Saturday, May 11, 2013

Ferguson made an awful argument about Keynes; he made an even worse argument about homosexuals

This point, I think, has slipped through the cracks in a lot of ways but it is made forcefully by Dave Churvis (a gay economics student and friend of this blog) here. This blog concerns itself a lot with Keynes, so I too slipped into pointing out what a dumb read of Keynes it was. I did call it offensive I think, but offensive doesn't quite cover it all. Offensive is something like "all gay people are pedophiles". Yes, it's offensive, but it doesn't even pretend to be a serious argument - so we can usually say "that's offensive and wrong" and be done with it. Dave is right to point out that Ferguson's argument went a lot further than that. There was actually an implicit argument he was making that was truly heinous not to mention complete nonsense. Most of us were caught up in the Keynes "argument" and not this "argument".

Here's Dave: 
"That’s not the part that’s upsetting to me, though, because Niall Ferguson is an asshole, and most of us already knew that. The upsetting part is how few people are even mentioning what a bigoted statement Mr. Ferguson made, and instead treating it as if it were a serious intellectual argument. People all over the world of economics, even when saying Mr. Ferguson was wrong, don’t seem to realize (or care) how incredibly offensive his remarks truly were.

I am a gay man. I am childfree. I am polyamorous. My legacy is mostly going to be my ideas, and any savings I manage to accumulate over my lifetime will not pass to the children I don’t have, but rather to various nonprofit foundations or schools or the like when I die.

Does this make me incapable of thinking about the long run? Of course not. Does this mean that I am predisposed to think only of the here and now? No. Does my relatively hedonistic lifestyle mean that I’m a carefree libertine, living only for today without a thought for tomorrow, incapable of designing policies for the long run? Not in the slightest.

And that’s because I’m a fucking economist. I’m an economist who thinks about the short run, the long run, and everything between. I’m a member of the Long Now Foundation who thinks that space exploration is a great idea for the future of mankind, despite its lack of direct benefit to humans right now. One of the fields I plan to specialize in is economic development, and you really can’t get much more long-run than that. It doesn’t matter that I’m white, overweight, gay, atheist, polyamorous, or, yes, even childfree.

So we can talk about how sodomy and usury were seen as sinful because of Aristotle [DK: an Alex Tabbarrok post - Alex of course wasn't advocating this idea], or about how Keynes’s quote was taken out of context [DK: lots of us, me included], or about how maybe Mr. Ferguson wasn’t entirely wrong [DK: Kurt Schuler - but I think Dave needs to read this closely. Kurt was not agreeing with Ferguson's point at all - he was making a far more reasonable point about the potential relevance of Keynes's homosexuality {really bisexuality - why do we keep saying homosexuality??}] (and seriously? Fuck that guy). But the point everyone is missing here is that Mr. Ferguson has impugned the abilities of every bright, motivated gay kid who might want to go into economics. And this is not the first time someone has made this argument, and nobody seems to be stepping up and saying “that argument is bullshit - being gay doesn’t make someone a totally shortsighted hedonist, and saying so is offensive“.

That failure to call him out is going to discourage entry of gay students into the field. It’s going to keep economics a club mostly for straight white males, and as a result the field will rot and die as it loses relevance to anyone else. How’s that for considering long-run outcomes?


  1. The worst is that it's not only Ferguson. Hoppe has made the same argument, and there's a lot of kids out there who believe him. That's why, while I prefer a tempered tone, I didn't think twice about calling Ferguson the "stupidest man alive." And, okay, maybe Hoppe is just ignorant. But, Ferguson is a historian, and there's a wide literature on Keynes and his motivations. He should know better.

    1. I think that's the thing that frustrates me the most about Ferguson. By all accounts, he really is quite brilliant; he just seems to have these major ideological blind spots.

  2. "I’m a member of the Long Now Foundation who thinks that space exploration is a great idea for the future of mankind..."

    Nuff said.

    1. If you're curious about why I feel space exploration is a net positive for mankind, I would direct you to the post I made on the subject:

      Like I said, I can consider the long run despite being childfree :)

  3. I realize that Schuler wasn't agreeing with Ferguson, but he was still pointing to Keynes's bisexuality as something that made him an outsider, and thus more willing to take on popular ideas from a different angle. I don't really see that, and in my experience, most people who have to be closeted tend to stay very close to orthodoxy. Keynes was practically an iconoclast, and it wasn't his bisexuality that made him so as far as I can tell. I really wasn't a fan of most of what he said, especially the bit about "identity studies" - he's quite derisive of them when he doesn't have a whole lot of solid ground to stand on.

  4. Ferguson's comments aside...I don't think it's that outrageous to think that people who don't have children (gay or not gay) pay less attention to the future. And I don't mean philosophically speaking (whether we should go to the moon, e.g.); I just mean in a private, way-of-life sense. It's a pretty obvious hypothesis, right? If you don't have children (or an heir that you care about) your financial behavior is probably going to be different (in fundamental ways) than someone who does. Is that really a nonsense hypothesis?

    And it wouldn't be impossible to test. There's different ways (each with their own flaws) of measuring future-oriented private behavior. Get data on childless individuals and similar individuals with children (ideally childless individuals who were physically not capable - then you'd have less selection issues) and compare measures of future mindedness.

    Now, I don't give much credence to the next argument: less future-mindedness spills over into how you theorize. But even then, it's not a crazy hypothesis. It's somewhat analogous to the: "if you haven't run a business you don't know what's good for the economy" type argument - which most people don't pay much attention to.

