Like Casper the ghost, Niall Ferguson is not only white. He is also very, very adorable.

by Andrew Gelman on May 8, 2013 · 13 comments

in Academia


I don’t want this to be a regular feature but I wanted to briefly comment on Ferguson’s open letter regarding the Keynes-was-a-ballet-and-poetry-loving-poof remarks he made the other day at that conference of financial advisors. (I’m posting this one early in the morning, and lots of new posts are surely coming on more important topics, so I’m burying it as much as possible.)

Ferguson reiterates that his remarks were “stupid.” The question then arises: He’s a smart guy, how did he end up saying such stupid things? Ferguson has a history of saying high-profile stupid things, and they always seem to be when he’s trying to make some sort of political point.

I’m still going with my theory that Ferguson misjudged his audience; he thought they’d appreciate an anti-Keynes remark, maybe he even thought they were the kind of crowd that would enjoy cracks about gay people who like ballet and poetry. No go.

Again, I’m not trying to nail the guy to the cross for this. We all make mistakes; in fact, we all make mistakes, of some sort, repeatedly. It’s just interesting to think about what made him say this stuff in the first place. He’s not any kind of “gay-basher” (in his words), but he still thought this sort of thing would work. So maybe he was trying a bit too hard to please the crowd. He should remember that, however entertaining he is as a speaker, however good he looks on TV, his ultimate qualifications come from his historical research.

Perhaps the case interests me so much because Ferguson, like me, is an academic researcher who likes to speak to popular audiences.

P.S. In case you’re wondering, yes this post has political science content and is appropriate for the Monkey Cage. One topic we cover from time to time is the relation between academic researchers and politics.

P.P.S. More here from Willam Black, including this amazing bit that Ferguson wrote about Paul Krugman:

His inability to debate a question without insulting his opponent suggests some kind of deep insecurity perhaps the result of a childhood trauma.

Black makes another good point:

Ferguson loves counterfactuals, so let’s try this counterfactual. What if Ferguson had made the obvious, stupid claim that people who are childless do not carry about future generations? We know that he despises Keynes and Krugman (in the same talk he archly referred to Krugman as his “arch-enemy”) and that both are childless. Ferguson could have claimed that Keynes and Krugman were indifferent to the lives of future generations because they were childless. How would the audience have reacted to such a claim?

The perhaps 25% of the audience who were childless would have stared at him like he was an idiot who had gone out of his way to insult them. The Americans in the audience would have thought first of themselves if they were childless, then of their relatives and close friends who were childless, then of George Washington, and finally of Jesus. . . .

P.P.P.S. For those who don’t get the title of this post, see here.


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