There are certain debates that inevitably implicate gay rights, and in which conservatives will take swipes at what they take to be the supposed moral shortcomings of their opponents. The legal challenges to California’s Proposition 8, which prevented that state from legally sanctioning same-sex marriages, together constitute one obvious example.
The arguments from Prop 8’s proponents, though predictable, were still almost humorous in their weakness. When the case reached the Supreme Court last month, the lawyer who argued for “traditional marriage” tried to claim that gays should be denied the right to marry because the “purpose” of marriage is to enable human reproduction—and, because same-sex couples cannot reproduce, the lawyer argued, they cannot be allowed to marry.
Various justices on the Court were barely able to hide their mirth, when confronting this absurd claim. Are we to deny the right to marry for opposite-sex couples who cannot have children because, say, they are too old to be fertile? The lawyer’s answers became more and more difficult to take seriously. Although we do not know how the Court will decide the Prop 8 case, we have certainly seen how difficult it was to make a serious argument that marriage is for straight people because only they can reproduce.
Even though the arguments against same-sex marriage were extraordinarily weak, at least it made sense that the lawyer on that side of the case would try to make them. But how can we explain the sudden spectacle of a high-profile conservative commentator who, last week, invoked the supposed inability of gay people to have children—and then bizarrely offered that as a reason not to listen to economists who favor temporary increases in deficits, in order to fight the ongoing weakness of the U.S. and global economies?
The connection, it turns out, is based on the idea that John Maynard Keynes, the great economist from Cambridge University in England and the father of modern macroeconomics, was supposedly driven to ignore the well-being of future generations because he himself was childless. And this claim, it turns out, was not some one-off foolish comment by one hapless conservative pundit. In fact, the claim that Keynesians heartlessly harm future generations because Keynes himself was a homosexual and had no children (a rendition of history that itself ignores Keynes’s marriage to a woman, who miscarried) has been part of the ugly background of anti-Keynesian commentary for years.
This recent episode of epic stupidity, therefore, should not be a moment in which we focus merely on the comment itself. Instead, it offers us an opportunity to explain why Keynesian economics—which, correctly applied, would have us increasing spending and cutting taxes today, so as finally to end the suffering of millions of people in the aftermath of the Great Recession—is the most pro-children, pro-future, pro-humanity economic philosophy ever devised.
The Sorry Details of the Recent Controversy: A Harvard History Professor Says Something Extremely Stupid, and Sort of Apologizes for It
Professor Niall Ferguson, of Harvard’s History Department, has over the last decade or so become a bit of a star commentator for right-wing audiences. Though not an economist, he has taken to criticizing Keynes and Keynesians for their supposedly misguided policies.
As so often happens with academics who cross over into ideological hothouses, Ferguson soon threw off any pretense of making defensible arguments. During last year’s electoral campaign, he penned a hysterical attack on President Obama that was so disconnected from reality that the magazine in which it was published was ultimately forced to retract the story and apologize—even though it had been the magazine’s cover story.
Ferguson, therefore, was hardly a disinterested academic with a pristine reputation, before he stuck his foot in his mouth last week. At a gathering of financial professionals in California, Ferguson claimed that Keynes’s supposed homosexuality and childlessness explained his lack of concern for future generations.
This argument, of course, is of a piece with Republicans’ unrelenting claims that Keynesian policies “heap debt on the backs of our children and grandchildren.” The idea must apparently be that Keynesians must all be gay and childless, because only those without genetic offspring could possibly be so heartless as to destroy the future prospects of other people’s children.
In a sign that times have changed for the better, however, Ferguson’s remarks were not well received—even by his otherwise sympathetic audience—and he quickly realized that he had made a very big mistake. He soon issued an apology, calling his comments “as stupid as they were insensitive.”
Although this retraction is to be applauded, what Ferguson called his “unqualified apology” was not exactly as brave as it appeared. He said that his stupid comments were part of “an off-the-cuff response that was not part of my presentation,” suggesting that somehow these fleeting and ill-formed thoughts had suddenly entered his head, without the opportunity for him to consider them more carefully before they exited from his mouth, and that with more consideration, he would have spoken more wisely, and would do so in the future.
