The Economic Homophobia of Niall Ferguson

A gaffe according to the oft-repeated definition is getting caught saying something you actually believe.

Last week Harvard Professor and Daily Beast contributor Niall Ferguson offered an "unqualified apology" after remarking that the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes should be ignored because of his purported sexuality.

In the Harvard Crimson he seems to withdraw at least the “unqualified” nature of his remorse claiming “not for one moment did I mean to suggest that Keynesian economic as a body of thought was simply a function of Keynes' sexuality.” According to the economist, “nor can it be true--as some of my critics apparently believe--that his sexuality is totally irrelevant to our historical understanding of the man.”

Ferguson goes on to state “Keynes' sexual orientation did have historical significance. The strong attraction he felt for the German banker Carl Melchior undoubtedly played a part in shaping Keynes' view on the Treaty of Versailles and its aftermath.”

Pop psychological gay baiting economic analysis is nothing new for Ferguson. UC Berkley economist Brad Delong highlighted the following passage of a 1995 American Spectator article:

“the ideas contained in The Economic Consequences of the Peace” “owed as much to his homosexuality as to his Germanophilia...” for “there is no question that the attraction Keynes felt for [Carl Melchior] strongly influenced his judgment...”

Furthermore University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers located a passage in The Pity of War where Ferguson makes this claim: “Though his work in the Treasury gratified his sense of self-importance, the war itself made Keynes deeply unhappy. Even his sex life went into a decline, perhaps because the boys he liked to pick up in London all joined up.”

In fairness to Ferguson, conservative economists have launched attacks on Keynes' sexuality for decades.

It's clear that Niall Ferguson was not apologetic for making the remark, instead he was contrite about being caught making the remark in public -- the economic equivalent of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock.

Ferguson's attack on Keynes comes at a time when his own economic fundamentals are on the defensive. The academic grounding of the austerity crowd's recent efforts, the Reinhart-Rogoff study, is now the subject of late night mockery. The Keynesian view, now carried forward in public policy debates most strongly by Paul Krugman, is resurging and Ferguson is lashing out.

What Ferguson should really be apologetic for is not his simply economic homophobia -- there is no other appropriate term for claiming the beliefs of one of history's most noted economists should be distrusted because he enjoyed sex with men. J.K. Trotter of The Atlantic cut to the heart of the matter when he summed up Ferguson's argument as “being gay means you don't actually care about the welfare of children or the future of mankind.”

Instead, the austerity economics Ferguson has pressed in the media has pushed policies condemning millions to the unemployment line. For this, I doubt any apology -- unqualified or not -- is forthcoming.