Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Niall Ferguson's faux-pas

Jonah Goldberg on economist Niall Ferguson's recent assertion that John Maynard Keynes' homosexuality may have had something to do with his economic theory:

At an investment conference last week, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson created a huge mess for himself. He glibly speculated that maybe because economist John Maynard Keynes was a childless, “effete” homosexual, he embraced a doctrine that favored immediate economic gratification. Keynes’s bon mot “in the long run, we are all dead” takes on new meaning when you realize he didn’t have kids to worry about. 
Following the usual script, but at a much faster clip, an uproar ensued on Twitter and on various blogs. Ferguson quickly offered an apology that rivaled John Cleese’s in A Fish Called Wanda in its abjectness. It was all over before the mob could get their pots of oil to full boil. 
Part of Ferguson’s bad luck was to recycle an ancient jibe that many people were too ignorant to know was old hat. Polite people didn’t refer to homosexuality much in public until relatively recently, so the barbs were usually aimed at Keynes’s childlessness. For instance, legendary economist Joseph Schumpeter wrote that Keynes “was childless and his philosophy of life was essentially a short-run philosophy.”

I'm no fan of Keynesian economic theory-- it seems to me to be a short-sighted empowerment of government and elites, and very dangerous in the long run.  Milton Friedman makes more sense. But I do believe that it is unwise to put too much stock in the influence of a man's personal life on his professional opinions. Individual people are complex, and often defy cursory analysis.

That said, I believe that it is important to understand that the predilections of large groups of individuals can have a lot to do with social and political policy advocated by those groups. Politically, men are different from women, as a group, and the rich are different from the poor, Christians from atheists, Americans from Saudis, etc.

Homosexuality entails some quite specific consequences. Biases, you might say. Passionate concern for one's own fecundity and biological posterity is not one of them.

Ferguson's points are important to consider, even if they're a bit overdrawn. Thoughtfully reflecting on the large-scale consequences of the biases that homosexuality (and heterosexuality) impose on public policy is perfectly appropriate, and wise, especially if you have tenure. 


  1. Ferguson's points are important to consider, even if they're a bit overdrawn. Thoughtfully reflecting on the large-scale consequences of the biases that homosexuality (and heterosexuality) impose on public policy is perfectly appropriate, and wise, especially if you have tenure.

    Oh, that's an interesting thought. Let me develop it a bit. We should also apply it to women and ethnic minorities. They could be biased, you know. Especially if they have tenure.


    1. @Hoo:

      Do you have a point to make that isn't just idiot babble?

    2. I am merely developing your idea to its logical conclusion. If gay faculty deserve extra scrutiny, why not other groups?


    3. All ideas are on the table. Scrutiny of every group-- gay, hetero, bestial, whatever.

      The problem isn't the scrutiny, which is valid. The problem is censorship of scrutiny for ideological reasons, or the use of selective scrutiny.

  2. And I am not even talkin' about dem furriners...


  3. When it comes to philosophy, politics and economics, I can see his point. But, when it comes to tenure I think it is attacking it from the wrong end (no pun intended). Many young professors and teachers are also childless. The real issue is the reverence that people hold for those with tenure. Twenty minutes of observation in a staff room would cure most of that. Perhaps the real solution is to explain to children and older students that their teachers and profs, while they should be respected, do not need to be worshipped as some sort of idol. That these folks are just people with all the flaws and biases that any human being holds. That these academics with a mission should not be taken too seriously, and that their biases should be made self evident.
    Not sure how that could effectively be related. But there you have it...
    My two pennies.

  4. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyJune 5, 2013 at 9:04 AM

    Correct me if I'm wrong, please, but isn't the belief that different ethnic groups, races, and the supposed "rainbow" of "genders" have different perspectives and views on matters political and scientific one of the very foundation issues in the "diversity" movement?

    For example, standpoint theory is used to justify the supposed benefits of encouraging greater diversity. According to Wiki, "[S]tandpoint theory's most important concept is that an individual's own perspectives are shaped by his or her experiences in social locations and social groups."

    This necessarily implies that women, men, gays, lesbians, Hispanics, blacks, whites, Native Americans, etc., etc. all have different standpoints. If one is a bigot, one can (like hoo) call these different standpoints "biases" but that is nothing more than a white male hegemonic description that will serve only to marginalize the standpoints of The Other even further.

    Feminist standpoint theorists such as Dorothy Smith, Patricia Hill Collins, Nancy Hartsock, and Sandra Harding claimed that certain socio-political positions occupied by women (and by extension other groups who lack social and economic privilege) can become sites of epistemic privilege...
    --- Wikipedia

    So I'm having difficulty understanding why it is somehow "bad" that Ferguson actually noticed that Keynes' gender identification would inform his views on economics.

    1. Actually, I wonder if it wasn't more likely that it was the Great Depression that informed Keynes' views on economics. Governments deliberately attempting to stimulate the economy by printing money and reducing interest rates during downturns, and the reverse during booms. The opposite of what households and private businesses do. And also the opposite of what classical economists would advise and governments attempted during the early years of the depression.

      David Cameron in 2010 did what Romney wanted to do. Cut government spending to reduce the state deficit (precisely the opposite of what Keynes would have advised). And got a worsening double dip recession and an increasing deficit.

    2. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyJune 5, 2013 at 10:26 AM

      backwash, it is necessary, but not sufficient, to reduce government debt. It is also necessary to reduce government regulation, since nearly every single regulation is specifically designed to inhibit or increase the cost of business activity in some way. And it is necessary to reduce policy uncertainty, because business spending simply will not occur in an environment of extreme uncertainty about the future cost of some activity.

      The US, the UK, and the EU are all suffering from that disease. "Austerity" alone will not cure it.

      And, in fact, your own Julia Gullitard is in trouble for the economy's Swan dive. If I lived in New Gondwanaland, I'd throw a sandwich at her.