Unfortunately, it has since turned out that Professor Ferguson has gone to this well before, including similar gay-bashing comments about Keynes made at least as far back as 1999—comments that Ferguson published in written form, not as part of some ill-considered rush of words while standing onstage with a microphone. Ferguson, therefore, at least appears to be trying to rewrite his own history, claiming to have innocently blundered into a very unfortunate set of comments that he was very anxious to retract, as they did not reflect his true views. The record, however, suggests otherwise.
The Right’s Ad Hominem Attacks on Keynes: Ugliness Is as Ugliness Does
Although Ferguson’s role in this recent drama is an important part of the story, what matters much more is that the logically irrelevant attacks on Keynes’s personal life have been part of the territory in right-wing circles for quite some time. Whatever one thinks of Ferguson’s comments or the sincerity (or lack thereof) of his apology, therefore, we should not lose sight of the bigger picture: For decades, the forces of reaction have been combining their socially-retrograde attitudes with their economically-regressive policy positions, to the detriment of the well-being of all people—children and adults alike.
As part of the reaction to Ferguson last week, for example, some progressive commentators pointed out that other right-wing heroes have, over the decades, made sneering remarks about Keynes’s sexuality. The first time I became aware of this tendency was in 1986, when a friend in graduate school told me about an incident at a conference of economists who were discussing Keynes’s most famous book: The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money.
That book had been published in 1936, and the 50th anniversary of its publication coincided with Harvard’s 350th anniversary celebration. Because Harvard had been the most important American university through which Keynes’s ideas were brought to the attention of U.S. policymakers during the Great Depression, it made sense that Harvard’s Economics Department would commemorate Keynes’s most important work.
As part of that discussion, however, one of the anti-Keynesian conservative economists on the panel began his remarks by noting that Keynes “had no children.” He emphasized those words, my colleague told me later, with eyebrows arched and in a way that everyone in the room knew that he was really intending to remind everyone that Keynes had been gay.
To the credit of the other economists in the room, that clumsy attempt at gay bashing was met with derision. For the remainder of the panel, every time anyone mentioned any other economist who was known to have been childless, someone would lean forward and say, “. . . who also had no children!” Even in a much less enlightened time, therefore, the Keynes-as-gay card was not a surefire winner.
Sadly, as noted above, other politicians and commentators have continued trying to use this ugly strategy, leading to last week’s imbroglio. The good news is that this high-profile embarrassment might finally put this hateful (and irrelevant) strategy to rest.
Who Cares Most About Future Generations? The Keynesian Case for Building a Prosperous Future
The claim that a childless person—no matter what her or his sexual orientation might be—would somehow not care about the well-being of other human beings is obviously insane. To take only one of many prominent examples, plenty of people take vows of chastity for religious or other reasons, and then dedicate their lives to the benefit of children. And, sadly, plenty of people who do have children fail to care for them, and even actively harm or kill them. There is clearly nothing about having children that necessarily makes a person more or less selfish about the future.
But what about Keynes’s most famous quote: “In the long run, we are all dead.” Does that not betray a callous disregard for those who will come after we have all passed form the earth? Hardly.
Keynes’s comment was made in response to the claim of his ideological opponents during the Great Depression that, if we were to wait long enough, the economy would eventually return to something approximating full employment. Keynes was arguing against the idea that it was acceptable simply to wait for the economy to mend itself, while millions of people starved, lost their livelihoods, and saw their children’s lives destroyed.
Keynes was, therefore, saying that getting to the long run requires living through the present—not that we should not care about the long run because we will not be there to enjoy it. Keynes was thus arguing that caring about others, today and in the future, involves not merely standing idly by while millions of people wonder whether they and their families will survive until next week, much less until the next generation. It requires us to allow people to thrive, now and in the future.
