In a speech last weekend, famed historian and blowhard Niall Ferguson assailed Keynesian economics, and Keynes himself. The speech was characteristically Fergusonian in the way it piled misconception upon misconception like a freeway crash. He began with a complete misreading of Keynes’s famous quote that “in the long run, we are all dead” — which is not intended to disparage valuing the future — and added that Keynes supposedly didn’t care about the future because he was gay.
Ferguson quickly and thoroughly apologized, insisting, “My disagreements with Keynes’s economic philosophy have never had anything to do with his sexual orientation.” But, as Brad DeLong discovered, that isn’t true. In 1995, Ferguson wrote a long and deeply weird article for the Spectator assailing Keynes’s view on the Treaty of Versailles. In 1919, Keynes assailed the Treaty and issued what was long considered one of the most prescient critiques ever made:
If we aim at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare say, will not limp. Nothing can then delay for very long the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution, before which the horrors of the later German war will fade into nothing, and which will destroy, whoever is victor, the civilisation and the progress of our generation
In his Spectator article, Ferguson insisted that Keynes was entirely wrong about this. (That’s a controversial but not entirely unique view — reparations did not directly ruin Germany’s economy because they were mostly not paid, but the reaction against them did indeed dominate Germany’s politics and orient it toward vengeance.) The controversial thing is that Ferguson argued that Keynes only argued against the Treaty because he was gay for Germany. Literally! To wit:
It is not too much to infer from these emotive phrases some kind of sexual attraction. After all, this was a time in Keynes’s life of considerable homosexual activity: a bizarrely meticulous list of sexual encounters from 1915 suggests that he had at least eight male partners in 1911 (including ‘lift boy of Vauxhall’), four in 1912, nine in 1913, five in 1914, and seven in 1915….
Granted, there is no evidence that this love was in any physical sense consummated; and it seems highly unlikely from what we know of the straitlaced (albeit unmarried) Melchior that it could have been. The most that happened, according to Keynes, was that they ‘pressed hands’ after one early tete-a-tete; had a econ demoting a deux in a rather shabby bedroom; and were able on a later occasion to ‘lunch together openly, like any other couple.’
Yet there is no question that the attraction Keynes felt for him strongly influenced his judgment…
Ferguson, you may note, wrote a splashy Newsweek cover making the case against Barack Obama that was filled from beginning to end with falsehoods and intellectual sleights of hand. The Newsweek episode was interesting in that it highlighted Ferguson’s place in the political culture — a debonair, erudite, witty buffoon expounding a moral worldview with deep attraction to business elites. Ferguson views debt as a moral issue, and thus despises Keynes, and Obama, for treating it as a macroeconomic tool rather than a symbol of virtue. There is always a place for superstition-riddled fulminations against immoral debt. But there isn’t much of a place anymore for such fulminations served with a side of gay-bashing. (Or, at least, that place is grubbier and less renumerative than the cushy gigs Ferguson has grown accustomed to enjoying.) The task for Ferguson going forward will be to suture off the latter while clinging to the former.
Update: Ferguson writes an open letter in the Harvard Crimson apologizing. Or, depending on how generously you read it, “apologizing.” Along with his apologies he mixes in a healthy dose of P.C. victimization. Sample:
To be accused of prejudice is one of the occupational hazards of public life nowadays. There are a remarkable number of people who appear to make a living from pouncing on any utterance that can be construed as evidence of bigotry. Only last year, though not for the first time, I found myself being accused of racism for venturing to criticize President Obama. This came as a surprise to my wife, who was born in Somalia.
The charge of homophobia is equally easy to refute. If I really were a “gay-basher”, as some headline writers so crassly suggested, why would I have asked Andrew Sullivan, of all people, to be the godfather of one of my sons, or to give one of the readings at my wedding?