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Wanted: A defender of John Maynard Keynes

May 07, 2013|By Patt Morrison
  • The influential British economist John Maynard Keynes, whose Keynsian policies are the bane of modern-day conservatives, in August 1945, less than a year before he died.
The influential British economist John Maynard Keynes, whose Keynsian… (Associated Press )

There are Elvis impersonators and Mark Twain impersonators and Lincoln impersonators.

Are there any John Maynard Keynes impersonators out there? Anybody?

Keynes is the British economist whose advocacy of government’s role in economic slumps has made him a hugely influential figure for decades, not to mention practically a household name, which for an economist is a very big deal.

He’s also been dead for nearly 70 years, which is why it was a bit of a one-sided discussion when Niall Ferguson, the Harvard historian who has no fondness for Keynes’ policies, called out Keynes last week on more than his economics. Ferguson was answering a question at a California conference about Keynes’ remark, apropos of long-term economic policies, that “in the long run we are all dead.”

Ferguson answered that the long run didn’t really matter to Keynes because he “was a homosexual and had no intention of having children,” according to one of the journalists there, StreetTalk Live reporter Lance Roberts, and his transcript of his notes. “We are not dead in the long run … our children are our progeny. It is the economic ideals of Keynes that have gotten us into the problems of today.”

Ferguson has since apologized abjectly for such “stupid and tactless” remarks. (Keynes was a gay man who was married, happily, and for years, to a Russian ballerina, who miscarried.) Ferguson himself has four children, the youngest of whom is a boy not quite 2 years old. I’ve met him, and he is quite cute and precociously personable.

But I’d like to hear someone who can channel Keynes, the way Val Kilmer channels Mark Twain, taking up the subject that Ferguson threw down, and then retrieved.

(If you’d like to know what Keynes’ voice sounds like and hone your own Keynes impersonation, here’s an audio moment with him, speaking about unemployment.)

Resolved: Do childless people and gay people have an alternative worldview, even arguably an invalid one, just because they are childless, or gay, or both?

The point Ferguson made, and then walked back, was that the likes of Keynes don't  have a stake in the future and so can't make reliable projections about it. “It is obvious,” Ferguson recanted, “that people who do not have children also care about future generations.”

Setting aside Ferguson’s conflation of procreation and economic policy, is this a point worth arguing? Is theirs a narrower life, as Ferguson initially suggested, or just a different one? Might being childless and/or gay give people a singular and therefore useful vantage point that mothers, fathers and straight people can’t, in their own turn, see?

That’s why I imagined a Keynes impersonator, debating Ferguson (or a Ferguson impersonator!), flipping Ferguson’s original flippant point and suggest that a childless or gay economist could in fact assess a future with clearer eyes, without the vested imperatives of parental love. Does it sound any more plausible when it’s posed as an advantage rather than as a failing?

You can extend that to an any aspect of diversity: racial and religious groups, poor people and rich people, left-handed people and red-haired people, native-born and immigrants, all of whose experiences are legitimate unto themselves, and may even prove very useful -- and not at all confining -- in broadening the professions they pursue, the lives and friendships they have, making us all the better for it. It's a point that's made about America all the time. Paradoxically, Ferguson ended up making that argument himself, albeit not about what he thought he had.

The rest of Keynes’ remark that Ferguson referenced, I found, is, “In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if, in tempestuous seasons, they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again."

In 1930, Keynes wrote an essay entitled, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” -- "Our," the first person plural possessive.

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