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The Keynes kerfuffle (off topic)

Psst. Keynes was a homosexual. Pass it on.

Late last week Niall Ferguson, professor of history at Harvard, gave a talk at an investment conference. In response to a question from the audience he criticized Keynes's focus on short-term economic policies and hypothesized that it was related to Keynes's homosexuality and childlessness. (When young, Keynes and the painter Duncan Grant were lovers. Later, to the great surprise of his friends, he married the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, and by all accounts they were a devoted couple.) Ferguson's remarks brought down a storm of criticism, and he beat a hasty retreat, retracting his remarks.

The incident piles irony on top of irony in a delicious seven-layer cake of ridiculousness.

1. The quote Ferguson was asked to comment on, Keynes's famous remark that "In the long run we are all dead," from the Tract on Monetary Reform, is not an argument for focusing on the short term in economic policy, but a criticism of economic analysis that concentrates on long-run equilibrium while neglecting what may be extreme, highly disruptive turbulence that occurs in the short term.

2. Keynes is the ultimate privileged dead white male, yet because of his early homosexuality the deacons of political correctness have rallied to him, arguing that it was invidious to criticize him for it.

3. If Keynes's homosexuality is not relevant, can we now get rid of all the university programs of ethnic, gender, postcolonial, and other identity studies erected on the premise that such things are relevant?

4. As Jonah Goldberg noted, Ferguson's criticism linking Keynes's short-termism to his childlessness was not new. Joseph Schumpeter, a contemporary who had the opportunity to observe Keynes and a deeper intellect than anybody who has blogged on the subject, made the criticism in his obituary of Keynes. Others have done likewise since.

5. I assume, however, that Schumpeter and others did not know that Keynes and Lopokova were not childless by choice. We now know that she had a miscarriage.

6. Ferguson's quick cave-in to political correctness must be a record for a tenured professor who is ostensibly not a man of the Left. Larry Summers held out a lot longer. Apparently the thought of living on a professor's salary and book royalties alone, seeing the speaking fees dry up, and getting the cold shoulder in the faculty lounge were too much for him. I expect better from one whose position is so secure. Perhaps it's time for Harvard to replace "Veritas" on its seal with a chicken rampant to represent the ethos of the university more accurately.

7. To top the whole thing off, there was some truth to Ferguson's remarks; it just not as direct as he asserted. As someone who has read a lot by and about Keynes, including bringing to light previously neglected material by him on two occasions, I think Keynes's homosexuality did influence his views. Although by birth an insider in the English intellectual class, Keynes's homosexuality, along with his lack of religion, gave him an outsider's perspective on many issues. One of his common modes of argument was to attempt to skewer conventional opinion, something he drew great pleasure in doing. His essay "My Early Beliefs" discusses where that quality came from and how he came to have some grudging respect for conventional opinion as he grew older. He does not discuss his early homosexuality because at the time it was still, regrettably, "the love that dare not speak its name." Keynes's first biographer, Roy Harrod, likewise omitted mention of it. Knowing about Keynes's homosexuality makes the essay even more revealing. Keynes's sexuality matters no more for the truth or error of his ideas than Plato's sexuality matters for the truth or error of Plato's ideas. It was, however, part of the psychological makeup that made Keynes unconventional and more willing to experiment with ideas than someone of otherwise similar background. There are two control cases for my claim: Keynes's father John Neville and his brother Geoffrey. Both were highly accomplished men, important in their time, but John Maynard Keynes is an immortal, in a wholly different league from them. Keynes's willingness to experiment with ideas, and change them frequently, lays his ideas on economic policy open to what I consider a fair charge that they are too focused on the short term. The experience of his times is some excuse: Keynes faced war, recession, currency crises, depression, and war again, and was always in the thick of things as a policy maker, speculator, or influential outside hectorer.  Still, he had too much confidence in his own ability to influence British economic policy and paid too little attention to the long-term consequences of his quicksilver short-term policy maneuvers.

The larger lesson for me is the continuing malign effect of political correctness. Although Ferguson's remarks were sloppy, the connections between the qualities or behavior of a thinker and his ideas are legitimate subjects of inquiry. We want to know what made significant thinkers tick because there have been so few of them. The climate that stifles such inquiry is also the climate that stifles inquiry into matters less charged by identity politics, such as the gold standard and free banking, by insulting them rather than answering them.

And now for some cherries on the top.

Despite Keynes's not being religious, I read recently that Keynes did a greater service to the Church of England than perhaps anyone else in the 20th century when he advised that after World War II it should shift many of its assets from bonds to stocks. Stocks roughly kept pace with inflation and sometimes more, while bonds did not.

