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Niall Ferguson: Reith Lecture pt.1 - The Human Hive

Tuesday 19 June 2012, 10:00

Richard Fenton-Smith Richard Fenton-Smith

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Professor Niall Fergusson presents The Reith Lectures on BBC Radio 4

"Society is a contract… the state is a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born."

This quote from the 18th Century political theorist and philosopher Edmund Burke summarises much of the argument put forward in the first of the 2012 Reith Lectures given by the economic historian Niall Ferguson, which broadcast on Radio 4 this morning.

Professor Ferguson says we are currently witnessing an unparalleled breach of this partnership because of the huge debts being racked up by governments, which are set to be passed on to younger - and unborn - generations.

Furthermore, says Professor Ferguson, many governments are dishonest about their true level of debt. The present system, he says, is "fraudulent" and "huge government liabilities are hidden from view."

"No legitimate business could carry on in this manner and the last corporation to publish financial statements this misleading was Enron."

In the lecture, Professor Ferguson listed a series of proposals for reform of government finances:

  • Public sector balance sheets should be drawn-up so that government liabilities can be compared to assets.
  • Governments should adopt the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, which corporations abide by.
  • Above all, governments should be prepared, on a regular basis, to make absolutely clear the inter-generational implications of current fiscal policy.

In the current climate, austerity is something young voters in particular should welcome, he argues - but concedes that winning support for this is a mountainous task.

But, says Professor Ferguson, if we do not embark on wholesale reform of government finance, we will end up with the scenario where Western democracies are going to carry on until one after another they follow Greece and other Mediterranean economies into "the fiscal spiral of death".

Alternatively, we all become like Japan and face decades of low to zero growth.

What do you think of the issues raised in the lecture?

  • Are Western democracies in denial about their debt levels?
  • Are the alternatives to austerity more effective?
  • Do you agree the baby boomers have benefited at the expense of younger generations?

Listen to the full lecture on the Radio 4 website

Download Niall Ferguson's 2012 Reith Lectures

Richard Fenton Smith is a Senior Broadcast Journalist for News and Current Affairs Radio.

Niall Ferguson's first Reith Lecture, titled The Human Hive, will be repeated on Radio 4 on Saturday, 23 June at 22:15 BST.

The second lecture in the series, titled The Darwinian Economy, will examine the issue of financial regulation. This will broadcast on Radio 4 on Tuesday, 26 June at 09:00 BST

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  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    As usual the bankrupt Left come up with nothing more than wingeing in response to an informed, coherent and comprehensive argumentation from one of the world's leading living historians. Far from "Western Supremacy" Fergusson's analysis simply points out that basic & sound economic and political institutions and management led to a divergence in Wealth between the West and other forms of governence. That this gap is now being eroded is undeniable. But it is not a zero sum game. Increased wealth in the rest of the world is welcome - but so too is increased freedom, increased rights, increased rule of law and this is unlikely to emerge with a weak West because the "new tigers" still maintain political systems that the windgers would do well to witness. Excellent programming - and to those on the left - Freedom of speech, grounded in the rule of law give you the right to make arguments! Arguments are grounded and relevant points that contradict the view of the author. Calling people obnoxious or reeling out conspiracy theories do not constitute arguments - neither does censoring people because they say they are "conservative". Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party? Remember?

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Once again, historians show that they may be good at analysis of the past, but their views of the present are highly coloured by their politics, like the rest of us. He starts off with an excellent analysis of why England's economy kick started itself through institutions, and contrasts this with the "Extractive Economies" of historic China and recent Egypt, where a small elite creamed off all the cash for themselves and the institutions were not there to recycle investment for the wider good. The logical projection of this theory to me is that we have drifted into a new kind of extractive economy which is creating the same state of economic stagnation. A new international / multinational elite, (the 1% that he derides) is creaming off the goodies for themselves and are salting it away in offshore tax shelters, rather than recycling it through the institutions of their home country. This elite has no loyalty to any home country and move their resources around playing off one country against another (the Jimmy Carr syndrome). If these resources were properly fed back into the system and put to use where they were extracted from the the social benefits we have would become affordable again as they were in the much harder post war years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Hello Androo - good suggestion. We recently interviewed economist Prof Steve Keen for Radio 4's Analysis.

    Like The Reith Lectures, this was a public event at the London School of Economics. Prof Keen was interviewed by Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason in front of a packed house.

    You can listen again on the Radio 4 website: http://bbc.in/JRuka1

    You can also listen via the Analysis download: http://bbc.in/kyntRM

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Ferguson's lecture started well with a good analysis of the historical interaction between economic activity and socio-political development (e.g. entrepreneurs pushing for laws and institutions to allow them to accumulate and safeguard their wealth) - almost Marxist in fact, though no doubt inadvertently so.

