Writing for Esquire, Stephen Marche writes about The real problem with Niall Ferguson’s letter to the 1%, which amounts to “paid speaking gigs.” Here’s the money quote:

Ferguson’s critics have simply misunderstood for whom Ferguson was writing that piece. They imagine that he is working as a professor or as a journalist, and that his standards slipped below those of academia or the media. Neither is right. Look at his speaking agent’s Web site. The fee: 50 to 75 grand per appearance. That number means that the entire economics of Ferguson’s writing career, and many other writing careers, has been permanently altered. Nonfiction writers can and do make vastly more, and more easily, than they could ever make any other way, including by writing bestselling books or being a Harvard professor. Articles and ideas are only as good as the fees you can get for talking about them. They are merely billboards for the messengers.

It’s terrifyingly true, but it’s even worse than that. It’s not just that “everything is a flyer for the show,” but that the flyer is designed to produce the greatest number and highest fee for the show. Ideas are created not to be right or even interesting, but just to fit into the greatest number of possible “inspirational” keynotes meant to produce a dull hum tinged with just enough tingle.

The worst part: it’s actually easier to craft thoughts in this shape (if you can stomach it) than it is to do the real work of crafting sophisticated new ideas—to do “innovation,” to crib a popular speaking keyword. Don’t believe me? Here’s a general purpose keynote speech or TED talk filled with nonsense I whipped up in fifteen minutes.

I’m here to talk to you about the biggest challenge facing upper-class Western society: ideas, and how to understand them. What is an idea? What do ideas do? Scientists have shown that hearing words makes you hear ideas. And ideas are what make us human—we’ve learned so much from neuroscience, and we’re learning more all the time. That’s why I’ve devoted the last twenty years to paid ideation, and why I couldn’t go any longer without sharing these important ideas with all of you.

Imagine an idea. Where does it live? Not in your head, but in my pocket. In my bank account. My bank account likes ideas. It’s a sponge for ideas, much like the human brain. A bank account is really just a human brain. In other words, banks are a kind of cognition, and banking is a kind of neuroscience.

When we begin to see the world like this, thought as a kind of banking, so much makes sense. Ideas can “have currency.” Ideas can “circulate.” See what I mean? Thought is just nature’s way of banking. It just took us humans to come along and establish the formal structures we call “banks” to help increase the flow of ideas, to help them circulate. What is money, after all, but latent ideas?

Think of it like this: banks are like aerobics for ideas. Like ideas gone jogging. Who in the room jogs? Good, most of you. Jogging increases your heart rate, improves your circulation, hones your body. Well, banks do the same for your mind.

But banking isn’t just one body, it’s an interconnected body. A network of bodies, except the bodies store money, that is to say, ideas. It’s a whole banking system—a network of networks, circulating money-slash-ideas through all of society, through every culture like a giant brain. It’s the best brain we’ve yet invented, really, and it’s getting even better all the time.

The world is ready for this. You are ready for this: when you think, it’s the same as spending, or earning, or even using credit. Our banks and our minds are one, and the best banks are going to be the best minds.

There’s a lot of talk about corporations these days. Corporations are people, or corporations are evil—whew! it’s a lot to process. I’m going to be honest with you, I used to worry about this a lot. But then I started thinking about it differently: what makes a person or a cat or a dolphin alive? A brain, of course. Thought. Well, when you realize that banks are really not that different from brains, and that corporations are really just a special kind of bank that accidentally produces products or services, then you realize—wow!—how much longer can I ignore these beautiful creatures?

That’s why I’m on a kind of crusade. I know that might sound silly, but I’m serious about it. You’ve heard of animal rescue, it’s time for bank rescue. If banks hold money and money is just ideas, then all those beautiful brains, all part of one big organism, they need our help too. They need our love and care, just like a puppy or a kitten.

Thanks so much for your attention. I hope you enjoyed hearing about these new ideas as much as you enjoyed paying for them. I know I’ve enjoyed every penny!

After you conclude that it’s hair-brained drivel that barely makes sense even as parody, ask yourself: in your mind’s eye, can’t you also see a strapping gentleman in rolled-up shirtsleeves with a slide remote spouting something like this on a darkened stage?

published August 22, 2012


  1. Carolyn Thomas

    Wow…. I think I’d like to hire you for my next conference keynote . . .

  2. Will Hankinson

    So Niall Ferguson is Zynga (giving the masses what they want, but hoping for a whale to come along) and you’re the struggling indie (writing for the purity of expression)?

    Sounds like a familiar debate.

  3. Alex Feigenbaum

    Reggie Watts actually did something very similar to this in his TED talk:


    His success goes along with the idea floating around on twitter today that BS is much easier to detect in writing than in speech. His eccentric appearance adds to the mystique too.

  4. Ian Bogost

    I’d seen Reggie Watts’s 2011 PopTech talk (along the same lines), but not this one, so thanks for linking it! He’s hilarious.

  5. Chipper

    Interesting timing. The web comic “Sheldon” is currently also poking at TED. http://www.sheldoncomics.com/archive/120821.html