Thursday, May 09, 2013

Economists Under Suspicion: Who Has Children, Who Doesn't, and Why in the World Should It Matter?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In my new column on Verdict today, I discuss a bizarre incident last week in which a conservative pundit attempted to use anti-gay smears to suggest that John Maynard Keynes's supposed lack of concern about future generations (which is based on a criminal misreading of Keynes's famous quip: "In the long run, we're all dead") was based on selfishness and disregard for the children of others.  That pundit, Niall Ferguson, soon issued what appeared to be a sincere apology, but it is now becoming clear that, (a) his purported apology was carefully crafted to minimize the initial transgressions, (b) he has a history of saying such things about Keynes, and (c) he is now back to claiming that Keynes's sexuality was significant for some purposes (just not for the future generations thing).

I tried to spend as little time in my column discussing Ferguson as possible, because I wanted to focus on just how crazy it is to describe Keynesian economics as harmful to future generations.  I will return to some further substantive thoughts along those lines in tomorrow's post here on Dorf on Law.  Today, however, I thought I would indulge in a bit of bemused introspection about what Ferguson's framing of the issue might say about me.

To be clear, Ferguson now says at least that the following two embedded assertions in his remarks are stupid: (1) Gays cannot have children, and (2) People without children do not care about the well-being of future generations.  (As Bill Black points out, however, the point that Ferguson was making when he uttered those two inanities could have been supported only by making the second assertion.  Including the first assertion, and tying it to the second, is hardly an innocent strategy.  By the way, Black also points out that George Washington and Jesus Christ were childless.  Hmm.)

Even with Ferguson's disavowal, however, it is clear that he and others have made similar claims in the past.  Just in case a few people are wondering about the connections between other Keynesians' personal lives and their views on future generations, I offer this helpful self-revelatory guide.

First, am I gay?  No.  So we can check that off the list, right?  Well, not exactly.  My late brother was gay, and he had no children.  Maybe he did not care about future generations, and that had an effect on me, right?  He was my big brother, closest to me in age, and I learned a lot from him.  Except that before Kevin died, he set up our oldest niece with enough money to pay for her entire college education.  He then provided money in his will to all of his other siblings, to be invested and then to be used to pay for college for their children.  That selfish jerk!

Second, do I have kids?  No.  Uh oh.  Again, however, I also have those nieces and nephews whom Kevin cared about.  (It is an amusing coincidence that this discussion would arise so soon after I proudly described my 25-year-old nephew's budding career.)  Presumably, my non-gayness would somehow make me more likely to care about them, too -- maybe because (and it is admittedly rather difficult to figure out what these homophobic anti-Keynesians might be thinking) I could at least imagine that they could be my children, because, you know, I have had sex with women?  Or something like that.

Do I get credit for having gone into teaching as a career?  My professional life has been devoted to generating new knowledge, and passing it (along with the knowledge inherited from generations before us) to young people.  Maybe that means that I care more about the welfare of future generations than does a guy who got drunk and forgot to use a condom, and then "did the right thing" by entering into a loveless marriage.

Cynical?  Absolutely.  Is that not what this whole discussion is about -- casting aspersions on people who, in Keynes's case, read poetry to his eventual wife, rather than dispensing with the foreplay and getting down to a man's business?  Isn't the insinuation that Keynesian policies are anti-children (They're not, of course, but go with me here) because people like me do not engage in sex with intent to impregnate?

What about when I get married?  Will being a step-father change me, turning me suddenly into a deficit-obsessed austerian, intent on mischaracterizing the Obama stimulus as a huge failure?  And if I do not change my views, will being a parent give those views greater credibility?  Does the age of my future step-children matter?  Does being partly responsible for 20- and 23-year-olds not count, because they are too old to set off my daddy alarm?  Would it matter if I married a woman with preschool-aged children?  Or is it all about genetics?  Do parents who adopt children suffer from the same selfishness that I apparently do, because they are merely caretakers for someone else's genetic material?  Inquiring minds want to know.

I am a Baby Boomer, which means that I am somewhere between the ages of 48 and 67.  If I were to marry a woman of child-bearing age, would I be spared the suspicion that I do not care about future generations?  Or would I need to sign a statement saying that I intend to prove my fertility with that younger woman?  (I begin my Verdict column by noting the odd similarity between these questions and the illogic of the anti-marriage-equality arguments in the Prop 8 case in the Supreme Court earlier this Spring.)

