The Conservative Logic of Ferguson’s Smears of Gays, Muslims, Obama and Krugman

Harvard historian Niall Ferguson apologized Saturday for having said that economist John Maynard Keyes did not care about future generations because he was gay and had no children.

The question I want to raise here is the over-all logic of Ferguson’s underlying reasoning. What makes him continually make embarrassing and simple errors of fact, as with his attack on Obama last summer, which Newsweek did not bother to fact-check before publication.

I would argue that the reason that conservatives like Ferguson hate Keynes is that Keynes demonstrated conclusively that when the economy goes into a deep recession or depression, the only way to get back out of it is for the government to increase spending. Contemporary conservatives do not want to admit that government plays an indispensable set of economic roles. They want to believe that the corporations can get along just fine without the state. Economists and economic historians often take money from corporate interests to address them or even write studies that flatter their prejudices. Paul Krugman once wondered, after the 2008 meltdown, why so many academic and professional economists are so anti-Keynesian, given the impressive record of correct prediction attendant on the Keynsian enterprise. I am more cynical. I don’t have to guess. I think some, or many, are corrupted by the big money that flows from upholding the independent role of capital and from belittling government efforts.

Ferguson’s outrageous polemic is an example of the ad hominem fallacy. Instead of demonstrating that Keynes’s theory is faulty (which no one has yet done), Ferguson attempted to smear Keynes and deprive him of standing in intellectual debate by calling him a deviant. That is what many conservatives after all believe gays are, and the childlessness charge is a none too subtle reference to the supposedly ‘unnatural’ character of homosocial love, which is ‘childless,’ in contrast with the biblical injunction ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (which, however, is manifestly very bad advice.

Why does conservatism even have the implicit category of the deviant lurking in the back of its collective mind?

Contemporary Conservatism erects a social hierarchy, with wealthy heterosexual Westerners (and their compradors) at the top, and other groups queuing behind them from below. The wealthy Western heterosexuals are autonomous wealth-creators, constantly dragged down by the foolish impulse to regulate inherent in the government, which in any case represents the unwashed hoi polloi.

Ferguson’s remarks come on top of another conservative Harvard scandal, as a 2010 paper by economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff , which argued that deficit spending by governments hurt growth. The incorrect paper has been widely cited by proponents of ‘austerity’ (cutbacks in government spending in bad economic times, the opposite policy of the one Keynes found essential), including by Paul Ryan. Once the authors’ errors are subtracted, it becomes clear that Keynes was once again right. Governments have to spend their ways out of deep recessions and depressions. Austerity policies produce economic basket cases like today’s Spain. But, they protect the capital of the 1%, which is all that matters to the lapdogs of the one percent.

Ferguson is so tied to the demonstrably false Reinhart-Rogoff paper that he continues to defend it even after its own authors are backpedaling furiously, and continues to attack Paul Krugman, whose papers won him a Nobel prize; they noticeably lack glaring excel spreadsheet errors. (Excel? Seriously?)

The hierarchies are not only economic or rooted in style of life. Ferguson’s Western triumphalism is well-known. I was at a conference where his comments about the (perfectly nice) Oxford Islamic Center was brought up, and he shouted, “They’re in Oxford!” Ferguson thinks it was a good thing for Oxford graduates to run, and loot, Muslim countries at gunpoint during the past two centuries, but is appalled that Muslim intellectuals might turn up for peaceful academic discussions in the old college town. He was all for the Iraq War and only carped that it couldn’t be successful unless the US committed to run Iraq for decades. Presumably this is because Iraqis (Muslims after all) are juveniles that need the firm adult Western hand. The Conservative fascination with reviving a long dead and impracticable Empire is just one more manifestation of a desire for social hierarchy. The imperial masters are on top.

The creation of social hierarchies, with people with ‘good’ attributes on top and others seen as somehow incomplete or deformed, is central to contemporary conservative social thought. Christians (or, in some versions, Christians and/or secularists)? Good. Heterosexuals? Good. Muslims and gays? distinctly inferior. Moreover, the government is the mechanism whereby the second-class citizens can engineer changes in regulations that rein in the alleged money-makers, and so it is intrinsically problematic and should be crippled as much as possible.

