Niall Ferguson’s Gay Keynes Moment

Niall FergusonA funny thing happened on the way through the question and answer session of the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference in Carlsbad. Niall Ferguson claimed that John Maynard Keynes was all wrong about economics. But he said it in a most inappropriate way. Let me back up a bit, because I know most people have no context for this.

I’ve written quite a lot about Niall Ferguson. He’s a historian who has got a lot of attention over the years providing ignorant economic analysis that conservatives really want to hear. In particular, he claimed for years that hyperinflation was just around the corner. He eventually admitted that he was wrong. But since then, he’s become a standard conservative hack. In the run up to last year’s election, he wrote a highly publicized attack on Obama that that was riddled with falsehoods and was more generally just deceptive. We expect better from Harvard professors, but now that Ferguson is getting $50,000 a pop for speeches to the 1%, that is who he represents.

Needless to say, Ferguson believes that all we have to do is cut government spending to the bone and it will be Morning in America. I’m not going to go into all that is wrong with this; I’ve written enough about it elsewhere on this site. The main thing to understand is that Ferguson (like most conservatives) simply believes in cutting the government and so he disregards Keynes. He has no cogent arguments against Keynes.

So he took on one of Keynes’ most quotable lines, “Long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.” Keynes was attacking economists of the time whose only advice about the Depression was that, “In the long run it will be okay.” Tom Kostigen reported that Ferguson said that while we might not be alive, our children and grandchildren would be. This, of course, totally misses the point Keynes was making. But it got worse. He said that Keynes didn’t care about future generations. Because he didn’t have children. Because he was gay.

The only part of that which is true is that he didn’t have children. His wife did suffer a spontaneous abortion, however. Regardless, Ferguson is not an idiot. He quickly put out an unqualified apology. I don’t particularly care one way or another. On the one hand, I know what it is like to get excited and say something that I don’t mean. On the other, I know that Ferguson is an elitist and that is its own kind of bigotry.

What I think is important here is how a supposedly serious academic stoops to character assassination rather than argument. And that is typical of the conservative economic movement. I understand that we all have our list of thinkers who we trust. I am inclined to believe something that Paul Krugman says and inclined to be skeptical about something Ferguson says. But that doesn’t mean I stop thinking: sometimes I disagree with Krugman; sometimes I agree with Ferguson. Ferguson admitted defeat on the inflation argument he was having with Krugman. But that didn’t cause any rethinking of his economic model. And that was because he doesn’t have an economic model. Like most conservatives, he has certain ideas about how society should be run, and he shoehorns all economic information into that.

And that is the lesson of Ferguson’s “Gay Keynes” moment.

Update (6 May 2013 9:21)

According to various sources, Keynes was gay. So I was wrong about that, not that it matters. However, it is generally true that any homosexual behavior tends to cause someone to be labeled as strictly homosexual. Human sexuality is far more complex than that. As Woof says in Hair, “Well, I wouldn’t kick Mick Jagger out of my bed, but uh, I’m not a homosexual, no.”

Getting Soft with Bartolomeo Cristofori

Bartolomeo CristoforiOn this day back in 1852, the model for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice Liddell was born. And Audrey Hepburn was born in 1929.

Criminal or glorious leader (I tend to think the two are the same), Hosni Mubarak is 85 today. Jazz bassist Ron Carter and surf guitarist Dick Dale are both 76. Climate change denier George Will is 72. Star of The Visitor Richard Jenkins is 66. And Will Arnett is 43.

But the day belongs to Bartolomeo Cristofori, who was born in 1655. I know: you have never heard of him. Perhaps you are aware of Bartolomeo Beretta, the gun manufacturer. Or Bartolomeo Bosco, the great magician. Or one of the many painters. Bartolomeo is a common name! Our Bartolomeo is the musical instrument maker who invented the piano. Please forgive me while I explain why this matters.

Before the piano, there were mainly two kinds of keyboard instruments. Everyone knows the harpsichord. It has a very distinctive sound that is good for accompaniment of other instruments. But it is much harder to play expressively because of the nature of its mechanism: strings are plucked. As a result of this, there is more resistance when you hit a key. It lacks control. Here is a nice bit of harpsichord using a bit of Domenico Scarlatti. Note the lack of expression, even though it is played by a master:

The second instrument is the clavichord. It is more like the piano in that the strings are stuck. The problem is that unlike a piano, the striking mechanism stays in contact with the strings. So while the clavichord is perhaps as expressive as the piano, it is not loud enough for a large audience. Here is an excellent example of the attributes of the clavichord using a little Bach. Note the dynamic range:

So what Cristofori discovered was a way to hit the strings and then release. If you’ve ever looking into a piano while it was playing, you will see that the hammers act very much like someone playing a xylophone. Of course, it took many improvements after Cristofori to make the piano a truly useful instrument. But he did create what we would recognize as a piano today. And just listen to this performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 with all baroque instruments:

And it is all thanks for Cristofori.

Happy birthday Bartolomeo Cristofori!


I’m still very sick. I will try to write more, but it is hard to concentrate.