A 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.”