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Simon Schama, Niall Ferguson on America
The American Future

The American Future

The British know something about rise and fall. Their Edward Gibbon wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Their own empire came and went.

Now, two big British historians and thinkers who live in the United States are thinking hard about the American future.

Simon Schama says he’s in love with America, and sees the makings of potential renewal emerging right now. Niall Ferguson admires America too, and sees — even so — the makings of disaster around us.

This hour, On Point: Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson, together, on the American future.

You can join the conversation. Tell us what you think — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.


Simon Schama, professor of history at Columbia University. He’s an essayist for The New Yorker, and a well-known maker of historical documentaries for the BBC, PBS, and the History Channel. His new book is “The American Future: A History.”

Niall Ferguson, professor of history at Harvard University and a professor at Harvard Business School. He writes for the Financial Times, The New York Times, and Los Angeles Times. His latest book is “The Ascent of Money.”

More links:

Schama has been reflecting recently about America’s uneasy relationship with the banking sector. And Ferguson is weighing in against going too far in re-regulating the financial markets.

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  • Gabrielle

    Many Republicans and Conservatives today take issue with President Obama’s social agenda. He is often tarred as a socialist. What would our Founding Fathers think of his plans for narrowing the income gap in this country? Which political philosophers did they look to when forming the US Constitution and do your two guests see a common thread in our current President’s thinking?

    Thank you.
    Brooklyn, NY

  • Frederic C.

    I’d like to thank Professor Ferguson for his book, ‘War of the World,’ I found it to be a valuable read.

    I’d like to suggest that America’s defense would be better served by putting the Department of Education under the Department of Defense.

    Our greatest asset is our people and if we are not promoting, ‘the good life,’ for our own people then what is our purpose?

    We should also talk about a Sparta like initiative for the youth from broken homes in our inner cities and from the suburbs. Not recruiting as we know it but a radical alternative for reclaiming American virtue. Not mandatory service, but an irresistible option for young people.

  • Wilson Samuel

    Any country’s future lies in her younger generation. Its too sad to see that all our school kids dont get the best of the education some of them are unfortunate to live in “poor neighborhoods” and hence are not able to compete with the other kids.

    At the college level, we have made our education system so expensive that, its a “gamble” that an individual who pursues the “higher education e.g. Medicine ” because of the debt required to complete that.

    Finally, when the generation finally reaches the age of settling down, we “sell” too many things that they really cant afford to have, hence burrying them more deep in the pits of the debt…. and to solve this we thing “unprecendented levels” of Immigration and Imports are the answer, while we are less and less exporting.

    I would be the happiest person if I’m proven to be wrong, unfortunately I dont see many evidences thatwise.

    God Bless America!
    America, Bless God!

  • Kash Haffa

    We’re doomed. We’ve become a modern form of feudalism. The US Govt. is essentially a system that seeks to protect the rich and their assets from the society in which they operate. The govt. suggests silly concepts such as ‘college education for every American’ at the same time it allows US corporations to outsource, college-degree-level work to foreign workers.

    Why even discuss this topic? A more interesting topic is ‘when is a revolution of sorts going to occur?’ It’s time to put a full stop of the tax system and the govt. programs; followed by a rebuild of the essential systems only in govt. We clearly are unable to afford tax-funded luxury programs.

  • Putney Swope

    All hail Frederic C…
    Your kidding right? Militarize the country even more?

    I say cut the military budget, cut it a lot.

  • sam hill

    Two historians?

    Get Ray Kurzweil back on as one of the few who has a clue about the direction of America’s future!

  • Ellen Dibble

    I’ll be interested and surprised if someone focuses on K-12 education. My thought is that equal education at this level is far more important to the country than equal health insurance. If even the healthy people don’t have a good shot at contributing, this is bad.
    And so, I look at the curious fact of property taxes supporting education, such that families angle to locate where the property taxes are the highest in order to advantage their children with better education.
    If someone wants to energize the entire populace, the local property tax burden would have to be reconfigured. (Yeah, right. I know.)
    Further ridiculous to me, besides the disadvantaging effects of varying K-12 education quality, why is a tax on highly appraised property supporting something needed as much and as evenly as bread? Do we want to encourage people to live in gas-guzzling McMansions in gas-guzzling suburban sprawls? The better to enable small class sizes? Why not encourage something else with the high taxes that support education. Something more useful. If high taxes boosts education, then tax fly-weight vehicles to the gills.
    I wish it were funny, but we need change.

