Niall Ferguson, a professor of history at Harvard University, has apologized for his recent remarks to 500 financial advisers and investors gathered at a conference in California. Mr. Ferguson had offered what one would most charitably call a deliberate misreading of John Maynard Keynes’s famous quote, “In the long run, we are all dead.”
Linking Keynes’s philosophy to his homosexuality and his marriage to a ballerina with whom he likely talked of poetry – the union produced no children – Mr. Ferguson claimed the economist had no stake in mankind’s future.
In fact, the quote is part of a plea for more accurate short-term economic forecasting, not the first line of a gay anthem. Mr. Ferguson might as well have said Keynesian economics would be best expressed with a disco hit: It’s Raining, Spend.
Possibly Mr. Ferguson – whose past forecasts include a Mitt Romney presidency, double-digit inflation in 2011 and a Greek-style economic collapse in America in 2012 – is sensitive on the subject of useful predictions. But whatever the inspiration for his remarks, they drew swift condemnation from many respected writers and economists.
Mr. Ferguson then said that he was sorry, and wrote, “My disagreements with Keynes’s economic philosophy have never had anything to do with his sexual orientation.” Yet he offered no explanation as to why he had suddenly and uncharacteristically, as he claimed, said that gay or childless people are incapable of long-term, altruistic thinking.
“John Maynard Keynes didn’t care about people because he was gay as a pixie,” which is pretty much what Mr. Ferguson said, is an unlikely malapropism. And according to Cambridge economist Michael Kitson and others, Mr. Ferguson has said the same before.
Certainly his written work suggests a preoccupation with Keynes’s sexuality: He once wrote, “The war itself made Keynes deeply unhappy … perhaps because the boys he liked to pick up in London all joined up,” as if the rest of the Bloomsbury group, of which Mr. Keynes was a part, or indeed Europe in general, was loving the First World War to bits.
“The strong attraction he felt for the German banker Carl Melchior undoubtedly played a part in shaping Keynes’s views on the Treaty of Versailles and its aftermath,” Mr. Ferguson also wrote, ascribing the kind of miraculous powers to homosexual attraction that only apparently straight men ascribe. In her book Paris, 1919, historian Margaret MacMillan calls Keynes’s remarks about love for the Hamburg banker “a rhetorical flourish for old friends who knew his complicated sexual past.”
This was “a time in Keynes’s life of considerable homosexual activity,” Mr. Ferguson notes excitedly – on the grounds that from 1911 to 1915, Keynes had an average of 6.3 partners a year. Apart from any debate regarding the quality of the rest of his scholarship, this should raise questions about Mr. Ferguson’s understanding of the word “considerable.”
My father, an economist (a man’s man, father of four, for those keeping score, Niall), sighed when he heard Mr. Ferguson’s remarks. “He’s wrong,” he said. “Economists are mostly asexual. A bigger bunch of fence-sitters you’ll never meet in your life. You can’t get them to take a position on anything. Or anyone,” he added – somewhat echoing, less poetically (four children!), Keynes’s original remarks on amorphous prognostication.
Still, we could take Mr. Ferguson’s apology at face value – that he wasn’t casting aspersions on Keynes because the economist was gay, but instead because he believes all economists are slaves to their varied lusts. I anticipate his next book, The Complete Over-Sexualized History of Economics, a work in which we learn Adam Smith’s pioneering text was originally entitled An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations and What You’re Doing For Dinner Tonight, Lassie.
Thomas Malthus basically made a career out of saying we’re better at sex than farming. Anyone who doubts this philosophy was sexually motivated should ask themselves how many people they’ve gone home with who made the opposite case.
Maybe Friedrich Engels said to Karl Marx, lounging on the balcony, “How goes your plan to land us some proletariat lovin’?”
“Whoa, I’d like to seize her means of production,” Marx interrupted.
I predict this book will be a bestseller, unless Mr. Ferguson predicts likewise.