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Senescent leaders. A government spending more on debt than defense. A bogus ideology. Sound familiar? Read Niall Ferguson's first column for The Free Press.
Smolensky Street shoppers, including two Soviet Army soldiers lining up at a liquor store counter waiting to buy vodka, on November 16, 1991. (Sergei Guneyev via Getty Images)

Niall Ferguson: We’re All Soviets Now

A government with a permanent deficit and a bloated military. A bogus ideology pushed by elites. Poor health among ordinary people. Senescent leaders. Sound familiar?

Bari here.

In the early days of The Free Press, I put together a fantasy roster. Niall Ferguson was at the top of it. Today, I am thrilled to announce that Niall is joining The Free Press as a biweekly columnist.

Niall’s résumé is a little much. He has two degrees from Oxford and has taught there as well as at Cambridge, NYU, the London School of Economics, and Harvard. He’s now a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. 

Given the present state of many of those institutions, you might dismiss Niall as an establishment hack who shapes history to serve the acceptable narrative.

That isn’t Niall. Unlike so many of the excellent sheep that enjoy tenure in academe, Niall thinks for himself, a quality you can see on display in any one of his 16 books (and counting), including The Pity of War: Explaining World War I; Kissinger: 1923–1968: The Idealist (part one of a two-part biography); The Square and the Tower; and, most recently, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe

For this incredible body of work, King Charles just knighted Niall a few days ago.

In recent years, Niall has been one of the most thoughtful and intellectually honest voices in the cultural battle that has engulfed America’s most storied institutions—including academia. In an epochal essay he published this past December in The Free Press, “The Treason of the Intellectuals,” he argued that “American academia has gone in the opposite political direction—leftward instead of rightward—but has ended up in much the same place” as German academia pre–World War II. “The question is whether we—unlike the Germans—can do something about it.”

Niall is doing something. He is one of the founders of the new University of Austin, where I sit on the board alongside him and where, this fall, we will welcome the university’s first class. 

Oh, and did I mention that he’s married to Ayaan Hirsi Ali? In journalism we call that burying the lede.

Sir Niall’s first column is just below. —BW

The witty phrase “late Soviet America” was coined by the Princeton historian Harold James back in 2020. It has only become more apposite since then as the cold war we’re in—the second one—heats up.

I first pointed out that we’re in Cold War II back in 2018. In articles for The New York Times and National Review, I tried to show how the People’s Republic of China now occupies the space vacated by the Soviet Union when it collapsed in 1991. 

This view is less controversial now than it was then. China is clearly not only an ideological rival, firmly committed to Marxism-Leninism and one-party rule. It’s also a technological competitor—the only one the U.S. confronts in fields such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing. It’s a military rival, with a navy that is already larger than ours and a nuclear arsenal that is catching up fast. And it’s a geopolitical rival, asserting itself not only in the Indo-Pacific but also through proxies in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

But it only recently struck me that in this new Cold War, we—and not the Chinese—might be the Soviets. It’s a bit like that moment when the British comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb, playing Waffen-SS officers toward the end of World War II, ask the immortal question: “Are we the baddies?

I imagine two American sailors asking themselves one day—perhaps as their aircraft carrier is sinking beneath their feet somewhere near the Taiwan Strait: Are we the Soviets?

Yes, I know what you are going to say. 

There is a world of difference between the dysfunctional planned economy that Stalin built and bequeathed his heirs, which collapsed as soon as Mikhail Gorbachev tried to reform it, and the dynamic market economy that we Americans take pride in. 

The Soviet system squandered resources and all but guaranteed shortages of consumer goods. The Soviet healthcare system was crippled by dilapidated hospitals and chronic shortages of equipment. There was grinding poverty, hunger, and child labor. 

A drunken man lies down at the Kazansky train station buffet in Moscow on January 6, 1992. (Vitaly Armand via Getty Images)

In America today, such conditions exist only in the bottom quintile of the economic distribution—though the extent to which they do exist is truly appalling. Infant mortality in the late Soviet Union was around 25 per 1,000. The figure for the U.S. in 2021 was 5.4, but for single mothers in the Mississippi Delta or Appalachia it is 13 per 1,000. 