The most important question, of course, is why I would not care about future generations, when I will be relying upon them in my dotage.  Indeed, I need to be especially concerned about the economic well-being of all post-Baby Boomers, because they are the ones who will be indirectly sharing with me the goods and services that they produce when I stop working.  Because I will not have genetic offspring on whose doorstep I can land if things go wrong, I need to make sure that the next fifty years or so are prosperous enough that I can get a pass.  I need to ensure that I am not the victim of public policies that would be the equivalent of telling me to walk out onto the tundra to die.  And without biological children on whom I could supposedly rely, everyone's children are my children -- even from the most self-interested point of view imaginable.

Bottom lines: (1) Buchanan is not gay.  (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)  (2) Buchanan has no biological children, and probably never will.  So, do I care about future generations?  Ferguson now allows that "it is obvious that people who do not have children also care about future generations."  Well, not all of them do.  But those who do not are both selfish and unable even to understand how to be a successful narcissist.


Shag from Brookline said...

Once again, Niall has "nailed" it: his tongue to his feet (or pick some other bodily part).

Shag from Brookline said...

How does this:

" Ferguson now allows that 'it is obvious that people who do not have children also care about future generations.' Well, not all of them do. But those who do not are both selfish and unable even to understand how to be a successful narcissist."

apply to libertarians?

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Good question. The problem is that we're not a mythical agrarian society, where you could have enough kids to take care of you without depending on people outside your clan. So, if you're a libertarian, and you want to be able to be a hedge-fund manager and depend on the low-level 47% losers to actually make things (and clean your house, and detail your car, etc.), you have to hope that somehow those people are educated minimally, and are given sufficiently advanced technology to work with, so that your accumulated IRA's and Social Security benefits will actually buy you something that keeps you alive and happy. Even if you want to be "free and independent," you still have to live in an economy where goods are produced that you can live on.

David Ricardo said...

I hope everyone saw Bob Skidelsky's response in the WaPo. Here is a sample.

"So Ferguson was quite right to say that Keynes discounted the future — but it was not because of homosexuality, it was because of uncertainty. Keynes would have rejected the claim of today’s austerity champions that short-term pain, in the form of budget cuts, is the price we need to pay for long-term economic growth. The pain is real, he would say, while the benefit is conjecture.

The principle of not sacrificing the present for the future can be seen in Keynes’s intolerance of persistent mass unemployment — sacrificing the current generation of workers to secure long-term improvements in the labor market. It emerges in his rejection of “debt bondage” — the imposition of crushing long-term obligations on borrowers, undermining their prosperity. “The absolutists of contract,” he wrote, “are the real parents of revolution.”

So Mr. Ferguson is not only 'doubly stupid' (his words), bigoted (everyone else's words) but also just plain wrong.

Harvard can now boast of Reinhart and Rogoff, Marty Feldstein, Ted Cruz and now Niall Ferguson. Kind of makes everyone wonder what the great fuss about Harvard is all about.

Shag from Brookline said...

I read Skidelsky's essay in the WaPo this morning and was also impressed by DPE's excerpts, especially"

“The absolutists of contract are the real parents of revolution.”

Query as to the view of pre-13th Amendment libertarians on the "liberty of contract"? Of course we had the Lochner "Error" libertarians' take on "liberty of contract" that apparently constantly needs rehabilitating so that conservatives can claim credit for progressivism. Perhaps this suggests why today's libertarians are, for the most part, anti-Keynesian.

And speaking of libertarians, the current acclaim of "The Great Gatsby" with the new flick (see cOlbert's Book Club of last night) suggests to me the possibility that the "The Great Gatsby" was a pre-emptive parody of Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" that serves to inspire today's political libertarians even though "Atlas Shrugged" is more libertine than libertarian.

Regarding DPE's:

"Kind of makes everyone wonder what the great fuss about Harvard is all about."

a river (the Charles) runs through it ; fortunately, none of the cast of noted Harvardites can walk on water, and get wet when they try.

Shag from Brookline said...

Niall Ferguson is described as a "celebrity historian" in thisyear-ago Guardian article:

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Good comments all around. I, too, had been thinking about the tough time Harvard's been having lately. Don't forget to add Alesina (of ill-fated "contractionary austerity" fame) to the list. Or, for that matter, the continuing comedy from Mankiw, Barro, and all the other would-be McCain/Romney cabinet members.

David Ricardo said...

And now we have Jason Richwine and a dissertation at Harvard that proclaims an anti-Hispanic immigration policy because their IQ is so low.

How does a dissertation like that ever get accepted?

Harvard wants to know, is this ever going to stop?

Shag from Brookline said...

With the changing demographics, Jason Richwine whines his "Hispanic panic." His dissertation has been dissed by several conservatives, forcing him to leave the Heritage Flounderation. Careful, conservative, DeMint on the pillow may be hard to digest.

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