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Opinion | Niall Ferguson

2018 — the year that went back in time

Emile Ratelband is not alone. The whole world appears to want to turn back the clock.Peter Dejong/AP

One highlight of 2018 was the story of the Dutchman who wanted an age change. Born on March 11, 1949, Emile Ratelband was perfectly content with that day and month. It was just the year he proposed to alter, from 1949 to 1969.

Only now, as I look back on the year as a whole, do I realize Emile is not alone. The whole world appears to want to turn back the clock.

The year 2018 will be remembered for our collective attempt to make believe that it is in fact 1973. In the United States, the administration of Donald J. Trump took several significant steps toward reenacting the Watergate scandal. Even before completing his work as special counsel, Robert Mueller was able to indict or secure guilty pleas from more than 30 people, including four of the president’s advisers and his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen.

By losing control of the House of Representatives, the Republican Party opened the path to the president’s impeachment, though the Democrats will start the ball rolling with congressional investigations. The resignation of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis last week was just the latest flashback. In the course of 1973, Richard Nixon got through four SecDefs.


Meanwhile, the government of Theresa May neared the conclusion of its nearly three-year mission to return the United Kingdom to 1973 — the year Britain lapsed from its historic greatness by joining the European Economic Community. By rejecting the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by Mrs. May, proponents of a “no deal” Brexit hope to restore per capita income to its level in that year.

In China, President Xi Jinping continued his effort to return the government of the People’s Republic to its pristine state of 45 years ago, when Chairman Mao Zedong ruled as a Red Emperor, unconstrained by term limits, the rule of law, or economic rationality.


By violating the sovereignty of neighboring Ukraine and by brazenly interfering in the 2016 presidential election in the United States, Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, has managed to get such severe sanctions imposed on his country that he may yet return Russian living standards to their 1973 level.

All over the world, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Saudi Arabia, political leaders are engaged in time travel. It is like a global race to see who can be as odiously corrupt as Mobutu Sese Seko, generally recognized as the worst kleptocrat of the 1970s, or as barbarically cruel as Idi Amin.

Of course, not everything in the Great Rewind is as easy as this. The 1970s were a time of rapidly rising inflation. The past 10 years have seen the developed world teeter on the brink of deflation. But Venezuela’s repulsive Chavista regime — for so long the toast of champagne socialists from Mayfair to Malibu — has pulled it off: According to the International Monetary Fund, inflation there will hit 1.37 million percent this year.

The biggest challenge, however, has been cultural. Just a year or two ago, it would have seemed impossible to return mankind to the customs of the early 1970s. Over 45 years, real social progress had been made in so many different ways. Women had been liberated. Men had realized how absurd they looked with long hair and beards. Disco music had largely been obliterated. Smoking had ceased to be tolerated. And of course the Internet — no more than a twinkle in the eyes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in 1973 — had transformed the world by giving a majority of humanity access to all the knowledge in the world.


Yet our genius as a species was equal to the challenge. By 2018 the Internet had become a toxic wasteland dominated by a handful of monopoly companies indiscriminately selling advertising to purveyors of clickbait. Smoking had been successfully reinvented as vaping and juuling. Music even worse than disco had been devised. (It’s true. I have listened to Drake’s “God’s Plan,” the year’s best-selling track and a wholly mind-numbing dirge.) And facial hair made a comeback (on my face, too).

But the greatest accolade goes to the #MeToo movement, which has successfully made working with women so dangerous for male executives that — according to Bloomberg— the new Wall Street rule is “Avoid Women at All Cost. . . . No more dinners with female colleagues. Don’t sit next to them on flights. Book hotel rooms on different floors. Avoid one-on-one meetings.” According to one wealth adviser, just hiring a woman these days is “an unknown risk.” Now that’s what I call turning back the clock!

It’s true that I don’t feel like I’m 9 years old, any more than Emile Ratelband would have felt 20 years younger if the Dutch courts had upheld his age change. But I don’t care. It’s 1973 again, in my mind if not my body. Thanks to #MeToo, we’re no longer allowed to listen to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” but frankly that’s a bit too retro even for me. So I’m leaving it to Noddy Holder of the English rockers Slade to say — as he did for the first time in the happy old year of 1973 — Merry Christmas, everybody!


Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.