Monday, February 6, 2012

Book Review: Civilization by Niall Ferguson

This book is a history of civilization, and the first book by Ferguson I've read. I thought Ferguson's economic focus and anecdotal arguments worked rather well in the early parts of the book, but when he got to the latter half of the 20th century it seems the wheels started to come off. Intriguing arguments: that the Chinese have imported a work ethic and savings mentality along with Christianity (especially interesting coming from an atheist, albeit right-wing, author). I-don't-buy-it: that clothes shaped the consumer society, I think causes and effects are being totally mangled there. Wait-and-see: that the US will be in decline precisely because China is becoming more Western (nothing about India?!). At the end of the day, a short book in popular style can't help but be incomplete, and Ferguson is so intent on making iconoclastic arguments that it ends up reading like Malcolm Gladwell-lite applied to history. The problem of cherry-picking is pervasive. But like Ferguson says about climate change, he'll have to let the qualified people argue about it. I'll let the historians argue about the overall arguments, but at least this provided some interesting anecdotes and new angles about empire and economics. So if I don't buy Krugman that debt is no problem, but if I also don't buy Ferguson that it's totally out of control yet, then who do I buy??

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