One more thought on Hoover historian Niall Ferguson’s thing about Keynes being gay and marrying a ballerina and talking about poetry

We had some interesting comments on our recent reflections on Niall Ferguson’s ill-chosen remarks in which he attributed Keynes’s economic views (I don’t actually know exactly what Keyesianism is, but I think a key part is for the government to run surpluses during economic booms and deficits during recessions) to the Keynes being gay and marrying a ballerina and talking about poetry. The general idea, I think, is that people without kids don’t care so much about the future, and this motivated Keynes’s party-all-the-time attitude, which might have worked just fine for Eddie Murphy’s girlfriend in the 1980s and in San Francisco bathhouses of the 1970s but, according to Ferguson, is not the ticket for preserving today’s American empire.

Some of the more robust defenders of Ferguson may have been disappointed by his followup remarks: “I should not have suggested . . . 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. . . . My disagreements with Keynes’s economic philosophy have never had anything to do with his sexual orientation. It is simply false to suggest, as I did, that his approach to economic policy was inspired by any aspect of his personal life.” It’s tough to try to defend a statement that was disowned by the person saying it.

But the question then arises: What’s so horrible about what Ferguson said? After all, it’s not unreasonable to think that someone’s personal circumstances will affect their political attitudes and their views on economic policy. And certainly no one doubts that Keynes’s upper-class British backgrounds was relevant for understanding his views.

So what was up?

I think the problem was that Ferguson did not seem to be engaging with an open mind but rather seemed to be just trying to throw mud at Keynes as if he (Ferguson) were operating a political campaign rather than engaging in academic inquiry. If Ferguson were to give a talk all about the connections between the personal circumstances and political beliefs of historical economists, I don’t think people would have a problem with it. He could mention Keynes’s sex life, Adam Smith’s pets, and anything else that might be relevant. Ferguson is a historian (or, as I assume he would say, an historian), and he’d be highly qualified to do that sort of thing. But to just throw culture-war words at his audience in an attempt to vaguely disparage Keynes, that’s just stupid. Again, nobody’s perfect, and Ferguson himself recognized the stupidity of his remarks. I don’t think this will, or should, deter historians from connecting the lives and ideas of famous thinkers. But it doesn’t look like that’s what was being done here; rather, Ferguson was doin some insinsuatin as a way to discredit a political opponent, which works better on the campaign trail than when coming from a scholar.

Regarding Ferguson himself, I hold with my view from last year that he is the victim of the paradox of influence:

No, I think what Ferguson is looking for (as am I, in my scholarly domain) is influence. He wants to make a difference. And one thing about being paid $50K for a lecture is that you can assume that whoever is paying you really wants to hear what you have to say.

The paradox, though, is that Ferguson gets and keeps the big-money audience is by telling them not what he (Ferguson) wants to say—not by giving them his unique insights and understanding—but rather by telling his audience what they want to hear. . . .

The paradox is that the anticipated influence becomes valueless if you end up saying whatever it takes to keep it.

In this case, I think Ferguson went too far when he threw in some crowd-pleasing anti-Keynes remarks that didn’t please his crowd so much. Ferguson took his bad-boy stance a bit too far.

As usual in such cases, I see a gap between what this guy is doing and what he has the potential to do. The Kenyes-is-a-poof remarks would’ve been unremarkable had they been made by a comedian or a politician or talk-show host. A historian can and should do better, and Ferguson himself recognized this by characterizing his remarks as “stupid.”

P.S. Yes, I know I’m violating the title of this post from a couple years ago. On the plus side, I’m posting this on a weekend, which is pretty much the time of minimum readership. So, with luck, nobody will notice what I’m doing here.

37 thoughts on “One more thought on Hoover historian Niall Ferguson’s thing about Keynes being gay and marrying a ballerina and talking about poetry

  1. Putting aside the shock point of discussing gayness is such a heavy-handed way, Ferguson plays the superficial biographer’s game. We have tons of evidence about Keynes’ thoughts. He wrote. He wrote lots. He gave speeches. He engaged in public debates. Those words describe his work and his attitudes about the long-term and so on. The superficial biographer looks at attributes – he’s gay, he’s tall, he’s short, he has a lisp, whatever – and turns those into the “real” exposition of the “actual” thoughts. This game is better played with people who don’t write, who don’t leave records of their work for people to read over and over. When Ferguson does this with a man of letters, it’s bad work. Again, put aside the shock value. It’s bad work.

  2. We know that Ferguson was wrong: Keynes was deeply concerned about the welfare of future generations. How do we know? Because Keynes devoted so much of his life to promoting eugenics, from founding the Cambridge Eugenics Society with R.A. Fisher in 1911 to a speech Keynes gave to the Eugenics Society in 1946.

