Harvard professor and prominent Daily Beast columnist Niall Ferguson is now apologizing for saying economist John Maynard Keynes' theories about surplus and deficit spending were somehow shaped by that fact that he was gay and childless. Which is great, except that it may not be that sincere. He's made the argument before.
Speaking in front of about 500 financial advisers at a conference in Carlsbad, California, Financial Adviser's Tom Kostigen reported Ferguson said Keynes was "effete" and liked reading "poetry" to his ballerina wife. He also didn't care about future members of society because he didn't have any children. And these facts, therefore, discredited his economic theories. Keynes once famously said "in the long run we are all dead," and his detractors usually point to that as evidence that he didn't care about what happens to future generations. But no one has ever tried to connect his economics to what he did socially.
We'll let Business Insider's Henry Blodget explain what, exactly, Ferguson may have been trying to argue Thursday evening before connecting Keynes' social life to his economic policies:
Professor Ferguson and other economists have been loudly and consistently warning for years that the deficit spending and debts of most developed countries will eventually end in disaster. Professor Ferguson and other "austerians" suggest that governments should immediately cut spending and balance their budgets, even if this results in a brutal short-term recession and exploding unemployment.
This "austerian" philosophy has been countered by the "Keynesian" philosophy advocated by Paul Krugman and others in which governments enact stimulus and run big deficits during weak economic periods to offset weak private-sector spending and help shore up employment, consumer spending, and social well-being until the private sector recovers. High debts and deficits are a long-term concern that needs to be addressed, Krugman says, but they do not constitute a near-term crisis that requires immense, self-inflicted, short-term pain to alleviate.
So that's the economic debate at play here. One financial theory thinks the other will end in the ruin of civilization, and vice versa. But the question quickly became about what Keynes' being gay had to do with anything. "Not only is this intellectually void, it's mad," Kostigen writes. "It is one thing to take issue with a society fuelled by self interest and one fueled by a larger ethic. But it's entirely vulgar to make this argument about sexual preference -- and to do so glibly." Unsurprisingly, Kostigen correctly guessed that the world would be outraged by Ferguson's ridiculous analysis that Keynes somehow didn't care about future generations because he was gay:
"Keynes? More like GAYnes!!" -- Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History Niall Ferguson— Josh Barro (@jbarro) May 4, 2013
I'm genuinely shocked by Niall Ferguson, which is weird, since this is entirely in character. businessinsider.com/harvard-niall-…— felix salmon (@felixsalmon) May 4, 2013
Felix Salmon also correctly pointed out this is the second time this week a Daily Beast columnist made dumb comments about gays:
This has been a great week for Daily Beast stars getting themselves into hot gay water. Maybe Howie can interview Niall tomorrow!— felix salmon (@felixsalmon) May 4, 2013
Perhaps in an effort to save his job at Harvard, or his gig with the Daily Beast, or just his professional dignity, Ferguson apologized Saturday for his "tactless" and "off the cuff" remarks. "I should not have suggested... that Keynes was indifferent to the long run because he had no children, nor that he had no children because he was gay," Ferguson wrote on his website. He called his assertion "doubly stupid" because of course people without children care about future generations and "I had forgotten that Keynes’s wife Lydia miscarried." Right, yes. That's why his remarks were dumb. Because Keynes tried to have a baby and failed. Ferguson continued:
My disagreements with Keynes’s economic philosophy have never had anything to do with his sexual orientation. It is simply false to suggest, as I did, that his approach to economic policy was inspired by any aspect of his personal life. As those who know me and my work are well aware, I detest all prejudice, sexual or otherwise.
So there you have it. Ferguson is really sorry for saying this effete little gay boy didn't know how to think about numbers and money because of all the poetry he read and the boys he kissed. Except, you know, this isn't the first time Ferguson has made this argument. It's just the first time he's made it in such a large crowd that got blogged about later. University of Cambridge economist Michael Kitson says Ferguson has made the same argument for decades now:
Niall Ferguson’s empty apology niallferguson.com/blog/an-unqual… These were not ‘off the cuff’ remarks. I heard him make the same over 20 years ago.— Michael Kitson (@MichaelKitson) May 4, 2013
So it seems this is a theory Ferguson has held for a while, that Keynes' boy-kissing affected his policy somehow. It wasn't an "off the cuff" remark he made at a conference when Ferguson thought he was just speaking to his finance bros who wouldn't mind a little joking about the gays with their theory. It's an argument he made in print and published fourteen years ago.