Niall Ferguson is an asshole. There, I said it. He’s a tenured professor at Harvard (of history, not economics, not that that prevents him from opening his stupid gawp about economics) and clearly worthy of respect, and I’m calling him an asshole.
I’m doing so because he deserves it. He’s said plenty of stupid things in the past, but his recent remarks about Keynes were not just stupid and uninformed (as he himself has pointed out), but also rather bigoted.
Speaking at the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference in Carlsbad, Calif., in front of a group of more than 500 financial advisors and 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.
That’s not the part that’s upsetting to me, though, because Niall Ferguson is an asshole, and most of us already knew that. The upsetting part is how few people are even mentioning what a bigoted statement Mr. Ferguson made, and instead treating it as if it were a serious intellectual argument. People all over the world of economics, even when saying Mr. Ferguson was wrong, don’t seem to realize (or care) how incredibly offensive his remarks truly were.
I am a gay man. I am childfree. I am polyamorous. My legacy is mostly going to be my ideas, and any savings I manage to accumulate over my lifetime will not pass to the children I don’t have, but rather to various nonprofit foundations or schools or the like when I die.
Does this make me incapable of thinking about the long run? Of course not. Does this mean that I am predisposed to think only of the here and now? No. Does my relatively hedonistic lifestyle mean that I’m a carefree libertine, living only for today without a thought for tomorrow, incapable of designing policies for the long run? Not in the slightest.
And that’s because I’m a fucking economist. I’m an economist who thinks about the short run, the long run, and everything between. I’m a member of the Long Now Foundation who thinks that space exploration is a great idea for the future of mankind, despite its lack of direct benefit to humans right now. One of the fields I plan to specialize in is economic development, and you really can’t get much more long-run than that. It doesn’t matter that I’m white, overweight, gay, atheist, polyamorous, or, yes, even childfree.
So we can talk about how sodomy and usury were seen as sinful because of Aristotle, or about how Keynes’s quote was taken out of context, or about how maybe Mr. Ferguson wasn’t entirely wrong (and seriously? Fuck that guy). But the point everyone is missing here is that Mr. Ferguson has impugned the abilities of every bright, motivated gay kid who might want to go into economics. And this is not the first time someone has made this argument, and nobody seems to be stepping up and saying “that argument is bullshit - being gay doesn’t make someone a totally shortsighted hedonist, and saying so is offensive“.
That failure to call him out is going to discourage entry of gay students into the field. It’s going to keep economics a club mostly for straight white males, and as a result the field will rot and die as it loses relevance to anyone else. How’s that for considering long-run outcomes?
So allow me to say it. What Mr. Ferguson said is offensive, it is bigoted, and it needs to be seen for what it is. It is like saying that women can’t make good short-run models because all they know how to do is cook and clean and care for children, or saying that black people can’t make good financial economists because they aren’t as good at saving as white people. It is that offensive and devoid of merit. Excusing it or analyzing it or trying to extract a kernel of truth from it does nothing but minimize what truly is a bigoted statement.
Mr. Ferguson has apologized. Here’s my favorite part:
If I really were a “gay-basher”, as some headline writers so crassly suggested, why would I have asked Andrew Sullivan, of all people, to be the godfather of one of my sons, or to give one of the readings at my wedding?
Wow, Mr. Ferguson. Some of my best friends are black, too. Fuck. You.