From Wednesday’s Daily Telegraph: It is not only great-great-nephews who live in the shadow of our most eminent economist
In the long run, we are all dead, said John Maynard Keynes. It was his most famous phrase, but is often misinterpreted, quoted out of the subtle context in which it was placed: some have taken it to mean that he thought the long run is irrelevant, that we shouldn’t worry about our children’s futures.
More than that, since Keynes was largely homosexual, some have suggested that he didn’t care about our children, because he would never have any. The historian Niall Ferguson recently suggested as much in a lecture, claiming that because Keynes was “effete” and childless, he didn’t care about future generations. Ferguson has since apologised, unreservedly and with good grace, after gay people were understandably offended. But it hit home a little with me, because I’m the closest there is, in my generation, to a descendant of Keynes: he was not only a great man, he was my great-great-uncle. If Keynes didn’t care about future generations, he didn’t care about me, in particular.
For the record, he did care about the fate of generations that came after him. His “in the long run” quote was not a sweeping dismissal of the far future, but a very specific rebuke to economists who thought that, because “in the long run” the price of goods varied with the amount of money in the economy, they didn’t have to worry about price fluctuations now. In fact, Keynes said, there could be large price variations caused by how quickly people spent their money, and that could lead to the devastating problems of inflation and deflation that he spent his life battling: “Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.”
But whatever he wrote, the idea that because he had no children of his own he didn’t worry about what happened to other people’s is ridiculous – not only because he did marry, to the surprise of his friends; his wife, the ballet dancer Lydia Lopokova, miscarried their child. He had two siblings, whom he loved, in the fractious ways of siblings: his brother Geoffrey, a surgeon who married into the Darwin family, and his sister Margaret, my great-grandmother, who married A V Hill, the Nobel-prize-winning physiologist. Between them, they gave Keynes eight nephews and nieces. He had plenty of stake in the future.
Those following generations were and are filled with bright and brilliant people. One has a kind of galaxy named after her. Another mapped the deepest point in the world’s oceans, the Challenger Deep, in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench. A third studied the economy of Ghana’s cocoa farmers, revealing a complex, thriving and hitherto unsuspected local culture of entrepreneurship.
But over these men and women, Keynes casts a long shadow. At the turn of the 20th century, he was Cambridge’s most exciting prospect, a young philosopher-economist. He became part of the louche Bloomsbury Group, including Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell and Lytton Strachey, a clique of prominent artists and thinkers; then he was a bright young thing in the Treasury, who kept Britain’s war effort running even as he struggled with its morality.
Then his breakthrough, after the war: disgusted by the politicking and unreality of the negotiations at the Treaty of Versailles, he wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace, a furious critique of Lloyd George, Clemenceau and Wilson. It predicted that the efforts to make Germany pay for the entire cost of the war would lead to another conflict, and made him a household name. In the Bretton Woods conference at the end of the Second World War, he remembered his own words, and helped author the Bretton Woods system, which rebuilt Germany and helped forge the long European peace that has followed. In between, he wrote two works – A Tract on Monetary Reform and The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money – which divided all macroeconomic theory into pre- and post-Keynesian. If you can only name one economist, it will be him.
Which makes it hard, if you’re a descendant. You know that however brilliantly you might write, say, amusing columns about the use of the word “whom”, or blog posts ridiculing homeopathy – or even if you discover a class of galaxy or write a biography of Darwin that’s made into a film – you’ll never be more than a footnote in his story, an offshoot on a Keynes family tree. In a thousand years, it’s very, very likely that John Maynard Keynes’s name will still be taught, along with Russell’s, and their friend Ludwig Wittgenstein’s. It is very, very unlikely that anyone will mention that he had a great-great-nephew who once wrote a funny thing about Dan Brown.
On the plus side, though, in a thousand years, when neo-neo-Keynesian economics is taught to the genetically engineered space-children of Alpha Centauri, no one will remember Niall Ferguson, either. So that’s a bonus.