    • That’s a good point! And Ferguson surely knows about this, so it makes his comments even worse: he wasn’t just saying stuff about Keynes that he thought would assassinate Keynes’ character, he was drawing conclusions from it that he knew to be false.

      • Richard Doll did the same thing in his Fisher memorial talk in Oxford.

        He quoted a reference that claimed Fisher was not very good at understanding multiple similar studies being thoughtful only about simple individual studies and when that claim was called into question he replied that he knew the reference was in error, but felt it was OK for him to quote it anyway.

        (Fisher had been very critical of Doll’s early work on smoking and cancer.)

  3. By the way, the English liberal intellectual elite have been practicing do-it-yourself eugenics since the days of the Lunar Society first threw the Darwins, Galtons, and Wedgwoods together in the late 18th Century.

    For example, here is a paragraph from the Wikipedia entry on the young movie star Skander Keynes, who played Edmund in the “Narnia” trilogy:

    “On his father’s side, Keynes is the grandson of physiologist Richard Keynes, the nephew of two Cambridge professors, the historian Simon Keynes, and the neuroscientist Roger Keynes, and the great-great-nephew of economist John Maynard Keynes.[9][10] His great-great-great-grandfather was naturalist Charles Darwin. Keynes’ great-grandparents were Nobel Prize laureate Edgar Adrian, 1st Baron Adrian and Hester Adrian, Baroness Adrian.[11]”

  4. There is no agreement on how much we should be concerned about future generations. It is a political question that is informed by personal beliefs. It appears that there is conflicting evidence in the case of Keynes, as there is conflicting evidence about some of his other political beliefs.

    Ferguson says he had been asked to comment on Keynes’s famous observation “In the long run we are all dead.” It sounds as if you expected him to say, “I’ll do a thorough of quotes from historical economists, and get back to you.”

    • Keynes may well have worked himself to death for his country in 1939-1946, which seems like pretty good evidence of concern for future generations. From Wikipedia:

      Throughout his life Keynes worked energetically for the benefit both of the public and his friends – even when his health was poor he laboured to sort out the finances of his old college,[138] and at Bretton Woods, he worked to institute an international monetary system that would be beneficial for the world economy. Keynes suffered a series of heart attacks, which ultimately proved fatal, beginning during negotiations for an Anglo-American loan in Savannah, Georgia, where he was trying to secure favourable terms for the United Kingdom from the United States, a process he described as “absolute hell.”[28][139] A few weeks after returning from the United States, Keynes died of a heart attack … on 21 April 1946 at the age of 62.[12][140] A member of a very long-lived family (his parents, two grandparents and his brother all lived into their nineties), he died surprisingly young, apparently the result of overwork and childhood illness. Both of Keynes’s parents outlived him: father John Neville Keynes (1852–1949) by three years, and mother Florence Ada Keynes (1861–1958) by twelve. Keynes’s brother Sir Geoffrey Keynes (1887–1982) was a distinguished surgeon, scholar and bibliophile.

      • Maybe Keynes adopted a longer-term view after he went straight and got married in his later life?

        I had assumed that the Keynes quote implied short-term thinking. But a fuller version of the quote is: “The 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 past the ocean is flat again.” [1923] This is not a statement that economic policy should only consider the present generation. So maybe the error is taking the quote out of context.

        • Good point. The more I think about Keynes, the more I’m impressed with his transition from hedonist to something of a hero. Whether that had something to do with his finally falling in love with a woman when in his late 30s (not just any woman, of course, but the most popular ballerina in England) is an interesting question.

          The point of the Bloomsbury Group (Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, et al) was to undermine the Victorian public virtues that had put Britain on the top of the world in 1900 in favor of private pleasures (of a muted English variety). For example, Forster notoriously wrote (in 1938!): “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”

          But Keynes had public talents, and he eventually proved to be made of sterner stuff than the other Bloomsburies, serving his country well in its crisis.

          I used to have opinions on macroeconomic theories, but I found I didn’t have anything useful to contribute, so I’ve stopped. But I will venture to say that whatever else you can say about Keynes’ “General Theory” of 1936, it required a formidable amount of work. Then Keynes had his first heart attack in 1937. His wife Lydia Lopokova nursed him through the next nine years of tumult.

          Keynes took an active role in wartime economic policy from 1939 onward, increasingly in setting up the postwar institutions. The more conservative and/or Stalinist Harry Dexter White of the U.S. had a greater say, but Keynes was in their working away until the end. Worn out, Keynes died of heart problems in 1946 at age 62, but with the basic Bretton Woods template in place that would serve adequately through the 1960s.

