At an investment conference last week, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson created a huge mess for himself. He glibly speculated that maybe because economist John Maynard Keynes was a childless, "effete" homosexual, he embraced a doctrine that favored immediate economic gratification. Keynes' bon mot "in the long run, we are all dead" takes on new meaning when you realize he didn't have kids to worry about.
Following the usual script, but at a much faster clip, an uproar ensued on Twitter and in various blogs. Ferguson quickly offered an apology that rivaled John Cleese's in A Fish Called Wanda in its abjectness. It was all over before the mob could get their pots of oil to full boil.
Part of Ferguson's bad luck was to recycle an ancient jibe that too many people were too ignorant to know was old hat. Polite people didn't refer to homosexuality much in public until relatively recently, so the barbs were usually aimed at Keynes' childlessness. For instance, legendary economist Joseph Schumpeter wrote that Keynes "was childless and his philosophy of life was essentially a short-run philosophy."
This claim didn't solely come from gay-bashers and right-wingers. For instance, William Greider, a left-wing writer, argues in Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the County that Keynes' homosexuality contributed to his "defiance of social convention" and served as backdrop for his "rebellion against economic orthodoxy."
Still, I understand why Ferguson's comment aroused ire. It sounded like he was trying to discredit a widely accepted idea -- Keynesianism -- by throwing dirt on that idea's author. Worse, it trafficked in the now utterly verboten practice of ascribing any negative connotation whatsoever to homosexuality.
"In one fell swoop," economics writer James Pethokoukis observed, "Ferguson managed to clumsily and unexpectedly -- and unnecessarily -- merge current policy debates about same-sex marriage and parenting with arguments over the proper level of fiscal austerity when economies stumble. Not an easy trick."
Still, I'd really like some clarity about what the rules are now. Because I could swear that spelunking into the hidden caves of peoples' personal lives to shed light -- or cast aspersions -- on their public personas and preferred policies is the height of scholarship and wisdom these days. "The personal is political" is what my feminist professors taught me in college.