This concern for others is especially notable because John Maynard Keynes, of all people, was well situated to ride out the Great Depression in comfort. He was the son of a prominent Cambridge economist, and a successful financier in his own right. He was part of the “Bloomsbury Group,” an influential salon of thinkers and artists who included E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and Mary McCarthy. After his younger days of sexual exploration, he fell in love with and married a ballerina. His economics colleagues, moreover, strongly disapproved of his unorthodox views. The easier, and surely tempting, route for Keynes would have been simply to stay silent and let others suffer.
Modern Keynesians, moreover, not only take seriously the idea that we need to worry about getting from the short run to the long run, but we also hold that getting to the best possible long run involves much more than actively fighting recessions and depressions. For a modern Keynesian, it is crucially important to bring the economy quickly back to full employment, and it is also essential to engage in ongoing policies that will bequeath to future generations a more productive economy. (This was also a serious concern for Keynes himself, but he was understandably preoccupied with fighting the ravages of the Great Depression.)
Indeed, another of Keynes’s frequently misunderstood and maligned arguments was designed precisely to expose the folly of anti-Keynesians’ arguments against government investment in the economy’s future prosperity.
Keynes started by noting that the best way to fight a recession would be to build for the future: improving the housing stock for all citizens, for example, and investing in the future growth of the economy.
But, Keynes acidly pointed out, the “captains of industry” hated this idea, because they did not want the government to do anything that was “bad for business.” So Keynes offered a sarcastic compromise: Because the captains of industry uniformly approved of the wasteful activity of sending thousands of men into the wilderness to dig up money in the form of gold, the government could send out teams of workers to bury money in tubes, at which point good capitalists would have a profit-motivated reason to hire still other otherwise-idle workers to go dig up the tubes of money.
Keynes was all too aware, of course, that this would be a terrible waste of human talent and effort, because it would be far better to fight the Depression by putting people to work on projects with long-term benefits for generations yet to come. But if the captains of industry insisted on waste, then at least Keynes’s proposal would give people the dignity of work—and the paychecks that the workers would receive (and spend on groceries, and so on) would make it more likely that the economy would finally recover, allowing families to move forward into a more prosperous future.
But what about all the debt that the government would be taking on? The answer, of course, is that it is simply good management to take on debt, when the money is spent on projects that pay off in future economic dividends.
Borrowing money to spend on the rebuilding of our schools, on basic scientific research, on nutrition for disadvantaged children, on the infrastructure that will be necessary for future prosperity, and so on, will make future generations better off, not worse off. As I sometimes tell my students, if my grandparents had borrowed money to buy shares in a prosperous company for me, the value of those shares would more than outweigh the debt that I would inherit. Rather than burdening me with debt, they would have blessed me with it.
In the end, this is the most important lesson of the debate over what Keynes’s policies would do for future generations. From the beginning of the Great Recession, the forces of reaction in the U.S. and Europe have fought tooth-and-nail to prevent Keynesian policies from being adopted.
Conservatives have denigrated the idea that government can ever invest in the future—ignoring the government’s role in the building of railroads in the 19th century, creating the breakthroughs that led to the Internet and every other technological advancement of the 20th century, the building of our great universities (public and private), and universal public education. They convinced President Obama to scale down his stimulus program to the point that it was too small for the task, and they insisted that the program involve as little investment spending, and as much tax cuts for the wealthy, as possible.
Had the current followers of Keynes—that childless man, who had both heterosexual and homosexual relationships during his life—been listened to, unemployment would now be much lower, economic growth would be higher, and the prospects of young people would be far better than they are today. Yes, there would be more government debt; but if our experience in the years after Keynes’s path-breaking contributions shows us anything, it is that we can have prosperity sufficient to shrink the debt as a share of the growing economy.
It is a tragedy that we have temporarily forgotten that lesson. Maybe that will now change, and future generations of schoolchildren will learn that a stupid remark by a Harvard historian in 2013 helped to break us out of our self-defeating prejudices. We can only hope.