  • tim

    Are we where the UK was around the turn of the 20th century, with its wars in Africa, its occupation of India and its skewed income distribution and its shaky financial dominance?

  • Putney Swope

    This is great a Englishman and an Irishman discussing our future.

  • http://NOne Dana Franchitto

    Dear Mr. Ashbrook and Guests,
    As someone who loves America(and the Red Sox) I like hearing a British perspective. However, as a believer in democracy ,I am disappointed to hear such a narrow discussion of America and its future. Yes, mr. Scama and Mr. ferguson are distinguished scholars but this discussion seems built on a foundation of assumptions that badly need questioning. THat the concept of Empire is legitimate, the the US is right to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan,that “free markets” are beyond scrutiny, the America is “exceptional”. I could go on but I’lljust ask why a conspicuous absence of critical voices from the Left plagues this “public” radio program?

  • Sean

    Wow Tom, how rich! You recruit a couple of pretentious Lymies to assess the condition of America! Did we ever truly cease being a Crown colony? But, at least one of your guests (Ferguson) seems to have a brain. Schama, on the other hand, is either an idiot or a schill (or both) for the establishment that created this American mess.

  • Mari McAvenia

    I could listen to these two scholars banter back and forth all day…

    Putney, please accept a gentle correction: “This is great a Englishman and an Irishman discussing our future.”, you wrote.

    Actually, Mr. Ferguson is a native Scot. Big difference.

  • Putney Swope

    Ferguson is Irish, which is an important difference.

    This program is designed to sell books, and is an intellectual exercise which is fine. Schama has the ability to make an omelet recipe sound snobish.

  • Lorie

    Hello, GREAT show!!! Could both of the esteemed historians speak to American Exceptionalism – Can it end? Is it ending? Could we have a renewal if it ends? Possibly a new version of a Great Awakening (my prejudices revealed)?


  • Catherine Hammond


    Could Mr Ashbrook ask Simon Schama and Neil Ferguson why NO ONE SEEMS TO EVER TALK ABOUT THE LACK OF AMERICANS SELF-DISCIPLINE as the main cause for the present economic crisis?

    This BABY BOOMER always believed that BUYING ON CREDIT IS PAYING ( dearly ! ) for one’S impatience.
    THIS BABY BOOMER’s children ( Generation X ? ) DO NOT OWN ANY CREDIT CARDS.

  • Putney Swope

    Ferguson accent is very interesting he sounds Irish, but your right he’s from Glasgow, and his accent is not Glaswegian at all. I use to live in Scotland and come to think of the more I listen to him he sounds like public school educated, and upper class.

  • Putney Swope

    America has always been a country run by the power brokers and the money men. This country is a myth, and unfortunately a huge segment of the population buy into this myth.

    The bottom line is the majority of us have shrinking incomes and rising health care premiums and costs.

    The question is what kind of society do we want?
    Personally I look to countries such as Switzerland and the Netherlands and see a better model.

    This notion of working hard enough and all things will work out is just plain crap, to put it bluntly.
    We are heading towards a two class system, the rich and the poor. We will I suspect become more like a Banana republic.

    Everyone I know is scared and struggling.

  • Mari McAvenia

    No prob, Putney. I do think another voice- Ray Kurzweil’s progressive “singularity” perspective, for example- would add some tangential optimism to the conversation.

    Always more depth in well organized triumverates than in bi-lateral, polarized discussion forums.

  • Dee

    Dear Mr. Ashbrook and Guests,
    Perhaps America needs to reach down and reach into their long forgotten resources of creativity, ingenuity,and volunteerism? By rolling up our shirt sleeves and inspiring our neighbors to do the same here and abroad, we will indeed flourish. We need to participate in civilization for it to succeed and depend less on our politicians and tax increases to solve our nations ills. It is idiocy to think we can spend our way out of economic collapse. Entitlement ends, when we look to the success of our neighbor as well as ourselves.

  • Putney Swope

    You want a glimpse into the near future read this article by Robert Scheer on TruthDig.org very telling and it is in line with my thesis that our country is run by the power brokers, in this case banks and wall street.


  • Eva

    Normally, I greatly appreciate discussions on these subjects, but I found this one thoroughly annoying.

