The real meaning of Niall Ferguson’s John Maynard Keynes-was-gay jibe

From The American Prospect:

JohnJohn Maynard Keynes was the sexiest economist who ever lived. This might seem like half-hearted praise since in our mind’s eye the typical economist appears as a dowdy and almost always balding man, full of prudential advice about thrift and the miracle of compound interest. Keynes, with his caterpillar moustache and mesmerizing bedroom eyes, cut a more dashing figure. He had many lovers of both genders, and was married to one of the great beauties of the age, the ballerina Lydia Lopokova. His genius at playing the stock market allowed him to enjoy the life of bon vivant, socializing with the writers and artists of the Bloomsbury group such as Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster rather than dull number crunchers he knew at Cambridge and in the British Treasury. While other economists focused on maximizing economic growth, Keynes wanted to go further and maximize the pleasures of life. Given all this, it’s perhaps not surprising that a much-publicized recent attack on the Keynesian policy of using government deficits to overcome economic recession resorted to homophobia to discredit it. Last Friday, in a question and answer session following his lecture, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson startled his audience at the Altegris Strategic Investment Conference in California by calling Keynes a childless gay man who couldn’t give his wife conjugal satisfaction and had no concern for the impact of deficits on posterity. A storm of criticism followed, and in an effort to salvage his reputation, Ferguson—a vocal critic of both President Obama’s mild stimulus policies and the more ambitious Keynesianism of economists like Paul Krugman—quickly and comprehensively apologized, saying his original remarks were “stupid as they were insensitive” and “disagreements with Keynes’s economic philosophy have never had anything to do with his sexual orientation.” Ferguson’s gaffe came in the wake of the recent news that an influential 2010 study by his Harvard colleagues Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, which had seemed to show a hard threshold beyond which deficits hampered economic growth, turned out to depend heavily on an Excel spread sheet error as well as other elementary methodological flaws. While austerity’s advocates have enjoyed an inexplicable ascendancy in the political world since the beginning of the current great recession, the scrutiny of Ferguson as well as Reinhart and Rogoff has put deficit hawks on the intellectual defensive.

Ferguson’s repudiation of his original homophobic comments should be commended. But Ferguson has a history of making jibes about Keynes’s sexuality. University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers called attention to the fact that in Ferguson’s 1999 book The Pity of War, Keynes is described as being depressed by World War I, in part, because “the boys he liked to pick up in London all joined up.” Later in the same book, Ferguson toys with the idea that Keynes may have been influenced to become a harsh critic of the Treaty of Versailles by an attraction to the German negotiator Carl Melchior. (Its embarrassing to have to refute arrant nonsense with facts and logic, but Keynes was likely depressed by the war because he didn’t like pointless mass slaughter, while his Treaty of Versailles critique was vindicated by the post-war political and economic chaos he predicted). But there is something deeper and weirder going on here. Homophobic slurs against Keynes, it turns out, have a long pedigree. As both Berkeley economist Brad DeLong and the Washington Monthly’s Kathleen Geier have documented, the attempt to dismiss Keynes as someone heedless about the future because he was a childless gay man has been a staple of conservative thought for nearly seven decades.

More here.