When historian Niall Ferguson made his offensive comments about John Maynard Keynes last week, he wasn’t just revealing an ugly side of own nature. He was defending his authoritarian and economically punitive ideology not only against its opponents, but against reality itself.
But then, when your best-known editorial is a 2011 piece called “Austerity Works,” reality is not your friend.
As is now well known in certain circles, Ferguson claimed that Keynes didn’t care about the future because he was a homosexual and didn’t have children. It’s not the first time Ferguson has reached for the most possible offensive analogy to support his right-wing views. (He has, for example, compared climate change to Nazi eugenics.)
Unfortunately for the Ferguson cohort, Keynesian economics has proven extraordinarily robust and trustworthy ever since the Great Depression. It has demonstrated that government spending will stimulate economic growth in recessionary times, especially under the kinds of conditions we see today.
But there is a powerful political faction which doesn’t want more government spending. One motive for that is an ideological hostility toward government itself. Another is the desire of the wealthy and corporate classes to avoid paying a more reasonable level of taxes. The third is an attachment on the part of its spokespeople for their own intellectual ideas, for reasons which may range from naked ambition to cognitive dissassociation.
As austerity economics has been increasingly discredited, its adherents have become increasingly desperate to make their case. It is in this context that Ferguson’s comments last week need to be viewed.
Ferguson’s Keynes comment was a sign of desperation. He said it while arguing, against all evidence, that his failed austerity ideology was in fact still plausible. In fact, he’s arguing that it’s a moral, historical and economic imperative.
A Ferguson admirer took notes of this now-notorious talk, which took place in California as part of a publicity tour in support of Ferguson’s latest book. He not only repeated his mad austerity demands in that talk, according to the notes, but doubled down on them. Ferguson said once again that current government spending is robbing future generations, a claim that is absurd because:
- Government deficits are falling in this country.
- European spending cuts have increased deficits and debt, to the detriment of future generations.
- Austerity cuts disproportionately harm future generations.
Ferguson also argues that we are living in a time of historic social degeneration whose other characteristics (beside this mythical intergenerational theft) are excess regulation, the rule of lawyers and the decline of civil society. While not as offensive as his “gay Keynes didn’t care” remark, these assertions are equally ridiculous:
- It is clear that a lack of regulation caused the current financial crisis, and that more regulation is needed to protect us in the future.
- We don’t have a “rule of lawyers” because, until some bankers are punished for their crimes, we don’t even have a rule of law.
There’s more, but the essence of Ferguson’s position is straight, doctrinaire, knee-jerk right wing extremism: Government is bad. Taxes are bad. Unrestrained capitalism is good. Greed is good. Yada yada yada …
Once the veneer of academic verbosity is stripped away, Ferguson is your tipsy right-wing uncle babbling conservative clichés over the cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving dinner. Since that uncle’s clichés are so often accompanied by some sort of diatribe against “fags,” his latest gaffe shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise either.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but it would appear that Professor Ferguson is something of a jerk.
As far as civil society is concerned, one is tempted to suggest that Ferguson’s the last person on Earth entitled to use the word “civil” in a sentence. But Ferguson’s “civil society” complaint deserves rebuttal, too. He claims that participation in volunteer activities has declined in recent decades, and that this proves that civil society has declined in favor of dependence on government.
In other words, he’s making Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” argument in a much more long-winded way.
But studies have shown that private charitable giving, as a percentage of income, is much greater at lower income levels than it is at higher levels. The wealthy, on whom Ferguson and his ilk would have us depend, just aren’t as generous as other people.
Other forms of civic participation may well have declined in recent decades. But what else has happened during recent decades? Thanks to the policies espoused by Ferguson and his ilk, the vast majority has experienced stagnating or declining income, had its household assets decimated by the housing crash, and iseen ts financial security shattered by unregulated corporate misbehavior.
People are busy just trying to survive.
Ferguson also used his California speech to attack Paul Krugman, according to the listener’s notes, referring to him as his “arch enemy.” In other words, Ferguson’s argument wasn’t really about the world at large. It was all about Ferguson.
Presumably Ferguson believes his own nonsense. He’s too vehement in his denial to be play-acting. But the significance of Ferguson’s remarks isn’t in his one offensive comment, and it certainly isn’t in his own personality. The significance in these flailing and failing remarks lies in what they represent. They’re the bellowing and belligerent death-rattle of a dying intellectual position, as austerity morphs from a misguided but theoretically defensible position into an aggregation of transparent falsehoods held together by threads of bias and self-interest.
As the austerity movement’s intellectual claims are discredited, its advocates are confronted with a choice: Face their own errors, correct them, and participate in honest discourse. Or cover up, obfuscate, and (in Ferguson’s case) turn mean and desperate. What we’ve seen so far suggests that these advocates will pursue is their own self interest at any cost, a goal which subsumes all others in importance.
Ferguson isn’t likely to pay a serious price for this latest offense. He’s already issued his pro forma apology. He’s presumably tenured, along with his Harvard peers Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff. (That school has taken a hit to its credibility in the last few weeks, hasn’t it?) They’ll all keep prospering, because powerful people still find them useful. And, as always in such cases, others will pay the price for their vanity and error.
But Ferguson’s impotent rage suggests that, underneath all the bluster, he knows he’s lost something he values very much. However pampered and influential he will remain, he knows that he’s been revealed as an intellectual fraud. He’ll have to live with that knowledge for the rest of his life.
Ferguson’s new book is called The Great Degeneration, which means that the last sentence of this piece pretty much writes itself. Readers can decide for themselves who and what is “degenerating” in this debate, and why.