “a global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age.
This is activism with a solid business model, since its core product, a magazine, holds a price tag of 11$ + plus or minus what the newsstand might take as margin.
This book is a battle plan. We attack the massively fortified system of thought control in which the same tenured forces have been entrenched for fifty years. We take on this powerful intellectual army whose generals include Milton Friedman, Alan Greenspan, Gregory Mankiw, Paul Krugman … who have boots on the ground in Summers, Bernanke and Geithner plus the heads of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank … and whose foot soldiers are the thousands of business and economics professors all over the world. They all have the same mission: to perpetuate growth and consumption at any cost. We cannot stand idly by and allow these old-school practitioners of a failed paradigm to keep calling the policy shots. Ten more years of their brand of economics will send our planet into a tailspin from which we may never recover.
The theme fits well with Adbusters reserve aesthetics. Adbusters turns advertising culture and the celebration of consumer society into a heroic narrative for anti-consumer society, keeping the signifiers but turning them on their heads. So they do the same for economics, which is seem as advertising for consumption and environmental destruction, not corporate, but academic. The antis is done by using economists of an alternative sort, radical, post-autistic, critics of textbooks and national accounting. Adbusters enlists advertising to fight advertising, and economists to fight economists.