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Like Casper the ghost, Niall Ferguson is not only white. He is also very, very adorable.

I don’t want this to be a regular feature but I wanted to briefly comment on Ferguson’s open letter regarding the Keynes-was-a-ballet-and-poetry-loving-poof remarks he made the other day at that conference of financial advisors. (I’m posting this one at night, and a new post on an unrelated topic is coming in the morning, so I’m burying it as much as possible.)

Ferguson reiterates that his remarks were “stupid.” The question then arises: He’s a smart guy, how did he end up saying such stupid things? Ferguson has a history of saying high-profile stupid things, and they always seem to be when he’s trying to make some sort of political point.

I’m still going with my theory 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.

Again, I’m not trying to nail the guy to the cross for this. We all make mistakes; in fact, we all make mistakes, of some sort, repeatedly. It’s just interesting to think about what made him say this stuff in the first place. He’s not any kind of “gay-basher” (in his words), but he still thought this sort of thing would work. So maybe he was trying a bit too hard to please the crowd. He should remember that, however entertaining he is as a speaker, however good he looks on TV, his ultimate qualifications come from his historical research.

Perhaps the case interests me so much because Ferguson, like me, is an academic researcher who likes to speak to popular audiences.

P.S. More here from Willam Black, including this amazing bit that Ferguson wrote about Paul Krugman:

His inability to debate a question without insulting his opponent suggests some kind of deep insecurity perhaps the result of a childhood trauma.

Black makes another good point:

Ferguson loves counterfactuals, so let’s try this counterfactual. 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. . . .

P.P.S. For those who don’t get the title of this post, see here.

26 Comments

  1. Rob Mickey says:

    This wasn’t merely a remark at an event–it’s an argument he’s made before, with a few different variations. One is: Keynes had a crush on a dude that colored his assessment of Versailles. This line of thought on Keynes, childlessness, and sexuality goes from Schumpeter and then gets most scurrilous in the hands of Gertrude Himmelfarb, and then on to Mankiw and Ferguson.

    Here’s Matt Yglesias on Ferguson on Keynes on Versailles: http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2013/05/07/niall_ferguson_on_keynes_and_the_economic_consequences_of_the_peace.html

    • Wonks Anonymous says:

      Schumpeter certainly scoffed at Keynes’ remarks about the long run, but was his sexuality public knowledge back then?

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Keynes belonged for his whole life to the most fashionable and exclusive clique in the English arts and letters, the Bloomsbury Group, so I don’t think it was much of a secret at the highest intellectual levels.

  2. Peter Klein says:

    I realize it’s the fashionable thing this weekend to jump all over Ferguson, and of course he had to issue some kind of apology to keep his job, but few of Ferguson’s critics seem so realize that every reputable Keynes biographer — from foes like Schumpeter to friends like Keynes hagiographer Robert Skidelsky — recognizes that 1) Keynes and his Bloomsbury pals offered a very explicit rejection of what they saw as bourgeois morality, particularly thrift, the nuclear family, etc., and 2) these views influenced Keynes’s economic theories. Ferguson expressed all this in a clumsy and crass manner, but the substance of his remarks is not even remotely controversial among those familiar with Keynes and Keynes’s writings.

    • Andrew says:

      Peter:

      It has long been fashionable to use “fashionable” as a criticism but in this case I think it’s simpler: there’s the fascination of seeing the mighty fallen. Ferguson’s not the mightiest guy in the world but he’s a big shot who reportedly gets $50,000-$75,000 per lecture. So when he gets embarrassed, it’s big news in the little world of journalism and academia. Just as it’s big news, within the celebrity world, when Lindsay Lohan gets busted for drunk driving or whatever.

      Regarding the larger point of Keynes’s personal life: sure, the guy’s personal life affected his views. And if Isaac Newton had lived in a country without trees that had falling fruit, he might not have come up with his theory of gravity. Who knows? The connection between a scholar’s background and his theories is a fascinating and important part of intellectual history, and a subject that Ferguson is well qualified to study. But that’s not what he said. What he did was put out some innuendo about Keynes being gay and liking ballet and poetry. What does poetry have to do with anything? Well, sure, it’s a way of calling someone a poof, it’s a crude way of trying to throw mud at a political adversary. I assume that when Ferguson’s audience was paying $50,000 for his words, they were expecting something with more substance.

      Finally, do you really think Ferguson “had to issue some kind of apology to keep his job”?? The guy’s a tenured professor. He might have had to issue some kind of apology to keep getting 5-figure speaking gigs, but that’s another story. You may have agreement with Ferguson’s political goals, and you may feel that Keynes is overrated—that’s fine with me, I don’t know anything about macroeconomics—but there’s no point in that leading you into a misjudgment of Ferguson’s situation. He can be your political and economic ally and still make mistakes.

      • Rahul says:

        Andrew:

        I agree with the substance of most of what you write in this blog post as well as comment. Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be more worthwhile to ease off a little from the “let’s critique others” type of posts (e.g. this one, last one about Felix etc. ).

