Conservative historian Niall Ferguson, the other day, said not to listen to what early 20th century economist John Maynard Keynes had to say because he was gay and childless and prissy (he liked poetry and ballet!).
It apparently has been a thing among conservatives going back to the 1930's, calling Keynes gay to discredit him. Brad Delong has quite a few quotations from conservatives saying, as he puts it: "Keynes was a perv and Keynesianism is pervy and Keynesians are perhaps perverts themselves."
To say that Keynes is an influential economist is an understatement. Macroeconomics wasn't a separate field until well after The General Theory was published, and his observations made it into most macro models that followed.
But conservatives don't like him. Conservatives who don't understand The General Theory hate him because his most famous policy implication was the government can do a lot to help the economy. Worse still, most people who say they hate Keynes don't understand the evidence, the reasoning, and the intuition that went into building the theoretical framework that makes government intervention in recessions the optimal response. I've even seen liberals over the last few days refer to The General Theory as an "ideology" or "philosophy," when it's about as scientific as one can get in economics. It's OK not to like his work, but at least engage the work.
I should take that back - conservatives who understand Keynes tend to hate him even more.
Some of the intuitions that went into The General Theory are anathema to conservative ideology: that bankers care more about making a quick buck at the casino than they do about soundly allocating investment dollars;that unemployment is often caused by there not being jobs, not just the lazy rabble refusing to work for lower wages; and that saving money (which mostly rich people do) isn't a noble action of moral purity that will save us all from our sin.
They hate him because, if his basic insights become dogma, then they lose their favorite cudgel with which to beat the poors into shutting up and listening to their betters.
Ferguson's other insult - that Keynes was childless and that's why he didn't care about the long-run - is vile considering both that Keynes's wife miscarried and that people without children care as much about the future as anyone else does. How many famous pundits and thinkers with kids couldn't care less about education, protecting the environment, and maintaining a functional democracy for future generations? It's safe to assume that having children - which is often caused by not thinking of the future - is uncorrelated with caring about the long-term future.
And, since I'm a nerd, it's offensive because it completely misunderstands the term "short-run" as used by economists. It doesn't mean "right now" in an absolute sense - there's a short-run in the year 1935 just as much as there is in the year 2013. Solving recessions so that they don't happen (it can be done) would help people alive today and people alive several generations from now. Figuring out how to implement a solution now would be one of the best things we could do for future generations, especially since short-run recessions can reduce long-run capacity.
There's a reason Keynes called his famous book the "General Theory," not the "Short-Run Theory."
Anyway, the most telling response to this fracas was written by rightwing hack Jonah Goldberg, where he says he understands why people would be offended by blatant homophobia, but that this is a central component of the conservative critique of Keynes: Keynes was gay, meaning he rejected morality itself, so clearly everything he wrote is subject to God-hating infidel taint.
Goldberg notes the same change I did: it wasn't all that long ago that conservatives could call anyone a fag and still be considered respectable. What gives?
What I find interesting about the Ferguson controversy is how disconnected it is from the past. Even academics I respect reacted to Ferguson's comments as if they bordered on unimaginable, unheard-of madness. I understand that we live in a moment where any negative comment connected to homosexuality is not only wrong but "gay bashing." But Ferguson was trafficking in an old theory that was perfectly within the bounds of intellectual discourse not very long ago. Now, because of a combination of indifference to intellectual history and politically correct piety he must don the dunce cap. Good to know.
Ferguson's faux-pology for his comments contended that they were spur-of-the-moment. Just a mistake in a public Q & A (strange - I know lots of people who don't make mistakes like that). Except he's been calling Keynes queer for a long time, including making reference to it in his published book.
It is surprising, in a good way, that our culture has changed so quickly on this matter. Ferguson's homophobia was just as wrong in the 80's as it is today, but people are starting to treat it as such.
In 2007 Ann Coulter got criticized for calling John Edwards a fag to a conservative audience, but she suffered no consequences for her comments. She still appeared in mainstream press. If she lost any fame, it had more to do with the end of the US caring about the War in Iraq than her comment on Edwards.
Niall Ferguson also thought he was among friends, but things have changed dramatically in 6 years.
And that's because of the work of lots of people, many of them childless, who didn't want future generations to live in a world with homophobia.