In contrast, progressive thought sees all human beings as equally worthy with regard to their ascriptive or primordial identities. They see the state as a necessary guardian of the welfare of the 99%, who otherwise will be systematically taken advantage of by the super-wealthy or other dominant elites. For progressives, the question isn’t whether someone is gay or Muslim but whether someone is a self-absorbed prima donna who stands in the way of others bettering themselves.

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28 Responses

  1. While conservative “thought” is simply beneath contempt, being based on false premises, racial superiority complexes, and painfully incoherent philosophy, Dr. Cole’s definition of “progressive” is historically incorrect. The big names of America’s Progressive Era were Teddy Roosevelt and Jane Addams, both chock-full of racist paternalism (see Addams’s repy to Ida Wells regarding lynching), and Roosevelt was a committed imperialist to boot. American feminism tended to ignore the problems of black Americans re:equality until, and perhaps beyond, the civil rights movement. One might also mention Union racism and narrow ideological control of the rank and file.

    Likewise, the vast majority of today’s progressives live in de-facto segregated neighborhoods, believe in their inalienable right to property, and flaunt consumer toys made from slave labor (similarly their clothes were largerely manufactured in maquiladores or similar gulag-esque Economic Zones of non-development).

    Progressivism, in the broad definition of equality and democracy offered here, has done many good things for the world. But to paraphrase Winston Wolf, let’s not start shaking each other’s hands just yet.

    • It is wrong to judge historical figures by today’s standards. They are products of their culture and era, just as we are products of our culture and era. It is equally wrong to expect iron-clad consistency in meeting one’s definition of “Progressive,” or any other label for that matter.

      Your dismissal of Teddy Roosevelt ignores many of his accomplishments that were progressive. Within weeks of assuming office, Roosevelt became the first president to host an African-American in the White House, when in October 1901 he invited Booker T. Washington to Dinner. Later he spearheaded the prosecution of the Northern Securities Company, and he followed that up with his landmark anti-trust legislation, thus earning him the title of the “trust-buster. Roosevelt was also a conservationist, establishing the US National Park System.

      In foreign affairs Roosevelt was indeed an imperialist, but he also won the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War, through his mediation and brokering of the peace treaty between Russia and Japan at Portsmouth, New Hampshire in August 1905. Roosevelt also arbitrated between Germany and Great Britain over their claims in the Venezuelan crisis of 1904.

      Teddy Roosevelt was a very interesting figure with many facets to his governing philosophy and character. It would be wrong to dismiss him because he failed to meet all of the checked boxes required to meet your definition of a “progressive,” sitting in judgment more than 100 years later.

    • What Dr. Cole cannot wrap his head around is the fact that American “progessivism” is as imperialist and as racist as modern pseudo-“conservatism” is. REAL “conservatism” in the West is based on the political principles of Edmund Burke and John Henry Newman and Disraeli, who, as Tories, considered that it was the duty to cherish and protect the working classes, who are the backbone of any society. The faux-“liberals” who support the Anglo-American definition of capitalism call this “paternalism,” and they despise the “social democracy” of the culturally Catholic European countries. This political-cultural attitude blinds them to the depredations on society of a corporate sell-out such as “the One.”

      • Here you are comparing the conservatism that exists in reality – a seething mix of racism, paranoia and religious bigotry – with an ideal Burkean conservatism that exists only in your mind. The bigoted conservatism is real and can do damage, while Burkean conservatism is imagined and can do no good. We have to deal with the world as it is, not as we feel it ought to be.

  2. Ferguson is both clever and stupid: this is the gold standard of what passes for conservative “genius”.

  3. Lost in the ’30’s tonight? The 20’s? Ferguson’s line is doubly weird in that it is long absent from the attitudes associated with serious universities, which are by and large islands of anxiety-free diversity.

    I suspect alcohol and the loss of boundaries that comes with too-long adulation: playing out over a substrate of Mitt-like opportunism.

  4. You wonder whether a lot of this is calculated to increase his street value to people like Fox and other right wing media. He’s identified a punditry niche that is not overcrowded, and says things he may not really believe to keep his name in the news and assist his positioning.

    Harvard has both Ferguson and Rogoff?

  5. Wow. At what point is Ferguson completely discredited, already? Is there anything he can say or do that will get journalists to stop treating him like a reasonable, thoughtful academic?