    To hear a Brit stereotype us by saying “Americans are allergic to socialism” was infuriating to me. To paint us with such a broad brush is plain stupid.

    I and most people I know are allergic to the idiotic system we have in the US (e.g., privatizing banks’ profits, and then rescuing them by socializing the losses). I’d go for a more or less socialistic system in a heart-beat — it cannot be worse than what we have now.

    Capitalism will self-destruct. It’s only a matter of time. Banking SHOULD be nationalized. Government-run banks could create profits that would pay for government/social programs — thus vastly reducing or even eliminating taxation of private citizens.

  • Jeanne Leamy

    What would happen if the news media for one day say 90% are employed, the economy is on its way up, all will be well. We can do it.

  • http://findingourdream.blogspot.com Hal Horvath

    Eva, interesting idea to use profits from loans to help fund government. Worth looking into I think. At the moment one form that could take is simply to give taxpayers more “equity” (aka “upside”,”investment ownership”, “return”, “stock”, etc.) in return for all their hundreds of billions of dollars sent to banks. It’s so ironic that getting ownership stakes in proportion to capital investment is now “socialism”. Normally that kind of exchange is labeled “investment”.

    It says something about politics, clever language and the big profits bank investors can gain at public expense if taxpayer money is partly made into a wealth transfer from taxpayers to bank investors without much “upside” in return (which is factually where we are at the moment).

  • Ellen Dibble

    A big wild card is the baby boomer generation. I heard that we ran away from serving in Vietnam and then lived on credit cards, suckers to the banks’ blandishments. Now the nation cowers in fear that in a prodigiously long dotage, given health care that prolongs, prolongs, at great cost, with lawyers like vampires on all sides — no wonder Gen X thinks their parents have doomed them and the country. Between Social Security and Medicare, even without the wars in Af-Pak (and Iraq) and the bsnking and stimulus costs, we will all be eating rice and beans for eternity.
    One thing, though. We don’t know what the baby boomers will do. What will AARP do? Maybe they will weigh in in favor of a viable future. Maybe oldsters will not want to be alive past a self-determined degree of utility. Maybe oldsters will find a way to constructively pair up in the work force with the next generation. Maybe oldsters will find a way to become an “army” of education aides, mentors, guides, such that their worth is more than their cost. Maybe they will face up to that, welcome that. I know the laws need a lot of shaking up to accommodate that. Hopefully the legislature will be up to it.
    It’s quite different from the golf course scenario, the front porch swing scenario, but life span is longer, extended well-being is real.

  • http://findingourdream.blogspot.com Hal Horvath

    Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has pointed out several times that the one nation in the world that is most able to recover independently of all other nations is America, due to it’s vast internal markets (wealth, resources, consumers, range of industries, ability to quickly build new factories, etc.). Other nations like China are far more dependent economically on the U.S. than the U.S. is dependent on them.

    The difference? The large internal demand — in the U.S. a business can sell it’s products better than in any other nation.

    Instead of being in the position of weakness, the U.S. has a position of deeper strength.

    To prevent further erosion of manufacturing though, we should require that imports into our country are not subsidized (artificially lowered in price through such mechanisms as currency manipulation).

  • http://www.calamusbooks.com John Mitzel

    Your hour with Schama and Ferguson was one of the liveliest and best shows you have done in a long time–perfect talk radio, smart, informative, witty and a joy to listen to.
    John Mitzel

  • Putney Swope

    When Schama said that the baby boomers ran away from serving in Vietnam it was another example of Schama’s bad habit of painting everyone with one brush. I have to ask, who were those men and women who served during this time if not part of the baby boomer generation.

    I also disagree with the notion that Americans will not support or embrace socialism. Given the fact that these two are suppose to be historians they left out that during the late 19th on into the 20th centuries both the Socialist and Communist parties had large memberships, it was part of the reason from Roosevelt enacting the New Deal. He was afraid of a revolution.

  • http://findingourdream.blogspot.com/ Hal Horvath

    Kudos to Niall Ferguson for clearly pointing out the corruption of the U.S. Congress by the financial industry.

    I might have said “capture” instead of corruption, but it’s fair to call contributions followed by favoring during votes “corruption.”.

    Being plain-spoken is quite American. I think Niall is fully naturalized now.

  • Mark S.