Years ago, Peter Boettke told me a story about a conference where Ludwig von Mises's wife Margit was present. One of the speakers mentioned Keynes and Mises favorably in the same sentence, calling them the two greatest economists of the century. Margit von Mises rose and spluttered, "How can you compare my husband to Keynes? Keynes was a  homosexual, and let me tell you, Ludwig von Mises was no homosexual!"

Finally, for a previous post on Keynes, see here. My admiration for Keynes overall is quite strong, although I think The General Theory was his worst-written book and has many problems. As for his sex life, if he were living it today it would today be fodder for some cult series on HBO, and I don't watch HBO.

Psst. Keynes was a fascinating economist and man. Pass it on.

  • ChasVoice

    Keynes was a pedophile and pervert – – do you fit in with this brand?

    • John S

      Go away, please.

  • re: "3. If Keynes's homosexuality is not relevant, can we now get rid of all the university programs of ethnic, gender, postcolonial, and other identity studies erected on the premise that such things are relevant?"

    I'm not sure you've fully thought through this one.

    Exactly why does the relative relevance of sexuality to Keynes's thinking imply that sexuality isn't relevant to anything worth studying?

    • John S

      "university programs of ethnic, gender, postcolonial, and other identity studies"

      Honest question: Why should public funds be used to fund these programs? Basic science fine; econ, sure; but these programs–surely 75% could be cut w/o much welfare loss to anyone (besides profs and prospective profs in these fields).

    • Kurt Schuler

      Daniel, don't worry: from experience, I can tell you that after graduate school, your sense of humor will gradually return and you will be able to appreciate ideas expressed playfully, whether in a blog post or elsewhere. Sexuality can be worth studying, and in fact I explained how I thought Keynes's homosexuality contributed to his psychological makeup and creativity within the context of his time. Programs in gender studies and the like, though, have proved to be distressingly flabby. The older disciplines of biology, history, anthropology, and sociology–maybe economics as well–have better frameworks for asking good questions and getting good answers in this area.

      • Well I wasn't sure if you were joking or not – for some reason a lot of people get irrationally worked up about these departments. Notice I wasn't sputtering with rage at you – just a little incredulous. My sense of humor is very much in tact, but I appreciate the concern.

        What's odd about those sorts of departments is that the professors are often drawn precisely from sociology, anthropology, etc. (which speaks to John S point – I doubt much money is independently spent on these departments in the first place). So they easily could be folded in. Big ones: women's studies, black studies, and Hispanic studies – I'd say probably have value added as an interdisciplinary place where interested professors from a couple different departments get together and teach about something. I'm not sure about the rest. And I'm not sure I'd want my kid only majoring in that.

      • John S

        Frankly, we could axe a big chunk of humanities funding as well–and I say this as a history major. Most of what is taught is useless, and at least some parts are completely false, as this site has shown repeatedly with regard to American financial history and the history of the gold standard.

        I know nothing of anthropology, but if Graeber really is a leading figure, then I'm skeptical of that field, too. Debt was both tedious and sloppy; I lost count of the references to personal and second-hand anecdotes. The politicized battle over Chagnon's work does not inspire confidence, either.

        • When I studied physics, computer science and applied mathematics, we wanted to ax the economists too. Let's agree to ax state financed education altogether.

          Graeber lost me half-way through the Debt, but his critique of the conventional money story ("most liquid commodity") rings true.

  • McKinney

    Nice analysis! Thanks! I cringe when I read libertarians quote Keynes on the long run after learning years ago the context. Keynes was right to criticize the mainstream fixation on the very long run. The short and medium runs matter, too.

    I think you forgot one irony: the fact that Keynes married and was devoted to his wife is one piece of evidence that homosexuals can change, something the crowd that promotes homosexuality as the ultimate virtue missed.

    I don’t share your appreciation for Keynes as an economist. I tend to agree with Hayek who said in an interview that Keynes knew very little economics. I believe it was the same interview in which Hayek called Keynes the greatest man he ever knew.

    My general impression of Keynes is that he was the ultimate politician. He was always quick to get out in front of popular policy and lend it an air of academic legitimacy. After all, his policies had been popular for decades before he wrote GT.

  • Bill Stepp

    As an economist Keynes was a pretty good rapper.
    That's why they call him Maynard K…

  • John S

    Margit von Mises rose and spluttered, "How can you compare my husband to Keynes? Keynes was a homosexual, and let me tell you, Ludwig von Mises was no homosexual!"

    From now on, his name is Ludwig Bone Mrs.