    But then, when he came to analysis of the current slump, it was downhill all the way. The narrow 'financial' side of things (i.e. the 'deficit') was privileged at the expense of everything else, when it is symptom and not problem. The whole thing was seen as being caused by a swollen 'public sector' and even, at one point, by that old enemy, the 'unions'. This meant that, for Ferguson, the solution was the utterly banal one proposed by the utterly banal Cameron and Osborne, of slashing the public sector and hammering the unions.

    The reality, however, as others have pointed out, is that very large deficits can exist quite happily as long as there is an economic boom, since there is sufficient capital sloshing around for governments to borrow to pay their way and no one thinks twice about lending. It only becomes a problem when that capital stops sloshing around. This happens when overproduction in certain areas and the knock-ons of that mean that goods can't be sold at their previous price and it becomes unprofitable for those with capital to invest. At that point lending to governments also dries up, at the same time as the amount governments can collect in taxation is also drastically reduced.

    Consequent government policies aimed at cutting costs by cutting in the public sector are a consequence of this situation not its cause. Morever, such cuts do not have any impact on the slump in train. The only thing that will have that effect is for market prices to fall low enough for investment in production and services to start up again since there will then be profit to be realised by it.

    Is Ferguson aware of any of this? If so, he didn't show it and so unfortunately he has failed to built anything like a solid foundation for the lectures to follow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Howard's comment above misses the point of this lecture entirely.  While his analysis is an adequate description of how governments can cope with deficits encountered routinely during the economic cycle, he does not seem to appreciate - as Niall Ferguson compellingly laid out - the sheer scale of accumulated debt (and not merely deficit) we have to deal with.  His solution appears to rely on creating an immediate and dramatic boom, which is simply impossible given the travails of our major European trading partners.  And he seems not to appreciate that increasing government borrowing increases the cost of that borrowing still further - the death spiral already seen in Ireland and Greece.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Thanks to Mantuesday for comment on mine. I think there's a misunderstanding. I was definitely not suggesting 'creating a boom'. All attempts to do that (such as inflating the money supply, so-called 'quantitative easing' are doomed to failure), just as attempts to resolve the crisis by 'austerity' policies are equally doomed. The crisis will only be resolved, as I tried to explain, when prices have fallen to a point where those with capital can invest at a profit. And even at that point recovery will only be a gradual process. After the current slump is over (and we are talking about an unpredictable length of time), government deficit (or debt) will, as usual in non-slump conditions, cease to have a great deal of relevance one way or the other.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Inter-generational transactions? In essence Nial Fergerson is correct, maybe 95% of our society does not consider their quality of life as a product of the labours, mental and physical, of previous generations, although many do consider what might be left to their children. However, I think there are two exceptions; the first is the landed gentry, who are very much in tune with the passage of generations rooted to one location, and linked to this is the second, a point more closely linked to our common past, that of agricultural communities and families, only representing 2%-5% of the western world's population but far higher elsewhere. A farm or forest is a long term business, one that is often handed from generation to generation within the same family without question and one where there is an acute awareness of the debt to past generations and responsibility to those as yet unborn. We could do worse than to visit the values of our common past with a view to learning how we might change our culture for the future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.


    After the first ten minutes, which had some compelling ideas - all cited to other thinkers - it turned out to be one long, incoherently composed rant without a connecting thread. He mentions benefits for the old but fails to mention that these were ring fenced until Reagan and other US presidents started to raid the pot.


    And no mention of the 100s of trillions spent on the US war machine, one nuclear arms that could never be used, that could have devastated the planet 100s of times over. No mention of the Vietnam war, which with it's escalating costs (combined the social programs on a far smaller scale) led to Nixon taking the dollar off the Bretton Woods Agreement (which backed the dollar with a certain amount of gold). Nor any mention of the 700 plus bases around the world, a military-industrial complex with no bid contracts, products not fit for purpose and obsolete. The rantings of a far-right lunatic, who in coming segments will argue for deregulation - which has led to the sorry state of the world economy. Silly voodoo economics and absolutely no intellectual rigour whatsoever. No cause and effect.

    A dim and retardedly thought through diatribe. A One hour party political broadcast. A Reith lecture to utterly ashamed of. After the brilliance of the Sandel one from a few years ago, this shoddy excuse, I'll not be listening to any more of his rants, nor future Reiths, the whole of the BBC's news output is utterly shallow, 24 hour rolling nothing, a Panorama-lite for a decade. The only thing catching occasionally is Newsnight.

