In Niall Ferguson's world, only Niall Ferguson cares about the future

Historian Niall Ferguson's entry into the world of U.S. political punditry during the last presidential election was a little bit rocky. But he seems in no hurry to retreat to the ivory tower. 

Ferguson came under fire this weekend for analysis he offered at a recent investors' conference which comes off a bit more Family Research Council than Harvard:

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.

It gets worse.

Ferguson, who is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, and author of The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, says it's only logical that Keynes would take this selfish worldview because he was an "effete" member of society. Apparently, in Ferguson's world, if you are gay or childless, you cannot care about future generations nor society.

Ferguson has offered an "unqualified apology" for his remarks, writing "My disagreements with Keynes’s economic philosophy have never had anything to do with his sexual orientation" and "As those who know me and my work are well aware, I detest all prejudice, sexual or otherwise."

Apparently, though, this isn't the first time Ferguson has taken a gratuitous shot at Keynes' sexuality. According to economist Michael Kitson, he made similar remarks at a seminar at Cambridge 20 years ago. In his 1998 book The Pity of War, Ferguson wrote of the economist's anti-war stance that the "war itself made Keynes deeply unhappy. Even his sex life went into decline, perhaps because the boys he liked to pick up in London all joined up."

First of all, Ferguson's reading of Keynes' biography seems to be a little off. A Judith Mackrell, a biographer of Keynes wife Lydia Lopokova writes, "Like many men of his generation whose early experiences were homosexual, he didn't discount the idea of marriage and children." According to several accounts, Keynes and Lopokova did have a sexual relationship and the reasons they didn't have children were probably medical rather than a matter of preference.

And as Ezra Klein points out, gay couples actually tend to save more than their straight counterparts: 

Brighita Negrusa and Sonia Oreffice, for instance, analyzed census data and found that even after controlling for age, education and other socioeconomic factors, “gay and lesbian couples own significantly more retirement income than heterosexuals.” Part of the difference, of course, is that gay couples are much less likely to have children than straight couples, which means they have more household income left over to save.

Sexuality aside, Ferguson's statement is a variation on an argument he elaborates on in greater depth in his new book The Great Degeneration, that "excessive public debts are a symptom of the breakdown of the social contract between the generations." That's a defensible position, but it's a bit undermined by his habit of searching out dubious reasons why those who disagree with him don't understand what's good for them.

In the book, he writes: 

I want to suggest that the biggest challenge facing mature democracies is how to restore the social contract between the generations. But I recognize that the obstacles to doing so are daunting. Not the least of these is that the young find it quite hard to compute their own long-term economic interests. It's surprisingly easy to win the support of young voters for policies that would ultimately make matters even worse for them, like maintaining defined benefit pensions for public employees. If young Americans knew what was good for them, they would all be fans of Paul Ryan.

But what's worse, the problem isn't just young people (or gay people), we learn on the next page that old people can't be trusted with the nation's economic future either:

It is perhaps not surprising that a majority of current voters should support policies of inter-generational inequity, especially when older voters are so much more likely to vote than younger voters. 

I'm not quite sure I follow this. It's apparently a problem that young people aren't supporting Paul Ryan but also a problem that too many old people are voting, even though six out of 10 of them supported Ryan's ticket in the last election. I also wonder if Ferguson would have been making the case that young people are inherently unable to calculate their longterm interests in 1984 and 1988 when Republicans took the youth vote, and analysts were writing things like "It is said that the future belongs to the young, which gives the Republican Party a lot to look forward to."

(The review copy of the book I have goes on to cite Reinhart and Rogoff's 90 percent of GDP equals negative growth finding. I'm curious to see if that will be revised before the final edition comes out this summer.)

Again, Ferguson's arguments about longterm debt are worthy of debate, but it's a little hard to have that conversation when he seems to take the view that only straight, middle-aged people with children (people like Niall Ferguson) are able to make informed longterm decisions about the economy.