Monday, May 06, 2013

Niall Ferguson is still a bigoted, pseudo-intellectual windbag

Those of us who hoped my intense scolding of Niall Ferguson last year had a suitably improving and chastening effect were no doubt disappointed this past weekend by the news that the Not-So-Good Professor has made some homophobic remarks about John Maynard Keynes. At the annual Altegris Conference, a forum with several hundred financiers and financial counselors – presumably well-to-do, presumably not terribly liberal – Niall-o took Keynes's famous remark “In the long run we are all dead” to mean that the economist was uninterested in the fate of posterity, and made the off-the-cuff remark that of course one would not have expected a gay man without children to be concerned with the long term. In the same talk, Ferguson further intimated that Keynes was a swishy girly-man by remarking that Keynes and his wife preferred discussing poetry to having sex. Several people at the forum took sufficient offense with Ferg's remarks to leak them to the press, and Senor Bonehead, realizing that there might be wealthy and powerful people in the world who were also gay, quickly apologized.

This doesn't sound like the kind of episode on which one ought to dwell, except that the Sexiest Scotsman's remarks are typical of the kind of carelessness and general intellectual slovenliness that characterizes his recent articles and his recent book, Civilization (which, my readers will recall, I reviewed at some length). Ferguson deliberately took Keynes's famous quote out of context to imply that Keynes was uninterested in the long-term impact of his fiscal policies (e.g. running a deficit to fight unemployment). As Paul Krugman, one of the leading neo-Keynesians, recently observed, what Keynes actually said was: “This long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.” Keynes's point, or one of his points, was that simply waiting for a depressed economy to regain its pre-depression equilibrium was a rotten policy for the immediate term, and that economists needed also to focus on relief in the short term if they wanted to have any useful impact on government policy. To put it another way: it may be irresponsible for governments to saddle young people with heavy long-term public debts, but it is even more irresponsible to saddle them with years of unemployment – and unpayable student-loan debts – that permanently depress their earnings (and the government's future income-tax revenues) in the same term. In his apology, Ferguson did not suggest that he understood what Keynes was actually trying to say.
Niall-o also acknowledged in his apology that Keynes, despite his homosexuality, was also married and may have been trying to have children (his wife had a miscarriage), so his observations about Keynes's childlessness were somewhat inaccurate. I think this is rather beside the point, as sexual orientation, child-rearing, and other aspects of one's personal life have little impact on the quality of one's ideas, unless one's ideas primarily relate to sexual orientation. Karl Marx had a fairly untidy personal life, but this by itself did not affect his ideas about economics and history. Hannah Arendt's youthful affair de coeur with Martin Heidegger may be interesting of itself, but I haven't seen a convincing explanation of how it shaped her powerful (if rather turgidly expressed) liberal ideology. Ferg, however, finds it difficult to acknowledge this, because like many other modern conservatives he follows Paul Johnson's assumption that an intellectual's personal life necessarily shapes his or her ideas.  (Johnson himself was, as Christopher Hitchens discovered in the 1990s, a philanderer and afficionado of spanking, but this is only relevant when one is considering that he criticized Rousseau for having the same fetish, and presented himself to both British and American conservatives as a firm opponent of adultery.)

Probably Ferg would have been better off if he had stuck to the mild defense of Keynes he made in Chapter 5 of Civilization, but I suspect he felt this would not have made him popular with a fiscally conservative audience, and so decided to take a few cheap (and dimwitted) shots in order to earn a few cheap laughs. This is one other besetting sin of the Sexiest Scotsman: a pathological need for public approval, even if one can only extract it from a particular source by lawsuit.  One might almost feel sorry for Ferguson, except that there are other people - several billion of them, in fact - far more worthy of our concern and consideration.

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