The comparison to the Soviet Union, you might argue, is nevertheless risible.

Take a closer look. 

A chronic “soft budget constraint” in the public sector, which was a key weakness of the Soviet system? I see a version of that in the U.S. deficits forecast by the Congressional Budget Office to exceed 5 percent of GDP for the foreseeable future, and to rise inexorably to 8.5 percent by 2054. The insertion of the central government into the investment decision-making process? I see that too, despite the hype around the Biden administration’s “industrial policy.”

Economists keep promising us a productivity miracle from information technology, most recently AI. But the annual average growth rate of productivity in the U.S. nonfarm business sector has been stuck at just 1.5 percent since 2007, only marginally better than the dismal years 1973–1980.

The U.S. economy might be the envy of the rest of the world today, but recall how American experts overrated the Soviet economy in the 1970s and 1980s.

And yet, you insist, the Soviet Union was a sick man more than it was a superpower, whereas the United States has no equal in the realm of military technology and firepower. 

Actually, no. 

We have a military that is simultaneously expensive and unequal to the tasks it confronts, as Senator Roger Wicker’s newly published report makes clear. As I read Wicker’s report—and I recommend you do the same—I kept thinking of what successive Soviet leaders said until the bitter end: that the Red Army was the biggest and therefore most lethal military in the world.

On paper, it was. But paper was what the Soviet bear turned out to be made of. It could not even win a war in Afghanistan, despite ten years of death and destruction. (Now, why does that sound familiar?)

On paper, the U.S. defense budget does indeed exceed those of all the other members of NATO put together. But what does that defense budget actually buy us? As Wicker argues, not nearly enough to contend with the “Coalition Against Democracy” that China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea have been aggressively building. 

In Wicker’s words, “America’s military has a lack of modern equipment, a paucity of training and maintenance funding, and a massive infrastructure backlog. . . . it is stretched too thin and outfitted too poorly to meet all the missions assigned to it at a reasonable level of risk. Our adversaries recognize this, and it makes them more adventurous and aggressive.”

And, as I have pointed out elsewhere, the federal government will almost certainly spend more on debt service than on defense this year. 

It gets worse. 

According to the CBO, the share of gross domestic product going on interest payments on the federal debt will be double what we spend on national security by 2041, thanks partly to the fact that the rising cost of the debt will squeeze defense spending down from 3 percent of GDP this year to a projected 2.3 percent in 30 years’ time. This decline makes no sense at a time when the threats posed by the new Chinese-led Axis are manifestly growing.

Even more striking to me are the political, social, and cultural resemblances I detect between the U.S. and the USSR. Gerontocratic leadership was one of the hallmarks of late Soviet leadership, personified by the senility of Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko. 

Visitors walk through the courtyard to visit the Winter Palace courtyard in Leningrad, now known as Saint Petersburg, in November 1983. (Mikki Ansin via Getty Images)

But by current American standards, the later Soviet leaders were not old men. Brezhnev was 75 when he died in 1982, but he had suffered his first major stroke seven years before. Andropov was only 68 when he succeeded Brezhnev, but he suffered total kidney failure just a few months after taking over. Chernenko was 72 when he came to power. He was already a hopeless invalid, suffering from emphysema, heart failure, bronchitis, pleurisy, and pneumonia.

It is a reflection of the quality of healthcare enjoyed by their American counterparts today that they are both older and healthier. Nevertheless, Joe Biden (81) and Donald Trump (78) are hardly men in the first flush of youth and vitality, as The Wall Street Journal recently made cringe-inducingly clear. The former cannot distinguish between his two Hispanic cabinet secretaries, Alejandro Mayorkas and Xavier Becerra. The latter muddles up Nikki Haley and Nancy Pelosi. If Kamala Harris has never watched The Death of Stalin, it’s not too late.