          In general, the postwar dispensation proved more economically successful than the prewar one, serving reasonably well for a quarter of a century. Most everybody else in Keynes’ genetic lived into their 90s, so it’s not implausible to speculate on whether he would have stuck with dogmatic Keynesianism after 1973. Still, we ought to credit him with his service in the desperate 1939-1946 years.

        • Roger:

          I think Ferguson’s error was that he did not seem to be seeking understanding; rather, he was viewing Keynes as a political opponent, a sort of proto-Krugman, and looking for mud to throw at the guy. Taking a quote out of context is one way to do this; making what one might perceive as crowd-pleasing insinuations is another.

        • Since Keynes was a Bayesian, that quote could be interpreted as a jab at frequentists obsessing over asymptotic properties of their estimators!

      • I was under the impression that Keynes partly ruined King’s College during the Great Depression, but I was wrong: as reported on wikipedia and on King’s College page, he indeed substantially improved the financial position of the College between both wars.

  5. OK, Andrew and jonathan, your now quite refined criticisms of Ferguson here make sense to me–and seem preferable to the uncritical celebration of the Gotcha Era that I was criticizing in Andrew’s initial blog piece. Maybe we all agree, even though we don’t know exactly what Ferguson said, it sounds kind of distasteful in exactly the ways you two are now describing.

    (Andrew, the one thing that would make our harmonious agreement complete would be if you would speak up to say that what happened to Summers was very wrong–no one should be attacked like that for having merely said that logical possibility X is one of the possibilities. That was bad. But maybe you aspire to be Dean of Engineering or something, and don’t want to say that–I’d understand, I guess…)


  6. “After all, it’s not unreasonable to think that someone’s personal circumstances will affect their political attitudes and their views on economic policy. And certainly no one doubts that Keynes’s background as an upper-class British backgrounds was relevant for understanding his views.”

    If I were Keynes and I were alive today, I’d be offended by Ferguson’s statement. Not because of the gay/childless bashing, but because it implied that I was a bad scientist whose research was not objective because it was tainted by my personal circumstances. If he wants to criticize my logic and my results, be my guest. If he can’t point out any mistakes but he chooses to throw mud at my research because I’m gay or childless, that’s insulting.

    • Ferguson did not accuse Keynes of being a bad scientist. There is no scientific answer to whether money should be spent on present or future generations.

      • The word “should” does not really fit into the economic discourse. Politicians and religious figures say what “should” be, scientists say what “is”.

        In this case, Ferguson was asked about positions of Burke vs. Keynes. Burke (18th century thinker) was primarily a politician rather than a scientist. Here’s his statement regarding the contract between the living and the dead:

        It’s pretty obscure but it does not sound like any scientific theory to me. It’s a statement of beliefs which may be challenged on the basis of author’s personal circumstances and background.

        On the other hand, Keynes was a scientist first and foremost. I’m not sure what exactly was meant by the person who asked the question about “Keynes’ famous philosophy of self-interest”. Nor do I know what “Keynes’ famous philosophy of self-interest” is, aside from his use of self-interest axioms going back to Adam Smith, with qualifications that “private and social interest always coincide” and “… it is not a correct deduction from the principles of economics that enlightened self-interest always operates in the public interest.”

        It would be acceptable for Ferguson to criticize Keynes if Keynes did, in fact, try to tell us whether we should spend money on present or future generations. It is not acceptable to criticize him for the use of self-interest axioms in his work on economic theory and to imply (without saying it out loud) that his findings are void because a heterosexual man with ten kids would not accept his axioms.

        Note the difference between “accept his axioms” and “come up with his axioms”. Your personal background may well influence your choice of axioms. An economist who lived in Soviet Union when he was a kid may well have a unique worldview on a variety of aspects, from central planning to employment to healthcare, and may come up with a theory that uses different axioms from anything produced by economists who grew up in the West. But, if this theory is valid, it may be challenged on its merits and not based on the fact that its author is a “Commie”.

        • “On the other hand, Keynes was a scientist first and foremost.”

          It’s funny how they have Republican economists and Democratic economists, but they don’t have Republican chemists and Democratic chemists.

        • “It’s funny how they have Republican economists and Democratic economists”

          There are really aspects to this.

          First, there are economists who probably never considered themselves Republican or Democratic, but whose work is now regarded as such because it’s useful for one of the parties. Keynes is one (he was not even a U.S. citizen, remember?) Milton Friedman is another. When Friedman disagrees with Keynes about something, it’s a regular scientific dispute and it can be resolved without asking whether Friedman was a WASP and whether Keynes was homosexual.