    Frankly, this suggests he may be wondering the same thing, and actively trying to find out…

  6. It’s been pretty well established at least since Ferguson published “Civilization: The West and the Rest” that his myopic, if not racist, view of the ‘rest’ of the world is untenable. His hidebound economic position is equally in disrepute. Yet, for some reason, his word is taken as gospel by the msm. Perhaps his disgraceful ad homimen against JMK will at last render his opinions irrelevant.

  7. Wouldn’t it be prudent for Fergie to provide some peer-reviewable study or paper attesting to the validity of his assertions? Attacking a person’s personal life to weaken a professional stance is a well-worn tactic, intended to obfuscate the truth of a person’s public standing by exaggerating personal foibles, quirks, or tendencies.

    It may be true that Keynes was inclined to favour persons of his own gender for various activities or pursuits or companionships but, like Oscar Wilde and various others, the strength of one’s career objectives can be independent of what one does in one’s own domicile while attired in pajamas and fluffy bunny slippers. We have yet to determine whether anything in Fergie’s personal life reinforces or detracts from any of his positions.

    While many people are childless, either by choice or natural selection, it can also indicate a favourable tendency toward ensuring that those who do have children are successful in their endeavours. But, one can argue that those with children are arrogantly egotistical and are intent on perpetuating their own selves, irrespective of their actual worth and value to society’s needs.

    While remaining without issue, those who do have families are (hopefully) contributing to the life and sustainability of a culture, one aspect of which can be development and proof of economic theory. Without sufficient data (and Fergie seems to not have much to support his gaffe), data spread over generations, the validity of one’s thoughts cannot be thought of as having any enduring value or applicability to any society’s history. Books written can be similarly evaluated. Are they merely for the authors’ expression of egotism and selfish worth, or, are they primarily intended to benefit others? I suppose that the test of time will determine whose thoughts will endure, Keynes’ or Fergie’s.

    But, again, it would be interesting if Fergie was to provide everyone with a published analysis of his position(s). Might keep him out of trouble.

  8. Apparently, gender left are more concerned about gender issues than about economy. In return, gender right is always happy to fight cultural wars on gender issues. This way, interests of millions are forgotten in favor of the tiny % of those who really care about gays. Which is exactly what super-rich want.

  9. And herein, Juan, rests our problems. As a former academic, that a fellow academic would disregard the empirical evidence before him or her is appalling; this is what anti-Keynesians (and the Conservative movement as a whole) do, on the whole behaving like Michael Palin in Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch. Put the evidence under their nose and they ironically follow Bill Clinton’s playbook: they deny deny deny.

    Honestly, it is time to reframe the debate on many issues. If progressives do that, more headway might (but only might) be made towards a more just society. Perhaps we need to decide that there simply is no such thing as politics, and to cease to have political discussions.

    There are, however, such things as history, economics, sociology, psychology, legal and constitutional history, life science, physics, medical science, etc. on which policy depends. If you want to talk about these subjects, fine – provided you show some respect for those most expert and respected in these fields (and, in the case of economists, climate scientists, etc., those with some record of success in predicting and analyzing outcomes). That is why I read this blog for news about the Middle East – because what the hell does Wolf Blitzer or Sean Hannity or George Will know about it compared to yourself?

    If Conservatives are not interested in respecting these disciplines, then best to walk away from any discussion. But not before pointing out to them how much they love and depend on the academic community when it comes to development of military or medical technology, but instantly loathe it when it concerns economics or climate science.

    However by admission, such an approach will be an uphill climb, given the deep tradition of anti-intellectualism in this country, even, apparently, amongst academics at some of our most respected institutions.

  10. The constante battle is indeed between control of the ecónomy by corporatists versus government. It is obvious that corporatists do not wish to be told how to spend their money and would rather yield to their emotional knee jerk and unprincipled beliefs regardless of how the general populations think and react. But we had this already. They were called Kingdoms and fiefdoms.
    Good, democratic, secular, educated governments for the people and by the people should have insulated us from that….until the current Roberts-Scalia-Alito Supreme Court caused the imbalance of democracy as it was meant to be

  11. There’s also the issue of how many so-called journalists are really ‘bought’ men and women, mouthpieces of a particular ideology who fail to provide objective, factual and truthful information. Somehow, public affairs has replaced real journalism. Not to the discourse of most important topics in this country are too often ‘dumbed-down.’ Sometimes the liberals in ‘journalism’ are guilty of the same or worse, opting to be quiet on matters key to this country precisely when we need them to lift their voices

    We’ll know if influential gay Republicans acted behind the scenes if Ferguson begins toting the graces of gay economists, albeit conservative ones. That frankly would not cheer me more because it would still be a disservice to addressing our country’s most pressing issues

  12. “At what point is Ferguson completely discredited, already?”

