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The Life Scientific - 79. Carol Robinson

Is Economics the new Rock 'n' Roll?

Tuesday 2 August 2011, 18:52

Innes Bowen Innes Bowen

LSE

Who would have thought that one way for Radio 4 to catch the attention of a younger audience was to organise a debate about two dead economists, with a septuagenarian member of the House of Lords as the star attraction?

Last Tuesday night, around 1000 people queued around the block at the London School at Economics to attend a Radio 4 debate about the ideas of John Maynard Keynes and Freidrich August von Hayek. In the 1930s, these two giants of economic thought advocated sharply contrasting responses to the Great Depression: Keynes argued for more state intervention and Hayek for a more free market approach.

As Western economies struggle to recover from the latest slump, the ideas of Keynes and Hayek are being eagerly revisited by a younger generation. There are even two rap videos (here and here) on the Keynes v Hayek controversy.

The audience at the LSE was mainly young - I'm guessing the average age was about 23. Our presenter, Newsnight's Economics Editor Paul Mason, tested opinion before the speeches.

Team Keynes, consisting of Keynes's biographer Robert Skidelsky and economics blogger Duncan Weldon, got an enthusiastic cheer from the audience. For Hayek's defenders, Professor George Selgin and management consultant Jamie Whyte, the whooping was even louder.

"I applaud the Hayekians' eagerness to come and hear the Keynesian case," joked Lord Skidelsky.

The debate went beyond the LSE auditorium into the Twittersphere, as the audience ran a live commentary using the hashtag #lsehvk, which was followed enviously by those who were turned away at the door - a large lecture theatre and two overspill rooms still didn't provide enough seats to meet demand.

"@DuncanWeldon You were amazing at #lsehvk. Go Keynes! (I said it)," was the verdict of 20 year old Emily Finch, a film festival administrator.

From 18 year old @vklmonro "#lsehvk - amazing debate. couldn't have cheered for Hayek any louder."

It was obvious that people had come to applaud their team rather than to make up their minds.

As Lord Skidelsky emerged from the LSE Old Building, he was surrounded by fans. "I can't believe I'm actually meeting you," one awestruck young man told the peer. Afterwards, in a nearby pub, a cheer went up as Professor Selgin and Jamie Whyte arrived for a post debate celebration attended by over 100 Hayekians.

"I didn't know so many young people think economists are like rock stars," said the event's producer Daniel Tetlow.

So, what on earth is going on? Well here's my theory. If you are a 6th former or a university student, the financial crisis of 2008 is probably the defining event of your politically conscious life. Understanding how we got into the financial mess we are in, and how to get out of it, is more than an issue of intellectual curiosity for that generation.

The effects of the economic downturn are being felt more acutely by the young than they are by the typical Radio 4 listener (average age 55 and likely to have paid off the mortgage). And if last week's debate is anything to go by, the youth are demanding a return to some older and more radical thinking.

Innes Bowen is Assistant Editor, Radio Current Affairs

  • You can hear the Keynes vs Hayek debate on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday, 3 August at 20:00 BST. The programme will be repeated on Saturday 6 August at 22:15 BST.
  • Join in the Keynes vs Hayek debate on Twitter using the hashtag #lsehvk

Comments

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    Comment number 1.

    Encouraging that BBC are putting on economic discussions, given the current global economic crisis. There should be more of this on television as well. Only criticism is - Where is Marx in this debate? Both Hayek and Keynes believe there is nothing wrong with the current economic system - just needs tweeking a bit. Each can show convincingly that the other side is wrong. Maybe both of them are wrong.

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    Comment number 2.

    Sir, allow me to challenge the contention that hayakian economomists think that the economic system just "needs tweaking a bit". The change to Hakeyian from a Keynsian model would be absolutely radical. From centralised control to free market control. to answer the question of "Where is Marx in the debate?" I merely state that he lies (in more ways than one) on the junkpile of history. He was booted from the debate some time ago when every single country that tried his theories in practice crumbled into ruin. However Keynes' model does pay some lipservice to Marx and is somewhat socialist (Centralised control of the economy is the essence of socialism). Show Marx the Hayakian agenda, however (were Marx still alive to see such a thing) and he would go pale.

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    Comment number 3.

    Economics is mostly rubbish. It has no real explanatory or predictive powers. A "science" of getting wise after the event. Hayek, Keynes et al....bunch of flannel merchants. The only person to get even close to explaining it all was Marx.

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    Comment number 4.

    Readers interested in a pre-debate briefing on some of the key questions might find my blog post useful at the following link. Also, I have done my utmost to try not to favour either side - have I succeeded or are there unconscious biases showing through?
    Keynes vs Hayek and cognitive macroeconomics

  • rate this
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    Comment number 5.

    Listening to the debate, it appeared to me that economists are rather more the problem than the solution. They are near the level of estate agents and hairdressers and Douglas Adams knew what was best for them.

    We have lost completely our manufacturing base and most small companies and there is little chance of it coming back. We are left with corporate and financial businesses together with private and public sector service industries, a very poor cocktail.

    The only answer is the John Lewis principle to create companies that will invest in the future and their staff without fear of predation by private equity but it is up to Government to enable the right climate such as corporation tax to Zug levels.

    A good example is the Mondragon group of coops in Spain but it will take many decades to achieve it.

 

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