          More recently, we have a new breed of economists, whose work is strongly influenced, if not directly financed, by the Republican party or its major donors (Cato, Heritage, etc. etc.) Debating those is essentially a game of whack-a-mole.

        • Should be “really two aspects to this”.

          Also, I wrote this before I realized the irony of the fact that Friedman, the archetypal Republican economist, far from being a WASP, was a Jew.

        • Keynes, who was about 17 inches taller than Milton Friedman, seems like the WASPiest individual imaginable. He was obsessed with Newton (Keynes bought Newton’s trunk at auction and was shocked to discover how much Newton was fascinated by alchemy and magic), his nephew married a Darwin, and Baron Keynes had a long, contentious intellectual relationship with Lord Russell.

        • > Politicians and religious figures say what “should” be, scientists say what “is

          When a scientist says what the _evidence_ is, they really mean what it _should be_ taken as.

          When doing math, one can say what an implication _is_ (by error free reasoning) but anything about the empirical world, requires aspects of the world to be represented (models assumed) and there are only _should_ arguments for choosing the representations.

  7. Well, interesting to see discussed, by a statistician. But, alas, Ferguson is on to something I think, in his backhanded way.
    Think about it as an Austerian, wanting to cut expenditures on the “worthless.”
    No pun if you think about it both ways. Ferguson has probably tapped Keynes as I, except, what I see as his heterodoxy, willingness to accept the range of human circumstances, allowing him to suggest policies for the general good, a deep moral point, Ferguson interprets oppositely, as bad taste, immoral politics, unrighteous.
    Anyway, that’s what’s up, the gay-bashing just a backhand way to get at it. Fergie’s pin in the ass.
    BTW Neville Keynes was quite the guy, came up with the Physics King and Economics Queen analogy. And, more importantly, is very much on record as identifying economics as at root a moral not physical science. So J.M.K. got a good start.

  8. Letter from Lytton Strachey To Maynard Keynes, April 8, 1906 (published by editor Paul Levy in 2005)

    Strachey regarded Keynes, a Cambridge contemporary and fellow homosexual, as a close friend, although they often vied for the favours of the same men.

    “It’s madness of us to dream of making dowagers understand that feelings are good, when we say in the same breath that the best ones are sodomitical. If we were crafty and careful, I dare say we’d pull it off. But why should we take the trouble? On the whole I believe that our time will come about a hundred years hence, when preparations will have been made, and compromises come to, so that at the publication of our letters, everyone will be, finally, converted.”

  9. “Keynes said that in the long run we are all dead, but Keynes had no children” is an ancient witticism in the economics profession. I don’t know who first said it. It’s silly to take it as a personal attack on Keynes. Keynes often argued by aphorism, and this is just a counterargument by aphorism. Scholarship needs more lightening up like this, and more use of poetry. If you wanted to be boring and wordy, you could say instead, “Point: The long run doesn’t matter because discounting makes the present value of future income vanishingly small, and if you care only about your personal utility you do not care what happens 100 years from now. Counterpoint: The long run is the time it takes for all factor inputs to adjust to changes in conditions, so it doesn’t have to be all that long, there’s an argument that the social discount rate should be zero, as your colleague Ramsey said, and in any case most people have children and care about their happiness, which can be shown to imply caring about what happens in 200 years.” Aphorisms are like diagrams: they can pack a lot into a small space, by relying on the ability of the reader to make connections.

    • Baron Robbins in his autobiography wrote “…for a time, I became so concerned with distant consequences that I was apt to neglect more immediate effects…But at least this was an influence less likely to mislead in the end than the gay reminder that ‘in the long run we are all dead’ – valid enough as a rebuke but treacherous in the extreme as a guide to general policy.”

      I’m not sure if he solely meant gay as in happy.

    • Eric wrote:

      It’s silly to take it as a personal attack on Keynes. Keynes often argued by aphorism, and this is just a counterargument by aphorism.

      Keynes isn’t making an argument by aphorism — he’s being quoted out of context. That context is:

      But 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 meaning is perfectly plain, and it isn’t “disregard the long run”.

  10. I think the post is right about the paradox of influence. A pure scholar would have said to his critics,”Lighten up. That’s a witticism,not a biographical claim, and any fool should be able to tell the difference.” Instead, he bowed before the idol of political correctness, presumably because he wants politically correct people to give him something such as speaking engagements or publication in journals of opinion.

    • Yup. The trouble with witticisms is that sometimes they’re not very witty. I think one reason this didn’t work is that Ferguson was not making a fond joke at the expense of a friend; rather, it was more in the nature of an insinuation against someone he perceives as a political enemy.