    Putney, thanks for commenting: “When Schama said that the baby boomers ran away from serving in Vietnam it was another example of Schama’s bad habit of painting everyone with one brush. I have to ask, who were those men and women who served during this time if not part of the baby boomer generation.”

    Frankly, I feel no particular loyalty for my much-hated generation. However, there are 58,000 names on a wall in Washington, D.C. as a result of another war that we were lied into. (Please, anyone who disagrees, Google “Operation 34A” and “Gulf of Tonkin.”) Many of them were draftees. I would like to hear an apology in their memory from the vaunted speaker — when pigs fly, of course.

    Also, I am constantly amused by the sarcasm, cynicism and outright venom levied at “boomers” who might one day collect Social Security and Medicare. I, for one, have paid into SS for 35 years of my working life. For reasons I won’t go into, I don’t expect to live long enough to collect much of my fictional “trust fund.” (More fantasy, since under LBJ the SS trust fund was comingled with the general fund so that another empty suit cowboy from the odd and irrelevant land known as Texas could fund his own pet war, and it has never been set right.) However, I resent the assertion that those who have contributed to the system all our lives are somehow morally weak or suspect in expecting something back. Apparently, the social contract apparently only applies to generations that historians approve of.

    Perhaps we should open Euthanasia Centers.

  • Mark S.

    Pardon my “apparently” and “apparently” in the last sentence. When I am angry, my keyboarding sometimes goes awry. And that smarmy S.O.B. (not you, Putney, the guest historian) made me angry.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I have been forking out 15.3% right off the top for FICA (Social Security) for a long time too, and screen primary care doctors partly by their acceptance of death.
    But I think the boomer generation has another “act” to its drama. When we were younger, campuses hugely assisted organization. There were huge issues as well, and enough of learned how to make a splash. The direction of the “Titanic” did indeed shift.
    Now, there are enough of us to be quite effectively if we could recoordinate.
    But how? Do we want to upstage another generation’s season in the sun? Yes, because our very bulk means it is our weight that is at issue.
    Is there a way to unify? We were never unified. Flower power and drugs were not universal. I felt high as a kite all the time without any extra oomph. Anti-war was more than a national “conversation”; it was downright venomous. And civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, on and on, people who now wear crisp suits, ties, smart pumps that seem to say “status quo, please” were calling with every fiber for change. I think the boomer generation should return to its “calling,” and take the lead again. Somehow. Somewhere.

  • Lilya Lopekha

    We have to get rid of Airport Security checks.

    We cannot be an efficient economy mastering in science and productivity, while we are aimlessly removing our shoes and belts at airports.

    Whatever it takes; get remove the subject of “security” out of our top 10 lists.

    Give the people who hate us whatever they want, at any expense so that we can get on withour peaceful lives.

    The problem is that we never ask them what they want.

  • Putney Swope

    We have to get rid of Airport Security checks.

    We cannot be an efficient economy mastering in science and productivity, while we are aimlessly removing our shoes and belts at airports.

    Whatever it takes; get remove the subject of “security” out of our top 10 lists.

    Give the people who hate us whatever they want, at any expense so that we can get on withour peaceful lives.

    The problem is that we never ask them what they want.

    What do “they” want. Who are the “they”? The Taliban? Your friends in Hamas? Who? What if they don’t want anything. What if they are against modernity. which is the root of a lot of the issues between fundamentalist groups such as the Taliban. The bit about airport security is so off the wall, as if the time it takes to get on a airplane really has any baring on our GDP.

    Getting back to the baby boomer thing, I too have wondered why there is so much hostility towards this group. As Mark S. has pointed out most of the boomers have been paying in as long as their parents did. So what’s the issue? They paid in, the idea for SS is that you get it back. Medicare is going broke due to mismanagement. We just shelled out billions to the banks, and for what?

  • Frederic C.

    America’s best defense and best way forward is through spending less on military hardware and more on teachers.

  • David Powell, Educator

    Intelligent, incisive, thorough, and timely public reasoning. Your program is why I support my three NPR stations. Thank you.

  • Ben F.

    This was a great program; and well hosted. I prefer fast-paced and good-natured intellectual exchange over pedantic, antagonistic posturing. These guys don’t take themselves too seriously. Great pick!

