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May
09
2013

The ever receding yet

Historian Niall Ferguson has been reported as apologising for “remarks in which he implied that John Maynard Keynes did not care about future generations – because he was childless and gay” – leaving open the cause of Keynes’ indifference to the long run. This provoked a letter from me to today’s Guardian. For non-Guardian readers here it is.

Niall Ferguson apologises

 How embarrassing. Forget the homophobia. The renowned historian appears to be unaware of Keynes’s famous grandchildren (Report, 4 May). In an essay written in 1930, entitled Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, Keynes marvels at the power of compound interest, and invites the reader to join him in pondering the impossibility of it compounding forever. He imagines the advent of “an age of leisure and abundance” in which his (hypothetical) grandchildren – now well into retirement – will be set free “to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue, that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable”. But, writing at the beginning of the Great Depression, Keynes warns: “Beware! The time for this is not yet.”

What unites today’s economists, Keynesian or not, is the conviction that we are still a long way from “yet”. The central challenge being addressed by governments everywhere is how to get economic growth restarted, and then growing faster – without apparent end. If not yet, when?

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