Saturday, 4 May 2013

Niall and Will and Grace

The intellectual meltdown of the Austerians continues apace. Long-time neocon bruiser Niall Ferguson has apparently claimed that Keynesianism was flawed because the economist was an effete homosexual who married a ballerina for her conversation. Lacking children, he had no feeling for the interests of future generations, in pointed contrast with conservative icon Edmund Burke.

The political context here is the supposed iniquity of government borrowing. While this has failed to produce either the inflation or bond crash forecast by Austerians, the old saw about "saddling our children with debt" retains its scare value because you cannot disprove a claim whose moment of truth forever retreats into the future. Ironically, Burke emphasised the need to respect the hard-won wisdom of past generations - something that Ferguson and the Austerian camp are notably unwilling to do when it comes to Keynes.

This may have been a flip comment, but it does reveal the struggle on the right to suppress visceral prejudice now that the carapace of pseudo-science that justified austerity for the last 3 years has broken apart. Like all good prejudices, it's also plain wrong. Keynes was certainly an active homosexual in his early years, but there is also little doubt that his marriage to the chatty Lydia Lopokova was a love-match and that sex was an integral part of it. I'm au courant with the domestic details because I happen to be in the middle of reading Robert Skidelsky's biography of Keynes and have recently passed the point where Lydia suffered a miscarriage in 1927. There is no doubt from Keynes's letters to her that he hoped to "add to the population".

The notion that Keynes gave little thought to future generations is easily debunked by reference to his famous essay The Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (delivered as a lecture in 1928 and published in 1930). This was written at the time that he and Lydia were trying to have kids, and may even have been informed by sentimental compensation. Whatever the wellspring, there is no evidence here of the selfish misanthrope of Ferguson's caricature. Of course, looking for a psychological, or psycho-sexual, influence in someone's thinking is not unreasonable, but it's easy to allow this to become too deterministic (e.g. the fascination with Hitler's rumoured lonely testicle as an explanation for Nazism). As far as I can tell, a liking for men's bottoms has no bearing on the development of Keynes's economic thinking, unless the maintenance of aggregate demand is an obscure metaphor for bisexuality.

Funnily enough, Ferguson is far more vulnerable than Keynes to the charge that his thinking has been moulded by emotional preferences. As Henry Blodget notes: "Saying that Keynes's economic philosophy was based on his being childless would be like saying that Ferguson's own economic philosophy is based on his being rich and famous and therefore not caring about the plight of poor unemployed people". To be fair, Ferguson's right-wing opinions pre-date his lionisation by neocons on both sides of the Atlantic. He has become rich and famous by telling other rich and (sometimes) famous people that it's OK to worry more about themselves than about the poor.

If I can be forgiven a little bit of psychological profiling myself, I suspect that Ferguson's bigotry is the product of environmental factors as much as innate prejudice. If most of the people you meet are rich and conservative, then most of the gay people you meet will be rich and conservative as well. While Elton and David prove that this group are no strangers to parental instinct, I suspect that most of Ferguson's acquaintances are more Will and Grace. And they, both gay and straight, really are annoyingly self-absorbed, not to mention all talk and no action (and don't get me started on Friends). Perhaps Ferguson has simply spent too much time watching American TV.

Update: Ferguson has now offered an unqualified apology in an effort to limit the damage. That said, it is clear from the wording that Ferguson was guilty of indulging the misrepresentation of Keynes's phrase "In the long run we are all dead" to indicate insouciance about the fiscal legacy we bequeath our descendants. As Paul Krugman points out, Keynes was actually arguing against policies that obsess about the long run on the grounds that this is irrelevant to immediate needs.

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