AP ImagesProfessor Niall Ferguson.Harvard professor and famous economist Niall Ferguson reportedly made some bizarre and offensive remarks about economist John Maynard Keynes at an investment conference yesterday.
According to financial writer Tom Kostigen, the editor at large of Private Wealth and Financial Advisor magazines, Ferguson made two startling suggestions about Keynes at the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference in Carlsbad, California:
- Keynes’s economic philosophy, Ferguson reportedly suggested, was the result of Keynes’ not caring about future generations.
- Keynes didn’t care about future generations, Ferguson reportedly suggested, because Keynes was gay and did not have children.
Dan Jamieson at Investment News, also reported the remarks.
Specifically, Kostigen reported the following:
[I]n front of a group of more than 500 investors, Ferguson responded to a question about Keynes’ famous philosophy of self-interest versus the economic philosophy of Edmund Burke, who believed there was a social contract among the living, as well as the dead. 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…
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. Apparently, in Ferguson’s world, if you are gay or childless, you cannot care about future generations nor society.
Not surprisingly, Kostigen’s report has already drawn considerable attention to and criticism of Ferguson. We have reached out to Professor Ferguson for comment. We will update this article when we hear from him.
In addition to the offensive suggestion that homosexuals don’t care about the future, Professor Ferguson’s reported remarks are bizarre and insulting to Keynes on two levels.
First, this is the first time we have heard a respectable academic tie another economist’s beliefs to his or her personal situation rather than his or her research. 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.
Second, Keynes’s policies did not suggest that he did not care about future generations. On the contrary… For the sake of both future generations and current generations, Keynes believed that governments should run deficits during recessions and then run surpluses during economic booms. Politicians have never seemed to be able to follow the second part of Keynes’ prescription–they tend to run deficits at all times–but it seems unfair to blame this latter failing on Keynes.
For those who are new to the larger economic debate that is the backdrop to these remarks, here’s a snapshot:
Professor Ferguson and other economists have been loudly and consistently warning the world for years that the deficit spending and debts of most developed countries will eventually end in disaster. Professor Ferguson and other “austerians” suggest that governments should immediately cut spending and balance their budgets, even if this results in a brutal short-term recession and exploding unemployment.
This “austerian” philosophy has been countered by the “Keynesian” philosophy advocated by Paul Krugman and others in which governments enact stimulus and run big deficits during weak economic periods to offset weak private-sector spending and help shore up employment, consumer spending, and social well-being. High debts and deficits are a long-term concern that needs to be addressed, Krugman says, but they do not constitute a near-term crisis that requires immense self-inflicted short-term pain to alleviate.
In the past 5 years, the experience of many countries suggests that Krugman’s philosophy is correct, and, as yet, none of the doom predicted by Ferguson and other austerians has come to pass. Meanwhile, countries like the U.K. and Greece, which have cut spending to try to balance their budgets, have been mired in multiple recessions (or, in the case of Greece, a depression). And, notably, because lower economic output leads to less tax revenue, these countries have not made much progress in balancing their budgets.
Ferguson’s reported remarks would represent a new low in the war of words between these economic camps, and they would likely be very damaging to his reputation. As yet, the remarks have not been confirmed, and we eagerly await Professor Ferguson’s response.