Another notable feature of late Soviet life was total public cynicism about nearly all institutions. Leon Aron’s brilliant book Roads to the Temple shows just how wretched life in the 1980s had become. 

In the great “return to truth” unleashed by Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, Soviet citizens were able to pour forth their discontents in letters to a suddenly free press. Some of what they wrote about was specific to the Soviet context—in particular, the revelations about the realities of Soviet history, especially the crimes of the Stalin era. But to reread Russians’ complaints about their lives in the 1980s is to come across more than a few eerie foreshadowings of the American present.

In a letter to Komsomolskaya Pravda from 1990, for example, a reader decried the “ghastly and tragic. . . loss of morality by a huge number of people living within the borders of the USSR.” Symptoms of moral debility included apathy and hypocrisy, cynicism, servility, and snitching. The entire country, he wrote, was suffocating in a “miasma of bare-faced and ceaseless public lies and demagoguery.” By July 1988, 44 percent of people polled by Moskovskie novosti felt that theirs was an “unjust society.”

Look at the most recent Gallup surveys of American opinion and one finds a similar disillusionment. The share of the public that has confidence in the Supreme Court, the banks, public schools, the presidency, large technology companies, and organized labor is somewhere between 25 percent and 27 percent. For newspapers, the criminal justice system, television news, big business, and Congress, it’s below 20 percent. For Congress, it’s 8 percent. Average confidence in major institutions is roughly half what it was in 1979.

A man reads the Russian newspaper Pravda, publicly displayed on the walls of a Moscow building during the Gorbachev era. (Bernard Bisson via Getty Images)

It is now well known that younger Americans are suffering an epidemic of mental ill health—blamed by Jon Haidt and others on smartphones and social media—while older Americans are succumbing to “deaths of despair,” a phrase made famous by Anne Case and Angus Deaton. And while Case and Deaton focused on the surge in deaths of despair among white, middle-aged Americans—their work became the social-science complement to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegymore recent research shows that African Americans have caught up with their white contemporaries when it comes to overdose deaths. In 2022 alone, more Americans died of fentanyl overdoses than were killed in three major wars: Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

The recent data on American mortality are shocking. Life expectancy has declined in the past decade in a way we do not see in comparable developed countries. The main explanations, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, are a striking increase in deaths due to drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, and suicide, and a rise in various diseases associated with obesity. To be precise, between 1990 and 2017 drugs and alcohol were responsible for more than 1.3 million deaths among the working-age population (aged 25 to 64). Suicide accounted for 569,099 deaths—again of working-age Americans—over the same period. Metabolic and cardiac causes of death such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and coronary heart disease also surged in tandem with obesity. 

This reversal of life expectancy simply isn’t happening in other developed countries. 

Peter Sterling and Michael L. Platt argue in a recent paper that this is because West European countries, along with the United Kingdom and Australia, do more to “provide communal assistance at every stage [of life], thus facilitating diverse paths forward and protecting individuals and families from despair.” In the United States, by contrast, “Every symptom of despair has been defined as a disorder or dysregulation within the individual. This incorrectly frames the problem, forcing individuals to grapple on their own,” they write. “It also emphasizes treatment by pharmacology, providing innumerable drugs for anxiety, depression, anger, psychosis, and obesity, plus new drugs to treat addictions to the old drugs.”

Obese? Try Ozempic.

The mass self-destruction of Americans captured in the phrase deaths of despair for years has been ringing a faint bell in my head. This week I remembered where I had seen it before: in late Soviet and post–Soviet Russia. While male life expectancy improved in all Western countries in the late twentieth century, in the Soviet Union it began to decline after 1965, rallied briefly in the mid-1980s, and then fell off a cliff in the early 1990s, slumping again after the 1998 financial crisis. The death rate among Russian men aged 35 to 44, for example, more than doubled between 1989 and 1994. 