    Absolutely worthless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I'm surprised that so many listeners who've commented, appear to have abstracted only what they want to hear. There are 4 lectures in the series and - from my analysis of the first - I believe Nial Fergerson is going in the direction that all of the left (from leaners to rabid) will applaud. There is a problem; the 'fix' will come; 'Occupy' will have it's day - but it won't be tomorrow. I suggest that throughout the course of remaining lectures - and beyond - everyone asks themselves one question - 'What can I do to improve the future for my children?'

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    I like Niall Ferguson, but I think that his History is better than his Economics. His comment on "Inter-generational debt" I find extreme. Current uk debt is heading towards 80% post from WW1 onwards UK peeked at approx 240% (Due to war spending). We managed to steadily pay that down to approx 30% in the early 1990's.
    "mantuesday"'s comment that we "switched on" the manufacturing base post war I find odd. The war time factories were tooled up for the production of military goods not the consumer and industrial products that there was a post war boom in. Also the infrastructure and supply chains were damaged due to German attacks. These took a great deal of time and investment to improve. Although I agree that we have neglected our manufacturing base over last 30 years. The City of London does not understand / favour the slow steady returns of manufacturing investments.

    My main problem with Ferguson's view he ignores Britain's biggest problems; Private debt which is now approx 300% of GDP if international interest rates return to average levels then pressure on private incomes will lead to a drastic drop in demand in the economy. This is private debt lent to individuals by private banks not the "big bad" state. Before the comments its government who regulates the banks. UK finance always called and lobbied hard for less and less regulation (as did the extreme right wing) backed up by millions of pounds of lobby money and political influence. "Leverson for the banks" I want to see it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Reply to RussP: not sure why you find my comment odd. If a large chunk of your skilled manufacturing base is devoted to making armaments, it's not able to contribute to generating wealth. When the need for manufacturing armaments passes, that skilled manufacturing labour can be employed in private enterprise. The British motor industry contributed more to GDP post war than the same workers did during the war making tanks. That's hardly a controversial point.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Niall Ferguson is so enamoured of neo-conservative and Western ways of thinking that he sometimes can't see the wood for the trees. Twice he mentioned in the course of his high-pitched, slightly hysterical lecture that in 1978 the Americans had 22 times, reducing with the years to 5 times, Chinese incomes. Twice, suggesting he thought it important. How, then, amid what another blogger has referred to as his 'mumbo-jumbo' could he fail, as a historian, to make the simple observation that some 60 years after shedding a long-term dynastic tradition that makes the Americans' comparable shedding of British rule - and with a protective ocean intervening - seem child's play, followed by a civil war, again making the 19th-century American version of same seem modest by comparison; then invasion and 10-year occupation by the Japanese (an event, pace Pearl Harbour, the US has been spared throughout its history), and on to re-building the nation under Communism, with the hostile Taiwan Nationalists offshore, just as Communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe was crumbling: all this during a period in which the USA, with its nuclear arsenal and aggressive/persuasive capitalism, was taking over the world - how could he fail to observe that during these 60-odd years the fates of the two nations, China and USA, were so different, and so in favour of the US, that the wonder is that the Americans were not merely 22, but 200, or 2,000, times more prosperous than the Chinese? If capacity for recovery from catastrophe is the criterion for evaluating the economic viability of a nation and its systems, this would suggest that, not neo-conservatism, but communism, holds the key to the future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    I listened to this whilst walking around Asda. Weird. Anyway, I don't see a conspiracy theory. I spend a lot of time defending the BBC against left-wing bias so I've got some decent ammo from the conservative critics. The BBC is, overall, balanced and much maligned.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Lecture 1, the point is fudge?

