Monday, May 3, 2010

"From the West to the rest": Niall Ferguson in Calgary

Murray Edwards, the media shy millionaire who co-owns Lake Louise and the Calgary Flames Hockey Club, and is said to have the largest individual stake in the oil sands, is a patron. So is Ron Mathison, who specializes in “corporate turnarounds” and is the CEO of Matco Investments. Together with their wives, they sat with Deborah Yedlin, the whip-smart business columnist for The Calgary Herald, and the night’s honoured speaker, at the final instalment of the Salon Speaker Series at Teatro Restaurant.

The featured guest was Niall Ferguson, Harvard historian and prolific author. He began his lecture with a fair warning.

“Some you may be thinking, with a certain dread that I am going to talk at tedious length about the global financial crises, and use words like leverage, credit default swaps, synthetic collateralized debt obligations squared,” he said, “But I’m not. It seems to me we hear all together too much about that. We’re so focused on the small print of this financial crisis. From a historian’s view, under the gaze of eternity, who really cares?”

Instead, Ferguson widened his gaze and asserted that the current financial crises (“Because it ain’t over yet,” he assured the audience) has “accelerated a fundamental shift in the global balance of economic and geo-political power from The West to The Rest” and therein lies its legacy.

Speaking for almost thirty minutes with a good dose of humour and without notes, Ferguson held court. The audience of maybe one hundred A-list mover and shakers sat in rapt attention, chuckling at his jokes and nodding at his insight. In short, Salon organizers Rudyard Griffiths, Peter White and Patrick Luciani had delivered yet another compelling speaker from among the top minds south of the border. They perform similar feats in Toronto, Montreal, and Vero Beach, Florida.

Ferguson pointed to a series of “killer applications” which allowed Western nations to dominate global affairs over the past thousand years, and conversely questioned those which now see “the rest-erners” rising in power. It was a much more succinct and engaging version of his article on the same subject in The Financial Times earlier this month.

The “killer apps” as he calls them include competition (in the form of market capitalism), the consumer society it produces, the work – and capital accumulation - ethic it demands, medicine (and its effect on life expectancy), law and property rights, and representative government.

“Experiment after experiment in the age of industrialization failed, with the sole exception of Japan,” he said, “The Japanese did something very interesting. They simply copied everything that The West did. The haircuts, the clothes, naval uniforms ... they even started to brush their teeth like us. They decided to replicate Western society, and you know what? It worked.”

The “killer apps” are no longer the monopoly of The West, he concluded, and while the rise of The Rest can largely be credited to mimicry there is one exception: China. The Chinese do not have private property rights or rule of law, he noted, and the question to his mind remains whether, despite this, they can become the largest economic and political power in the world.

The guest list reads like a who’s who of Calgary. Among those present were philanthropist Jim Palmer, partner at Burnet Duckworth Palmer LLP, former Senator and Chairman of MacLeod Dixon Dan Hays, president of Global Public Affairs Randy Pettipas, investment guru Terry Shaunessy, dean of the Haskayne School of Business at U of C Leonard Waverman, and publisher of Alberta Views magazine Jackie Flanagan.

Published in National Post, May 1 2010

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