May 13th, 2013
in Op Ed
by William K. Black, New Economic Perspectives
It is always a disaster when devotees of theoclassical economists speak their minds in front of what they think are friendly audiences. Mitt Romney’s attack on 47% of Americans as leeches that it was his job not to represent were he elected President was the final nail in his self-constructed electoral coffin. We now have Niall Ferguson, a history professor at Harvard and Hoover fellow whose theoclassical views have proven so influential with Prime Minister Cameron’s government’s adoption of austerity policies that have killed the UK recovery.
Ferguson has had a terrible last 10 years. He was a strong proponent of invading Iraq and pines for us to stay indefinitely in Afghanistan. He was a Romney supporter who wrote an anti-Obama screed in Newsweek that demonstrated his contempt for facts. He was an advisor to Senator McCain’s campaign for the presidency. Because of his record of getting every important policy issue wrong he was paid a great deal of money to speak to an “alternative investment” conference that began, with no small irony, on May Day. Ferguson was presenting his thesis that the West has become “degenerate.” He certainly proved that point about himself.
Krugman vs. Ferguson (2009) (TKO for Krugman In the First Round)
Ferguson has been spinning out of control in recent weeks. In 2009, he made the mistake of trying to debate a Nobel Laureate in Economics (Paul Krugman) about Krugman’s specialty. If it had been a fight the ref would have stopped it in the first round and awarded a TKO. Ferguson did his ode to austerity as a response to the Great Recession and claimed that the stimulus program was causing, and would continue to cause, interest rates to soar and prevent a recovery.
Austerity created the gratuitous über-Depression in the Eurozone’s periphery. U.S. interest rates have fallen to record lows. Ferguson admitted recently that stimulus had not produced his predicted surge in interest rates and that austerity in response to the Great Recession proved self-destructive. That was fine, but Ferguson could not leave it there. He added three points got him trouble – and those three points prompted Ferguson’s latest and greatest of own goals. First, Ferguson tried to reinvent the history of the position he took during the 2009 debates with Krugman.
Second, having agreed that Keynes had proven correct and Ferguson had again been proven incorrect in his predictions, Ferguson proceeded to continue to demonize Keynes as the cause of much of the West’s supposed degeneration. This is more than passing strange because it is Ferguson’s policies that have proved disastrous and Keynes’ policies that have proven correct.
Third, Ferguson responded furiously on March 6, 2013 to Krugman’s article pointing out Ferguson’s effort to air brush out of history Ferguson’s history of predictive failure. Ferguson’s cri de cœur is so delectable because it sends a frisson through one’s body to see such naked hypocrisy and whining in print from the self-proclaimed champion of American military adventure designed to create and expand a new American empire and a writer whose works are now redolent of innuendo.
“In my view Paul Krugman has done fundamental damage to the quality of public discourse on economics. He can be forgiven for being wrong, as he frequently is–though he never admits it. He can be forgiven for relentlessly and monotonously politicizing every issue. What is unforgivable is the total absence of civility that characterizes his writing. His inability to debate a question without insulting his opponent suggests some kind of deep insecurity perhaps the result of a childhood trauma. It is a pity that a once talented scholar should demean himself in this way.”
Ferguson, trained as a historian, uses innuendo to make up a (self) “suggest[ed]” history to smear a critic who (1) proved correct, (2) proved Ferguson incorrect, and (3) correctly called out Ferguson’s effort to change history to mislead readers about point #2. But what sends the frisson through your body when you read Ferguson’s effort to smear Krugman is Ferguson’s naked hypocrisy – and his blindness to it. As with his repeated efforts to smear Keynes, Ferguson’s attempt to smear Krugman reveals everything important and true about Ferguson and nothing important or true about Keynes or Krugman. The nice thing about Ferguson is that despite the adage that “practice makes perfect” he is getting ever cruder and more self-destructive in his efforts to smear those with whom he disagrees.
Ferguson, of course, has no proof of any childhood trauma and makes no pretense that he conducted any research before unleashing his triple innuendo (Krugman must have suffered a childhood trauma that must have caused some “deep insecurity” and that must have left him unable to “debate a question without insulting his opponent.”) Feguson simply used innuendo to make up as an ad hominem smear of someone who crushed him in a debate through superior logic and expertise. Ferguson, having failed as an arm chair economist in his debate with Krugman, now appoints himself an arm chair psychoanalyst of Krugman and proceeds without interviewing Krugman to declare him deranged. That’s the only way Ferguson could “win” a debate he lost.
May 2, 2013: Ferguson’s Epic Fail
All of this provides the essential setting for understanding Ferguson’s latest epic fail. Here is Ferguson’s explanation of what happened when a member of the audience at the investor conference asked him a question on May 2, 2013.
“In his apology Ferguson explained: ‘I had been asked to comment on Keynes’s famous observation ‘In the long run we are all dead.’ The point I had made in my presentation was that in the long run our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are alive and will have to deal with the consequences of our economic actions.’
Adding more, he said -
‘I should not have suggested – in an off-the-cuff response that was not part of my presentation – that Keynes was indifferent to the long run because he had no children, nor that he had no children because he was gay. This was doubly stupid. First, it is obvious that people who do not have children also care about future generations. Second, I had forgotten that Keynes’s wife Lydia miscarried.’ ”
So, we have Ferguson apologizing for making a claim that he knew to be the “obvious[ly]” false. Ferguson claimed that gay people who have no children did not “care about future generations.” Ferguson calls his statement “doubly stupid” because -
“I had forgotten that Keynes’s wife Lydia miscarried.”