    And no disrespect to Churvis, but I really don't buy the argument that Ferguson has-had/will-have any discernible effect on gay kids going into economics. Look at the bigger picture. If Keynes was bisexual and arguably the greatest known modern economist, Ferguson's comments are just an insignificant blip.

    1. It would be an interesting test to make, but I don't even know that that's necessary. It is well-established that couples without children spend more on themselves than couples with children. I'm curious what kind of future savings differentials there are in each case, but I can also say anecdotally that my DINK (Dual-Income, No Kids) friends are able to travel more, buy nicer houses and things for those houses, etc. than can my friends with children. The plural of anecdote is not data, of course, but you get the idea.

      As for my argument, of course I'm theorizing here. But think of it this way - let's say that there's a gay student who's trying to decide what path he wants to take in life. He might have varying interests - economics, law, history, what have you - but he doesn't feel very strongly about any specific field. However, he gets the sense that economics in particular operates as kind of an "old men's club", one where he might feel especially unwelcome. Is he going to go into economics in that situation, or is he going to go into one of the other fields, where he'll feel more respected?

      This scenario plays itself out in the sciences as well, when it comes to women. Most female students realize rather early on that biology, chemistry, physics, and math, are very heavily male-oriented, and it is hard for women to reach the top of those fields. As such, many women choose to go into health science, environmental science, or other emerging fields. It's definitely a crowding-out effect, and it's not easy to see unless you've been on the wrong end of the bias. I take no disrespect at all, especially because it's not exactly easy to see. But it does happen.

    2. 1. Even if it were true that homosexuals have higher time preference than heterosexuals, it doesn't follow that this motivated Keynes' economic work. Ferguson was essentially ascribing bad intentions to Keynes, which is ironic, given how bigoted Ferguson's remark is.

      2. Children aren't the only reason to save. This is only a personal anecdote (and, probably, a stereotype), but homosexuals tend to invest more in their communities. They invest to raise property values, and there is a positive externality associated with increasing property values for the entire community. This is my experience here in San Diego. I used to live in an area that was thereafter saw an increasing homosexual resident community, and they made the area beautiful. The same is true with my experience in Madrid. Chueca, now considered "the gay community" in Madrid, was fairly ugly 30 years ago. Since it has become a gay community, it's one of the most beautiful areas of Madrid.

    3. re: "And no disrespect to Churvis, but I really don't buy the argument that Ferguson has-had/will-have any discernible effect on gay kids going into economics."

      Dave, I imagine, is doing exactly what an economist should do: thinking on the margin.

    4. @Dave Churvis:

      Not to quibble, but my recollection of the data, (plus anecdotal evidence) is that Biology graduate programs are actually dominated by women.

    5. @PrometheeFeu: I think you actually might be right about biology at all but the highest levels; I may be mixing in biology with the other sciences unfairly. But I know that physics and math are very male-dominated programs.

    6. @Dave Churvis:

      I believe that you are correct and that while women dominate biological graduate programs, men outnumber women in tenured positions in the field. (even when accounting for cohort effects) I don't remember at what point (post-doc or later the composition changes) Regardless, I believe your point is a very accurate one.

  5. Would it bring some needed levity if I said, "Mr. Churvis shouldn't be dropping so many f-bombs in his blog posts, if he's thinking about his future career"? Probably not.

    1. I'm tempted to say "oh fuck off Bob", but that would be immature :)

    2. Heh, that made me laugh. I suppose if I ever find myself looking for a job as Niall Ferguson's research assistant, I may have some explaining to do :)

  6. While I'm late to the conversation, and as poor as Niall Ferguson's remarks on Keynes's sexuality were...

    Economists encourage people to "think at the margin" (i.e., ignore irrelevant sunk cost and consider the best option for one going into the future).

    However, in practice, a good number of decision-makers (as verified by observation and experimentation by social scientists) make choices that clearly indicate that they ARE affected by irrelevant sunk cost.

    In the long-term, Niall Ferguson's poor comments should not affect anyone's decision to go into the study of economics - for one thing, despite the fact that Ferguson has published scholarly material on economic matters, he is not an economist by training, he is a historian by training, so that aspect ought to be factored into one's decision: "Ferguson isn't even part of the profession that Keynes was in - so why should his impolite remarks affect my view of the economics profession?"

    At some point in life, every one of us would likely have heard unpleasant things said about a particular person or a particular group for whatever reason, and we may have said things about a particular person or a group that others would consider distasteful and hurtful.

    But going forward, why should any of us dwell and ruminate on something distasteful or hurtful that someone said at a particular point in time, regardless of whether or not the person who made such a statement has apologized or not?

    In practice, people don't forgive so easily nor do they forget so easily, even with the passage of time, especially when they're hurt.

    The fact that Daniel P. Kuehn describes his friend, Dave Churvis, as an economist "thinking on the margin" really is incorrect.

    I am not trying to say that Dave Churvis's feelings should be disregarded, or that he wasted his time being angry at Niall Ferguson and any other people that may have said similar things about Keynes or any other economist not of heterosexual orientation.

    I am merely saying that Kuehn is incorrect to describe Churvis as thinking on the margin in this instance - in the long-term, he ought to treat Ferguson's remarks as a sunk cost. But the fact that Churvis is right in his observation that Ferguson's remark very possibly might affect people's decisions to go into economics means that people aren't treating Ferguson's remark (I'm even setting Ferguson's attempts to apologise aside) as a by-gone thing: ergo, people aren't thinking at the margin in this instance!

    (I suppose one could add that Churvis and Kuehn wearing the blinkers of SEU theory, but that's something else.)


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