Esquire magazine, in its post-mortem of the dust-up surrounding Niall Ferguson covered in this space yesterday, has a very sharp take on why such powerhouse academics end up sounding like cheap talk radio hosts. It’s the money.
Ferguson’s critics have simply misunderstood for whom Ferguson was writing that piece. They imagine that he is working as a professor or as a journalist, and that his standards slipped below those of academia or the media. Neither is right. Look at his speaking agent’s Web site. The fee: 50 to 75 grand per appearance. That number means that the entire economics of Ferguson’s writing career, and many other writing careers, has been permanently altered. Nonfiction writers can and do make vastly more, and more easily, than they could ever make any other way, including by writing bestselling books or being a Harvard professor. Articles and ideas are only as good as the fees you can get for talking about them. They are merely billboards for the messengers.
Note: this is my business model, too. And while my career in intelligence was no where near the stature of Mr Ferguson’s academic background, I can tell you that once you enter the world of popular ideas, you feel rigor slipping away, an idea that you alone hold dear. And you don’t write your own paychecks.
What’s so worrying about this trend is that Niall Ferguson, once upon a time, was the best. I’m one of the few people who has actually read his history of the Rothschilds, The World’s Banker, all 1,040 pages of the thing, and it is brilliant, a model of archival research. I find it fantastically depressing that the man who could write that book could end up writing a book like Civilization or an article with just as much naked silliness as the Newsweek cover.
Civilization actually contained a section called “The Six Killer Apps of Western Power,” which may be the purest expression of pandering to the speaker’s agencies I’ve ever read. You could just cut and paste it from the book into the promotional material. He may never again be taken seriously anywhere else, but then again he doesn’t need to be.
It’s too bad, and it’s worth more than a little consideration.