The explanation is as clear as Stolichnaya. In July 1994, two Russian scholars, Alexander Nemtsov and Vladimir Shkolnikov, published an article in the national daily newspaper Izvestia with the memorable title “To Live or to Drink?” Nemtsov and Shkolnikov demonstrated (in the words of a recent review article) “an almost perfect negative linear relationship between these two indicators.” All they were missing was a sequel—“To Live or to Smoke?”—as lung cancer was the other big reason Soviet men died young. A culture of binge drinking and chain-smoking was facilitated by the dirt-cheap prices of cigarettes under the Soviet regime and the dirt-cheap prices of alcohol after the collapse of communism. 

The statistics are as shocking as the scenes I remember witnessing in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which made even my native Glasgow seem abstemious. An analysis of 25,000 autopsies conducted in Siberia in 1990–2004 showed that 21 percent of adult male deaths due to cardiovascular disease involved lethal or near-lethal levels of ethanol in the blood. Smoking accounted for a staggering 26 percent of all male deaths in Russia in 2001. Suicides among men aged 50 to 54 reached 140 per 100,000 population in 1994—compared with 39.2 per 100,000 for non-Hispanic American men aged 45 to 54 in 2015. In other words, Case and Deaton’s deaths of despair are a kind of pale imitation of the Russian version 20 to 40 years ago. 

The self-destruction of homo sovieticus was worse. And yet is not the resemblance to the self-destruction of homo americanus the really striking thing?

Of course, the two healthcare systems look superficially quite different. The Soviet system was just under-resourced. At the heart of the American healthcare disaster, by contrast, is a huge mismatch between expenditure—which is internationally unrivaled relative to GDP—and outcomes, which are terrible. But, like the Soviet system as a whole, the U.S. healthcare system has evolved so that a whole bunch of vested interests can extract rents. The bloated, dysfunctional bureaucracy, brilliantly parodied by South Park in a recent episode—is great for the nomenklatura, lousy for the proles.

Meanwhile, as in the late Soviet Union, the hillbillies—actually the working class and a goodly slice of the middle class, too—drink and drug themselves to death even as the political and cultural elite double down on a bizarre ideology that no one really believes in. 

Muscovites queue at a liquor store to buy wine, limited to two bottles per person, on May 29, 1990. (Janek Skarzynski via Getty Images)

In the Soviet Union, the great lies were that the Party and the state existed to serve the interests of the workers and peasants, and that the United States and its allies were imperialists little better than the Nazis had been in “the great Patriotic War.” The truth was that the nomenklatura (i.e., the elite members) of the Party had rapidly formed a new class with its own often hereditary privileges, consigning the workers and peasants to poverty and servitude, while Stalin, who had started World War II on the same side as Hitler, utterly failed to foresee the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, and then became the most brutal imperialist in his own right.

The equivalent falsehoods in late Soviet America are that the institutions controlled by the (Democratic) Party—the federal bureaucracy, the universities, the major foundations, and most of the big corporations—are devoted to advancing hitherto marginalized racial and sexual minorities, and that the principal goals of U.S. foreign policy are to combat climate change and (as Jake Sullivan puts it) to help other countries defend themselves “without sending U.S. troops to war.”

In reality, policies to promote “diversity, equity, and inclusion” do nothing to help poor minorities. Instead, the sole beneficiaries appear to be a horde of apparatchik DEI “officers.” In the meantime, these initiatives are clearly undermining educational standards, even at elite medical schools, and encouraging the mutilation of thousands of teenagers in the name of “gender-affirming surgery.”

As for the current direction of U.S. foreign policy, it is not so much to help other countries defend themselves as to egg on others to fight our adversaries as proxies without supplying them with sufficient weaponry to stand much chance of winning. This strategy—most visible in Ukraine—makes some sense for the United States, which discovered in the “global war on terror” that its much-vaunted military could not defeat even the ragtag Taliban after twenty years of effort. But believing American blandishments may ultimately doom Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan to follow South Vietnam and Afghanistan into oblivion. 