        Critiquing methods, errors in scholarly papers, graphs, research philosophy is all great. But this sort of “what he said” or “what she blogged” posts are getting a bit shallow (I think). Either the errors-critiqued tend to be trivial or unimportant or they tend to be so egregious (e.g. this comment by Ferguson) that most reasonable readers don’t need any convincing.

        Apologies for presuming to tell you what to blog about. Please think of this comment as feedback of “what sort of posts I (we?) like”

        • Andrew says:

          Rahul:

          I appreciate the feedback. I think the post about free TV was interesting because there’s such a big uncertainty about what would seem like an easy-to-estimate number (the percentage of Americans who rely on over-the-air television).

          Regarding Ferguson, I agree this is pretty stupid stuff. I was getting frustrated, not so much with Ferguson, but with commenters who weren’t exploring the question of why such a smart guy would say such stupid things. This is a question of scholarly communication which relates to many other things we discuss here.

          • K? O'Rourke says:

            > why such a smart guy would say such stupid things

            Why many smart guys repeatedly do and say stupid (non-replicable) things _as academics_ is interesting and runs through many of your recent posts.

            Why would someone make up data or not check their analyses carefully – because the repeatedly get away with it.

      • jonathan says:

        1. I think the fascination is the sense of revelation that this highly touted person, a Harvard professor not an Evangelical preacher, has these views and that he lacks the sense to keep them to himself. The further revelation that he has actually argued this nonsense in real work then reflects badly on Harvard and people do love to see that. Heck, I love to see that and not only because I went to Yale. It’s a spectacle out of Jane Austen: the supposedly sophisticated making elementary mistakes.

        2. A better joke about Newton would be about not knowing Kepler’s work. The revelation that things fall can be drawn from any object on earth, from water to your own body. The revelation that all things fall required knowing Kepler’s work. Not as funny but more correct.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Dear Andrew:

        I defend Keynes at some length here:

        http://www.vdare.com/articles/despite-the-global-gasping-niall-ferguson-has-had-a-point-about-keynes

        But, it’s crucial to understand that Ferguson wasn’t picking on some random gay person, he was referring to a long intellectual discussion over Keynes’ participation in Lytton Strachey’s hugely successful project, the Bloomsbury Group, which Strachey organized to undermine Victorian public virtues in favor of private pleasures and feelings. Bloomsbury’s goal was revolutionize morality away from duty toward friendship, with particular emphasis — to quote Strachey’s 1906 letter to Keynes — that “the best ones are sodomitical.”

      • Andrew, I wasn’t defending Ferguson — what he said was crude and simplistic, not to mention boorish — but pointing out that analyzing Keynes’s personal social, cultural, moral, and aesthetic views, and how they influenced his economic theories, is perfectly legitimate. Your critique of Ferguson is careful and nuanced, but the general reaction in the blogophers was not — “How dare Ferguson even mention Keynes’s lifestyle and personal beliefs!”

  3. Ross Boylan says:

    Unlike you, I hope, Ferguson feels free to misrepresent the facts, e.g. about the health care bill: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/shortcuts/2012/aug/21/niall-fergusons-newsweek-article-obama. A particularly bad failing for an historian. At least according to Krugman + Delong he has also been dramatically, persistently, and unrevisedly wrong in his economic analysis and predictions of high inflation and high interest rates for US debt.

    The whole “Keynes only cares about the short run whereas I take the long view” is just a rhetorical strategy; austerity is bad in the short run and the long run–unless you’re rich.

    So I think the remark is just another example of saying almost anything to advance his conservative politics.

    • Chris G says:

      > The whole “Keynes only cares about the short run whereas I take the long view” is just a rhetorical strategy; austerity is bad in the short run and the long run–unless you’re rich.

      Unless you’re rich. That’s the key.

      • Wonks Anonymous says:

        I think a number of anti-austerians would argue that it’s not even beneficial to the rich, whose incomes are often strongly pro-cyclical.

  4. David Huelsbeck says:

    Ferguson is in a particularly weak position with respect to “saying high-profile stupid things”. History is still largely a narrative-based discipline, in which trust for the story-teller’s judgement is of paramount importance, because it is much harder to show one’s work. Reinhart and Rogoff, by contrast, are not undermined to the same degree. They can provide more data and more explicit analysis to bolster others’ confidence in their work.

    It’s hard to believe that Ferguson didn’t/doesn’t believe what he said. While he may not be a “gay-basher”, it seems altogether likely that he does perceive those who are not sufficiently heteronormative by his standards as less able or less trustworthy in some more general sense. Further, he publicly demonstrated that he is at least on occasion no better at preventing his personal bias from affecting his professional judgement than Keynes, who he accuses of the same professional shortcoming.