    For some people in the United States if they have enough clout or connections they are never discredited no matter how absurd or criminal they have been. Check the long list of promoters of the war on Iraq and its preparatory softening. The Clintons, Albright, the Bush Administration, the neocon press (now pushing for another war, this time with Iran), and many others still getting face time on television and op-eds in the papers of record. Then there are those in Congress. About 70% of whom voted for this war and most of them keep getting re-elected. Same for those who voted for deregulation of Wall Street. One even got elected as vice president.

    But the whistleblowers who expose their crimes and corruption get the jail time. Is this a great country or what?

    As for Fergie, he is probably just doing what he did as a schoolboy – sucking up to the dominant authority.

  13. Dear Professor Cole

    Sadly there seems to be even a philosophical basis to the “laisser faire” aproach that does away with building inspection and planning permission so factories in Bangladesh collapse under the weight of a few extra unplanned floors and a few generators on the roof.

    Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” provides a mantle of respectability to the simple concept that Greed is Good. Nozick’s Entitlement Theory, influenced by John Locke, and Friedrich Hayek, which sees humans as ends in themselves and justifies redistribution of goods only on condition of consent, is a key aspect of Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

    link to

    Practical experience of the results of Nozick’s aproach over many hundreds of years in various different guises let the Rich get Richer and the Poor get Poorer until revolution evens the score.

    This leads me to favour Rawls “Theory of Justice” and “Law of Peoples” as a more sensible and workable aproach.

  14. Why would calling anyone gay be a ‘smear’ (your word)?

    • Because context is crucial. If I refer to someone as gay merely in the context of discussing their sexual orientation or legal rights is VERY DIFFERENT than when it is used as an ad hominem, trying to discredit a person’s ideas by appealing to ingrained prejudices.

  15. When Niall Ferguson got a front-page weekly column in Newsweek, and I read it, was when I finally decided to drop my subscription.

  16. Juan:

    Great post. Quick question though: Why is the advise, “Be fruitful and multiply,” so bad? Just curious on your reasoning…


  17. >… the reason that conservatives like Ferguson hate Keynes is that Keynes demonstrated conclusively that when the economy goes into a deep recession or depression, the only way to get back out of it is for the government to increase spending [or cut taxes — JD]. Contemporary conservatives do not want to admit that government plays an indispensable set of economic roles. They want to believe that the corporations can get along just fine without the state.<

    Among us economists, the "conservatives" (who can be quite radical) believe that the Blessed Invisible Hand of the Market can do no wrong.(It's not corporations, but the "market" that conservatives defend.) Keynes showed that there was a major exception (or two). His argument has been knocked down _logically_, not empirically. The problem is that he doesn't assume that labor and other resources are fully employed! But full employment does not describe the world we live in. (FWIW, Rogoff is much better than Ferguson.)

  18. How did this gentleman got tenured at Harvard? If he got it, I might have a shot. As they say, just sayin…LOL

    • By the way, if childlessness is somehow supposed to detract from someone’s achievements, how about Hobbs, Descartes, Spinoza, Issac Newton, Adam Smith, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and a host of greats too numerous to mention here? We don’t know if any of these were homosexual or not, but who cares? Western civilization would not have been what it is but for contributions from many childless people.

  19. Conservatives are heterosexual? Bit of a stereotype.

  20. There is a political problem with Keynesian policy. It is a lot easier to get governments to deficit spend in recessions, than to get them to run surpluses in times of prosperity, to damp the inflationary and speculative cycle. So the gummint runs deficits year in and year out, regardless of the economy.

    Another illustration of why democracy is doomed to self-destruct. The majority tends to vote itself more and more goodies, until the whole system self-destructs. Then, of course, you get tyranny. Just ask Aristotle.

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