As for climate change, the world is now awash in Chinese electric vehicles, batteries, and solar cells, all mass-produced with the help of state subsidies and coal-burning power stations. At least we tried to resist the Soviet strategy of unleashing Marxism-Leninism on the Third World, the human cost of which was almost incalculable. Our policy elite’s preoccupation with climate change has resulted in utter strategic incoherence by comparison. The fact is that China has been responsible for three-quarters of the 34% increase in carbon dioxide emissions since Greta Thunberg’s birth (2003), and two-thirds of the 48% increase in coal consumption.

To see the extent of the gulf that now separates the American nomenklatura from the workers and peasants, consider the findings of a Rasmussen poll from last September, which sought to distinguish the attitudes of the Ivy Leaguers from ordinary Americans. The poll defined the former as “those having a postgraduate degree, a household income of more than $150,000 annually, living in a zip code with more than 10,000 people per square mile,” and having attended “Ivy League schools or other elite private schools, including Northwestern, Duke, Stanford, and the University of Chicago.” 

Asked if they would favor “rationing of gas, meat, and electricity” to fight climate change, 89 percent of Ivy Leaguers said yes, as against 28 percent of regular people. Asked if they would personally pay $500 more in taxes and higher costs to fight climate change, 75 percent of the Ivy Leaguers said yes, versus 25 percent of everyone else. “Teachers should decide what students are taught, as opposed to parents” was a statement with which 71 percent of the Ivy Leaguers agreed, nearly double the share of average citizens. “Does the U.S. provide too much individual freedom?” More than half of Ivy Leaguers said yes; just 15 percent of ordinary mortals did. The elite were roughly twice as fond as everyone else of members of Congress, journalists, union leaders, and lawyers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 88 percent of the Ivy Leaguers said their personal finances were improving, as opposed to one in five of the general population. 

A food shop clerk standing by empty display counters amid shortages and economic reform price hikes in political turmoil–beset Moscow, USSR. (Sergei Guneyev via Getty Images)

A bogus ideology that hardly anyone really believes in, but everyone has to parrot unless they want to be labeled dissidents—sorry, I mean deplorables? Check. A population that no longer regards patriotism, religion, having children, or community involvement as important? Check. How about a massive disaster that lays bare the utter incompetence and mendacity that pervades every level of government? For Chernobyl, read Covid. And, while I make no claims to legal expertise, I think I recognize Soviet justice when I see—in a New York courtroom—the legal system being abused in the hope not just of imprisoning but also of discrediting the leader of the political opposition.

The question that haunts me is: What if China has learned the lessons of Cold War I better than we have? I fear that Xi Jinping has not only understood that, at all costs, he must avoid the fate of his Soviet counterparts. He has also, more profoundly, understood that we can be maneuvered into being the Soviets ourselves. And what better way to achieve that than to “quarantine” an island not too far from his coastline and then defy us to send a naval expedition to run the blockade, with the obvious risk of starting World War III? The worst thing about the approaching Taiwan Semiconductor Crisis is that, compared with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the roles will be reversed. Biden or Trump gets to be Khrushchev; XJP gets to be JFK. (Just watch him prepping the narrative, telling European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that Washington is trying to goad Beijing into attacking Taiwan.)

We can tell ourselves that our many contemporary pathologies are the results of outside forces waging a multi-decade campaign of subversion. They have undoubtedly tried, just as the CIA tried its best to subvert Soviet rule in the Cold War. 

Yet we also need to contemplate the possibility that we have done this to ourselves—just as the Soviets did many of the same things to themselves. It was a common liberal worry during the Cold War that we might end up becoming as ruthless, secretive, and unaccountable as the Soviets because of the exigencies of the nuclear arms race. Little did anyone suspect that we would end up becoming as degenerate as the Soviets, and tacitly give up on winning the cold war now underway.

I still cling to the hope that we can avoid losing Cold War II—that the economic, demographic, and social pathologies that afflict all one-party communist regimes will ultimately doom Xi’s “China Dream.” But the higher the toll rises of deaths of despair—and the wider the gap grows between America’s nomenklatura and everyone else—the less confident I feel that our own homegrown pathologies will be slower-acting. 

Are we the Soviets? Look around you.

Niall Ferguson’s latest book is Doom. Follow him on X @nfergus.

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