There’s a brouhaha a-brewin’ over comments by Niall Ferguson at an investor conference. Ferguson suggested that because John Maynard Keynes was gay, effete, and childless he might have lacked concern for posterity. After all, Keynes famously proclaimed ”in the long run we’re all dead.” In a nigh-upon hysterical and terribly written item, Tom Kostigen of Financial Advisor says Ferguson took “gay-bashing to new heights.” He adds, “Apparently, in Ferguson’s world, if you are gay or childless, you cannot care about future generations nor society.”
Now, I don’t know exctly what Ferguson said, and I don’t trust Kostigen’s version of events either. There are few full quotes and virtually nothing like proper context to anything (for instance, he seems to think “effete” and “gay” are synonyms). But Ferguson has offered an abject and total apology, which I take to be sincere.
Still, I am a little surprised that so many people have never heard this idea before or that the mere mention of it is now a potential career killer (Felix Salmon of Reuters tweeted in response to Ferguson’s apology, ”It’s conceivable that Niall Ferguson managed to rescue his career with this” (emphasis mine).
I don’t endorse the theory and completely understand why it offends people. But it’s hardly as if it’s unheard-of in academia to speculate that one’s sexual orientation (or race, or gender, etc.) can influence a person’s views on public policy. Is it really nuts now to think that having kids changes a person’s time horizons?
More relevant, this theory about Keynes is hardly new. Joseph Schumpeter, I thought famously, suggested that Keynes’s childlessness was a key issue. In his obituary of Keynes, Schumpeter wrote: “He was childless and his philosophy of life was essentially a short-run philosophy.”
Even a cursory look-see in Google Books or LexisNexis shows it’s been around for a long time. Here, via Nexis, is a passage from a 1986 Harvard Business Review article by George Sim Johnston, reviewing a book by Henry Kaufman:
As I say, Dr. Kaufman counsels bond investors to forget the past. Early in the book, however, he tells us that his most strongly held views, particularly with regard to inflation, probably derive from his past, which began in the Weimar Republic. He was born just after the hyperinflation and was weaned on family stories about the overnight disappearance of life savings. Ever since, he has been wary of the state’s ability to print money.
It would be useful if more economists prefaced their works with such biographical material. As William James pointed out, analytical thinking always begins with some personal bias; scratch a mathematical model and you’ll find that its creator prefers blueberry jam to marmalade. John Maynard Keynes would have done a great service if he had begun The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money with the disclosure that he was a Bloomsbury aesthete and a practicing homosexual. He could have explained how he and friends did not believe in self-denial or consider that they had any obligation to posterity. (An historian has pointed out that Keynes’s famous remark, “In the long run we are all dead,” is easy to make if you have no children and don’t want any.) Perhaps as a result we might have lower federal deficits.
Here’s William Grieder suggesting that Keynes’s homosexuality put him at odds with “social convention” and arguing that Keynes’s economic doctrines stemmed in small part from his rejection of the Protestant ethic.
William Rees Mogg, the former editor of the Times of London went so far as to say that Keynes’s rejection of morality caused him to reject the gold standard. You can read about that in this interesting essay by Keynes’ biographer Robert Sidelsky. Sidelsky rejects the theory, but hardly out of hand. Perhaps because Keynes’ himself described the Bloomsbury mindset as a rejection of all standards:
We repudiated entirely customary morals, conventions and traditional wisdom. We were, that is to say, in the strict sense of the term, immoralists. The consequences of being found out had, of course, to be considered for what they were worth. But we recognised no moral obligation on us, or inner sanction, to conform or to obey. Before heaven we claimed to be our own judge in our own case.
Intellectual historian Gertrude Himmelfarb draws quite a few lessons from that mindset. She writes:
In fact, something of the “soul” of Bloomsbury penetrated even into Keynes’s economic theories. There is a discernible affinity between the Bloomsbury ethos, which put a premium on immediate and present satisfactions, and Keynesian economics, which is based entirely on the short run and precludes any long-term judgments. (Keynes’s famous remark. “In the long run we are all dead,” also has an obvious connection with his homosexuality — what Schumpeter delicately referred to as his “childless vision.”) The same ethos is reflected in the Keynesian doctrine that consumption rather than saving is the source of economic growth — indeed, that thrift is economically and socially harmful. In The Economic Consequences of the Peace, written long before The General Theory, Keynes ridiculed the “virtue” of saving. The capitalists, he said, deluded the working classes into thinking that their interests were best served by saving rather than consuming. This delusion was part of the age-old Puritan fallacy.
So Keynes believed that Puritan values inclined people to embrace an economic theory (capitalism), but the Ferguson episode teaches us that it is now beyond outrageous to suggest that Keynes’s rejection of Puritan values inclined him to embrace a slightly different economic theory (Keynesianism)? Got it.
What I find interesting about the Ferguson controversy is how disconnected it is from the past. Even academics I respect reacted to Ferguson’s comments as if they bordered on unimaginable, unheard-of madness. I understand that we live in a moment where any negative comment connected to homosexuality is not only wrong but “gay bashing.” But Ferguson was trafficking in an old theory that was perfectly within the bounds of intellectual discourse not very long ago. Now, because of a combination of indifference to intellectual history and politically correct piety he must don the dunce cap. Good to know.