    Moralists seem to prefer Austrian perspectives to Keynesian perspectives in part because the “bad actors” get punished. Of course, everyone else may get punished too, but that’s not so bad if you happen to be a puritan. Justice, in the sense of punishing the wicked, is far more important than overall happiness. Similarly, many socialists don’t mind so much if everyone is poor so long as disparity of outcome is held in check. These two ideologically-driven groups have more in common with each other than they do with the amoral, aggregate output maximizing sorts of economists.

    There is nothing wrong with Ferguson being a moralist. It’s just not a very popular with a lot of the people who make up his current audience. He could just own it and start making regular appearances on Fox News and speaking at CPAC.

  5. Rob Mickey’s comment — that Ferguson had elsewhere made a point about Keynes’s sexuality — makes a little bit surer of what I blogged, a quasi-Freudian interpretation: when we’re not censoring our thoughts and words, out come the thoughts that we really do have but that we don’t usually give public voice to. Ferguson’s statement resembles the morning-after, sober and sincere apology of someone who said some godawful things the night before. He truly regrets them, but those thoughts must have come from some place inside his head.

    • Andrew says:

      Jay:

      I really think the thoughts are fine. What didn’t work out so well was the crude, gay-baiting expression of them. If Ferguson had expressed his ideas on Keynes as a well-thought-out historical exploration, that could’ve been fine.

      • George says:

        I agree. Its hard to believe a Harvard professor can say this about Keynes without style!

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Right, just as it’s unfair to quote Keynes’ quip “In the long run, we’re all dead” out of context.

      And, yet, Keynes’ line really does epitomize a direction of the Bloomsbury project, just as Ferguson’s quip about Keynes’ quip epitomizes Ferguson’s own philoprogenitive conservatism.

  6. William Black has much, much more (7800 words) on Ferguson here.

    • Andrew says:

      Wow. I had no idea that Ferguson had written this about Krugman:

      His inability to debate a question without insulting his opponent suggests some kind of deep insecurity perhaps the result of a childhood trauma.

      • Roy M. says:

        I am Harvard ’71, and I have written to my class agent that I am reconsidering donating to Harvard this year over this, and I hope any others who read this and went to Harvard will do likewise. There are scholarly ways to say that people’s backgrounds may affect their beliefs, but what Ferguson said, and has said repeatedly about Keynes, and the quote about Krugman, are not one of those ways. A scholarly approach behooves you to give factual credence to your statements. In the case of Keynes, first of all Ferguson takes Keynes famous quote out of context. Keynes statement is equivalent to asking if we need to teach a captain of a boat what to do during a storm, because after all in the long-run it will be calm. Moreover, if you have read much of Keynes’ writing, he often wrote about the long-term and of future generations. What he says and proposes may or may not be correct, but it is difficult to state factually that he didn’t care about nor write about the long-term.

        And the quote about Krugman is just pure slander based on no fact at all. So Ferguson can go around saying such things, but I do not need to donate money to an institution that supports him – there are many institutions that will put my money to better use.

  7. JR says:

    I will never understand why anyone takes Ferguson at all seriously. A few years ago I picked up his highly-touted book, “The Ascent of Money.” I was about half way through, and impatient with what seemed to me to be a pretty shallow book so far, when I came to his discussion of the six crucial intellectual breakthroughs that permitted the development of insurance. Here’s number 3:

    Certainty. Jacob Bernoulli proposed in 1705 that ‘Under similar conditions, the occurrence (or non-occurrence) of an event in the future will follow the same pattern as was observed in the past.’ His Law of Large Numbers stated that inferences could be drawn with a degree of certainty about, for example, the total contents of a jar filled with two kinds of ball on the basis of a sample. This provides the basis for the concept of statistical significance and modern formulations of probabilities at specified confidence intervals (for example, the statement that 40 per cent of the balls in the jar are white, at a confidence interval of 95 per cent, implies that the precise value lies somewhwere between 35 and 45 per cent – 40 plus or minus 5 per cent).

    There may well be valuable insights in the second half of the book, but I’ll never find out. For the reasons given above by David Huelsbeck, it seems to me that this kind of ignorance makes everything he writes worthless – if he doesn’t bother to get simple things like this right, why should I trust his broader historical narratives, let alone his pronouncements about macroeconomics?

  8. Dave Backus @ NYU says:

    Niall’s a provocateur, he likes to shake things up. When that’s your MO, you risk saying something dumb, or worse.

    • Andrew says:

      Dave:

      Writing a book saying that WW1 was Britain’s fault, that’s intellectual provocation. Trying to slime someone by saying he’s gay and likes ballet and poetry, that seems more like a failed attempt on Ferguson’s part to be a “regular guy.”

  9. David says:

    I always find it interesting when people apologize for making racist or homophobic remarks they list people that they know who are gay or part of the racial group they referred to. Romney did this with Rubio, and Ferguson and Sullivan. I don’t see how having friends makes it that you don’t carry prejudices whether you are aware of them or not.