The second aspect of that self-described “stupidity” is an allusion to the fact that Ferguson did not make a single quip bashing gays as indifferent to future generations. Ferguson went on an entire, snide riff mocking Keynes and his marriage. It is this aspect of Ferguson’s ad hominem attack on Keynes that prompted the portion of Ferguson’s apology that termed his assault “insensitive”:
“I made comments about John Maynard Keynes that were as stupid as they were insensitive.”
One reporter at the event, Tom Kostigen, reported extensively on Ferguson’s gay bashing and made clear his disapproval. He reported what Ferguson said in his extended his attacks on Keynes’ sexual orientation.
“ Ferguson asked the audience how many children Keynes had. He explained that Keynes had none because he was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of ‘poetry’ rather than procreated. The audience went quiet at the remark. Some attendees later said they found the remarks offensive.
It gets worse.
Ferguson, who is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, and author of The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, says it’s only logical that Keynes would take this selfish worldview because he was an ‘effete’ member of society.’ ”
We have just witnessed a variant of what economists call “revealed preferences.” Economists are skeptical of what people tell pollsters they would do in terms of economic actions in response to hypothetical financial incentives. We teach that it was people actually do in response to the incentives that reveals their true preferences. Ferguson’s great problem is that he spoke what he believed – and what he believes is false and bigoted. Begin with what should have been the most obvious point that Ferguson’s apology ignores. If Ferguson’s “obvious[ly]” incorrect claim was based on the “stupid” premise that adults who do not have children do not care about future generations – why did he raise Keynes’ sexuality? It would have sufficed for Ferguson to simply make the “obvious” and “stupid” claim that because Keynes had no children he did not care about future generations. Keynes’ sexuality is irrelevant and gratuitous to Ferguson’s obvious and stupid claim about the purported reason that Keynes was childless.
Ferguson brought up multiple homophobic tropes about gay males in his recent speech. They are “effete,” even when they marry women they are so effete that they read their wives “poetry” rather than have sex, which is why they do not reproduce even if they are bisexuals, closeted gays who marry women, or men who identify as heterosexuals though they had homosexual relationships when they were younger. This last absurdity, belied by millions of children fathered by closeted gay or bisexual American males over the history of this Nation even before gay couples could produce children through surrogacy or via adoption, is what prompted Ferguson’s apology for forgetting that Keynes’s wife suffered a miscarriage.
I presume that Ferguson is aware that men who identify as gay, bisexual, and heterosexual males who had gay sexual experiences in their youth have fathered children. Indeed, Ferguson brought up his views about Keynes’ sexuality after he brought up the fact that Keynes did not have children. That makes Ferguson’s gay bashing even more gratuitous.
Ferguson loves counter-factuals, so let’s try this counter-factual. What if Ferguson had made the obvious, stupid claim that people who are childless do not carry about future generations? We know that he despises Keynes and Krugman (in the same talk he archly referred to Krugman as his “arch-enemy”) and that both are childless. Ferguson could have claimed that Keynes and Krugman were indifferent to the lives of future generations because they were childless. How would the audience have reacted to such a claim?
The perhaps 25% of the audience who were childless would have stared at him like he was an idiot who had gone out of his way to insult them. The Americans in the audience would have thought first of themselves if they were childless, then of their relatives and close friends who were childless, then of George Washington, and finally of Jesus. Any of them with friends or relatives serving in the U.S. or U.K. military in Afghanistan who are childless would have felt a special rage for Ferguson’s obvious, stupid insult. Ferguson would have lost the crowd instantly. An angry buzz – “did he really say that?” – would have spread throughout the room.
Ferguson changed that dynamic by inventing a trait (unconcern for future generations) that he falsely ascribed to Keynes by willfully misinterpreting Keynes’ words, blaming that trait on Keynes’ sexuality, mocking Keynes’ sexuality at some length, claiming that Keynes’ fictional unconcern for future generations was a trait characteristic of homosexuals, and falsely conflating gays with childlessness. It was a full-fledged smear not only of Keynes but all homosexuals that Ferguson developed not in a single quip, but in an extended, purportedly logical analysis that was stitched together from an extended series of “obvious[ly]” “stupid” statements.
Here’s the key – by gay bashing Keynes and homosexuals Ferguson was almost able to (again) get away with a smear that would have failed instantly had Ferguson not gratuitously brought up homosexuality and instead had rested his attack on Keynes on his not having children. Some members of the audience were reported to be upset by Ferguson’s gay bashing, but apparently no one said anything out loud at the conference to call Ferguson on his gay bashing. The first web account reported some of Ferguson’s words when he engaged in gay bashing Keynes – but made not a word of comment, much less a complaint or response.
It was not until Kostigen made public what Ferguson said and expressed his disgust at Ferguson’s gay bashing that things changed. (Kostigen’s column immediately drew a comment wanting to know whether he was a homosexual.) It was only at this juncture that Ferguson realized that he could no longer get away with gay bashing in public. Back in the “good old days” when he was a darling of the Thatcherites his smears of Keynes would have been won Ferguson praise for his wit and erudition. Today, bigotry is (albeit with a lag) seen as bigotry and instead of wit and erudition the Fergusons of the world are forced to admit that their smears were “obvious[ly]” “stupid.” Of course, the point is that Ferguson’s homophobic innuendo was always obviously stupid and vicious. The fact that it was treated as respectable and even brought him praise from his ultra conservative colleagues shows how intellectually dishonest and bigoted the portion of the world Ferguson inhabited in his formative years was.
As I will explain, Ferguson has a long, sad history of gay bashing Keynes using a whole series of homophobic tropes and crude insults based on innuendo that began in print at least 18 years ago. As Brad DeLong and others have pointed out, Ferguson was also mining a rich vein of homophobic attacks on Keynes by other theoclassical critics of Keynes. Ferguson’s mistake was in forgetting how much the world had changed in such a relatively short time when it comes to gay bashing.