      Maybe Ferguson’s next step is to give a speech at the ACM mocking Alan Turing. That’ll go over well.

      • I’m not aware of evidence that 1st Baron Keynes, who was elevated to the House of Lords for his decades of work in the innermost circles of the British government and who represented Britain in the highest level negotiations with America in 1944-46 to set up the global postwar economic system, ever suffered the slightest oppression for being a well-known active homosexual up until about age 40.

        Before his conversion to a heterosexual lifestyle in the mid-1920s, he had served Britain at the Versailles Conference and published a gigantically (and in the 1930s disastrously) influential tract, “The Economic Consequences of the Peace” arguing that the victors should feel guilty for being so mean to Germany.

        Keynes’ early homosexuality would likely have prevented him from being, say, Prime Minister, but he didn’t have leaderships ambitions. He repeatedly turned down safe seats in the House of Commons because having to listen to boring speeches would take time away from his behind-the-scenes influence.

        It might well be true that Keynes’ web of Bloomsbury homosexual connections gave him more influence than if he had been straight his whole life.

  11. “I think one reason this didn’t work is that Ferguson was not making a fond joke at the expense of a friend”

    You know, it really is okay for intellectuals to make jokes about each other, even if they aren’t “a fond joke at the expense of a friend.” For example, Keynes, who was a witty man, would have rebelled against that idea. The spectacular career of Keynes’ Bloomsbury friend Lytton Strachey, author of the acid “Eminent Victorians,” would never have gotten off the ground if that were the rule.

    Basically, what we are seeing in our intellectual culture is the triumph of Lenin’s dictum that the essential question is always “Who? Whom?” It doesn’t matter who is right or wrong in any abstract sense, it just matters that your side be the Who and force the other side to be the Whom. Ferguson’s witticism is being greeted with global gasps of horror because he’s a conservative straight making a joke about a liberal (semi) gay.

    • Steve:

      I’m not any kind of judge of whether a joke is “okay.” I’m just giving my best guess of why it didn’t work. I don’t have Ferguson’s direct quote but, from what I’ve seen, it didn’t sound particularly clever or witty to me; rather, it sounds more like a locker-room style insinuation against a political enemy. “Explaining 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” . . . that doesn’t sound like much of a witticism. Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations. The guy’s a professional speaker, he should be able to do better than that. He could afford to hire Dennis Miller to write jokes for him if that’s what he really wants.

      I’m guessing that Ferguson misjudged his audience; he thought they’d appreciate an anti-Keynes remark, maybe he even thought they were the kind of crowd that would enjoy cracks about gay people who like ballet and poetry. No go.

      • Dear Andrew:

        No, Ferguson was making an overly sophisticated reference to an absolutely enormous literature on the impact of the famous Bloomsbury coterie of Keynes, Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, and Virginia Woolf. Clearly, Bloomsbury must be rather forgotten today, but I can attest that it was all the rage in intellectual circles in the 1970s. For a mordant summary of the goals and influence of Bloomsbury, you can read online pp. 166-171 in Paul Johnson’s “Modern Times” of 1983:

        I suspect that contemporary audiences are largely unaware of all this, and mostly know two things:

        1. Keynes is Paul Krugman’s hero, and thus will have various opinions on Keynes based on their opinions of Krugman (even though Keynes would have looked down his nose at Krugman’s middlebrow love for Isaac Asimov and the Doobie Brothers).

        2. Gays are Good, and that’s all you need to know: gays are Victims (and if you act like the story might actually be a bit more complicated, that no human grouping could possible be without flaw, those powerless oppressed gays will crush your career like a bug).

        • Steve:

          If disparaging someone for being gay and liking ballet and poetry is “overly sophisticated,” it’s the kind of sophistication that’s indistinguishable from the kind of remarks that I remember from junior high, back when there was a sort of constant surveillance about kids being “faggots.” Ferguson knowing who E. M. Forster is doesn’t make his comments sophisticated, he’s just applying that attitude to a wider realm.

          I doubt the audience of financial advisors think Krugman is a hero or that gays are flawless; I think they just were expecting more for their $50,000 or whatever than silly claims associating Keynes’s allegedly selfish worldview with his sexual preferences. I’ve given paid talks too (not at Ferguson’s level of pay, of course) and I tell jokes too, but I try to keep things on target.

          I think you’re cutting overestimating Ferguson here. The guy made some crude off-the-cuff remarks that he later regretted. He’s in the job of pleasing crowds for money, and this time he wasn’t so pleasant.

        • “Ferguson was making an overly sophisticated reference”

          That’s gotta be the comment of the year.

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