  • Ed Helmrich

    Two genuises, what a delight. In the 1800s the U.S. faced slavery, and it had to end it to remain a nation. Today the issue is abortion and the other life issues. We have to end it to remain a nation. How can we dismember, decapitate, and burn alive 4,000 human beings a day and hope to survive?

    Also, if it hadn’t been for abortion, we would have enough people to pay into Social Security and Medicare, as well.

  • gina

    “… if it hadn’t been for abortion, we would have enough people to pay into Social Security and Medicare”

    ed, your one-note song about abortion in response to every topic is getting to be repetitive – and tiresome.

    [btw, countries w/ lower abortion rates are also struggling w/ the issue of funding their elders' retirement and healthcare.]

  • http://None Dana Franchitto

    Ummmm.. could we pease be spared the use of such trite terms as “baby boomer’ and “Gen. X” THese are mind;ess amrketing terms that really say nothing about anybody. Let’s please keep the discourse intelligent.

  • Martin (P.) S(erna)

    The outsider perspective is the most valuable cognitive ability in the world.
    Niall, in the California of the 1930s the only reason business, capital, won over socialism is because of dirty tactics. Such an obvious ommission on you part. Also, it was the Americans who STOLED from England the technology to begin the industrial revolution in America. Kind of like Abigal Adams saying that no good would come from a place like this when the White House is being built by half-starved uneducated negeros. Also, Google being in large aspect foreign is EXTREMELY important. Also, I say because I was born on the bottom of the pyramid, I have found it impossible to move up. I dislike Jack Kaurac. I have not read very much of his work, admittedly, just about his work. He is everything that is wrong with America in terms of entitlement and sheer arrogance.
    Simon, I hate Google. They are already taking over the world because Americans are so in love with anything-goes in science and technology, that the Americans let them.
    Saad in L.A. was facilely dismissed by Simon because Simon is in the bubble of NYC and not in L.A..In southern California in particular radical ideologies florish.
    I think Fredrick C., on May 21st, 2009 at 8:52am EDT is crazy, but I agree with his post on May 21st, 2009 at 10:05pm EDT. What is the pix, Fred?
    I agree with the last two paragraphs of Putney Swope on May 21st, 2009 at 10:55am EDT.
    I agree with Ellen Dibble, on May 21st, 2009 at 12:42pm EDT but not on May 21st, 2009 at 6:17pm EDT. “Somehow somwhere” comes from the music from West Side Story. What is the imperative is to marry and have chidren with someone of another race as yourself so that racism becomes the past.
    Capitalism does not always mean Democracy and vice-versa.
    Ray Kurzweil has a negative and pessimistic view of the human potential with his proto-human ideas because he did not learn anything from the Jewish experience in World War II.

  • Ellen Dibble

    To Martin’s comment about ending racism by miscegenation, if he lived where I do, he would think that is well under way. I live near a huge state university and I get around by bus, which serves lots of college students. It seems to be post-racial. Plenty of people are sort of like Tiger Woods, apparently globally blended. Their particular blend of race is like their face, quite individual. And these individuals get on the bus and sit on the bus in groups that are sometimes more one color than another, but most often totally mixed.
    Am I saying universities are doing this? Maybe.

  • wade

    Our founding fathers are rolling over in their graves! America as they knew it has turn into Amiracle as I know it. Two brits giving us their versions on how we will succeed or fail,that in itself is quite funny! Americans who truly love this country with all her flaws will rise to the momment….they always have! I remember the dark day of November,when an American president was shot and killed. I remember the riots,protest,and chaos in this country. I remember Viet Nam a war my brothers fought but were chastised when they came home to ungrateful nation! We are not a nation without problems,but I’ll be damn if I would live anywhere else!We have evolved and will continue as long as we learn and build our mistakes.United we stand divided we fall is a truism we should not forget!

  • Jonathan

    This was a great discussion. Schama is a bit naive and overly sentimental. His personal background tends to permeate his historical angle with lots of colorful symbols and cliches. Ferguson is the man more on and to the point in this discussion. I wanted another hour. You should have these guys back.

  • Alyssa

    I just listened to this program via podcast (a feature that I love) and wanted to mention how much I enjoyed the discussion. I much prefer guests who do not take themselves too seriously and can articulate differing viewpoints without resorting to nastiness. I also like it when there are only two guests rather than three. Generally, with three guests the programs feel rushed. Please consider having these gentlemen on together again.

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