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    In the Reith lecture of 26 June characterising the financial crisis and regulation, the analogy with Malthus and Darwin is irrelevant, but the quotes from Bagehot are appropriate.
    Banking risk regulation is not complex except technically to implement if given time to understand properly the few thousand pages of advice, risk accounting equations, and how to model banks in the macro- economies in which they do business.
    Doing this work fully is a job few are given or trained for, certainly not the lawyers that Ferguson gives too much attention to. He overlooks the immensely important bug errors in the risk models of ratings agencies.
    Nearly all 'front-line' bankers avoid taking the trouble to manage risk directly, leaving this to lower echelon back office geeks to express the rules in computer systems.
    Ferguson when reading Begehot is right to point out that hard to quantify personal judgement is important, but that also goes wrong. The most relevant complexity issue is that 'universal banking' developed far beyond the human ability of main boards to comprehend and manage, the only justification really for Dodds-Frank and the UK's Vickers Commission Report recommendations.
    It is wrong of Ferguson to assume all developed countries had housing bubbles. For example, banks in Germany did not stoke housing prices by lending predominently to property but to industry instead (and proportionately ten times more to small firms than UK banks lend), while in others, above all USA, also UK and others, banks lent mainly for household and corporate mortgages.
    It is a mistake of Ferguson to accept the homespun media story that China bought $trillions of US securities to prevent its currency appreciating. The Renmimbi is not a floating currency. China gained dollar reserves from its export surpluses and has deposited most of these reserves in domestic banks to support loans to industry.
    Insofar as there was regulatory failure this followed from central banks' inability to deliver clear warnings to banks about skewing their lending too much to any one sector of the economy. Greece's central bank did so in good time, several times, but was rudely ignored by its banks. Monetary and fiscal stances of governments are less relevant than the inevitability of economic and credit cycles, about which Ferguson is silent, even though these are what banking regulations (Basel etc.) are principally concerned about coping with, not least so that the burden of recovery does not fall entirely on government budget deficits and sovereign debt.
    Recessions have to have triggers but are inevitable. For the USA, the triggers this time were historically high trade deficits and a concomitent property bubble. For other countries, triggers can include fall in export demand or governments too speedily balancing their budgets.
    Basel regulations apply to private banks who do international business and set minimum regulatory capital reserves at a level expected to be nominally wiped out in a normal recession after which half of current nominal losses are expected to be recovered over the following few years as losses become finally realised. The Credit Crunch caused banks in USA and other countries such as the UK to nominally lose double their minimum capital reserves. This was because retail banks could not replenish their borrowing from the money markets at what they perceived to be viable rates of interest.
    Governments and central banks had to step in to fill the role that the more fearful and greedy private sector would not fill. Governments on and off balance sheet replenished half of banks' losses, but not without exerting high rates and charges, exerted on banks desperate to ensure the ledger balance between their loans and deposits.
    Investment banks that went under did so as a side-blow to the bigger picture because they gamed their financing with hedge funds and prime dealers and borrowed too much short to go long. They misread the timing of the market crash and grossly underestimated the underlying economic cycles. There eventual net losses, which took a few years to calculate, were however far less than originally estimated gross.
    Few bankers may have gone to jail so far but there have been nearly a thousand arrests, mostly in the USA. Prosecutions are in train or pending that will take a decade or more to complete. Shareholders were severely punished, short-traders got rich for a time, and bonus-earners stayed rich years longer than they should.
    Millions of non-bankers lost their jobs, but no more than expected in a normal recession. The real calamity is the slowness of recovery in output and jobs and, in Euro-land and the money markets, the cold-hearted and greedy responses to the plight of small countries only guilty of enthusiastically following examples set by larger 'credit boom', property obsessed, trade deficit economies. without whom export surplus countries Germany and China can not keep growing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Fred calls for 'a series where Fergusson was in conversation with someone on the left' - That is called a debate. This was a lecture. Please see dictionary for definitions.

    Ferg. gets attacked for being a conservative. Has free speech ended? Are we not to have anyone challenge the decades long practice of stealing from our children to pay for today. All that our political masters of both shades have done is to create a bankrupt state that will have no choice but to tighten the chains until we all squeek.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    'UK government debt has been incurred by the bank rescue, not by government expenditure'. - so wrong - by both.

    Aircraft carriers built and scrapped before a voyage, nuclear weapons, ID card fiascos, Scottish parliament £billion building, Edin trams £billion, PFI, millionaire doctors striking for more, wars for WMD etc etc
    - governments are the main cause of wasted billions - you only need open a newspaper any week of any year to see how your taxes are flushed down the drain.

  • Comment number 38.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    You have to laugh at the 'Bilderberg conspiracy' posts - sounds like an old Mel Gibson film!

    'indignados' by the way wasn't Ferg's term - please feel free to use google.

    Amazed how samurairo missed the point completly. F explains how our weak ruling elite rob from the young and unborn to pay for sky rocketing welfare for the old and you think he is attacking the young?
    F's point is that the % in work is shrinking as the population ages and taxpayers can't afford the bill. This population timebomb isn't really news as it has been debated for decades now.

    People still just don't get it. If you are drowning in debt you can't solve it with more borrowing. Hello? In a hole? - stop digging!

    Do you really think we can carry on this decade as normal. The game is up and unless someone finds a dozen new massive oil fields pronto then all our kids better learn some Chinese.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    I agree with Beverley at comment 15. Had more to say on the subject but was sanctioned by an overly sensitive Moderator at comment 38.


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