Author: Matt Waldman

Published

George Selgin
Rock concerts aren't the only thing that fills auditoriums in the UK. When econ professor George Selgin sat on a Hayek-Keynes panel, an overflow crowd had to be turned away at the door.

The London auditorium was packed with young men and women back in late July, and many more college-age fans were turned away at the door. The crowd had assembled to see and hear what George Selgin refers to as “Two Dead White Men.” If that sounds like a modern-day rock band, nothing could further from the truth. The deceased caucasians were, in fact, 20th century economists John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek, and Selgin, who teaches economics at Terry, was a member of a panel of experts invited to debate Keynesian vs. Hayekian economics.

The BBC was there to record it; indeed, it was the BBC that invited Selgin, who is one of the founders of the Hayek-influenced, Modern Free Banking School. He was opposed, in a manner of speaking, by renown Keynes biographer Lord Robert Skidelsky in a discussion of theories born during the Great Depression that have enormous relevance to the current state of the world’s economy.

“It was a lot of fun. What made the debate invitation attractive — in addition to the BBC’s involvement — was that Skidelsky was to be one of my opponents,” says Selgin, whose research interests are monetary and banking theory, monetary history, and macroeconomics. “He’s quite a well-known figure and about as good of a choice to represent Keynes’ theories as anyone could come up with.”

According to Selgin, Hayek's basic theory espouses that investments have to be based on real savings rather than increased public spending or artificially low interest rates. Keynes, on the other hand, took the opposing stance that government spending could create employment and longer term growth. Selgin's Modern Free Banking School posits that financial crises and business cycles are often caused by ill-advised government interference.

The debate was so well received that the BBC rebroadcast it three times. That was a significant career highlight for Selgin, who didn't just take the road less traveled to become an economist — he created a distinctly original path. A one-time aspiring fish farmer, Selgin initially studied ecology, zoology, and aquaculture.

"It was a time, in the '70s, when there was a lot of interest in the natural environment, natural resources, and the ecosystem — and how to use them efficiently to address world hunger," says Selgin who was fascinated with the concept of poly culture, which involved improving the soil quality of farmland through fish farming. "You take some land that wasn't good for plowing, but with a lake there you could grow carp and have ducks on the pond that would generate enough muck to fertilize the field. It all ties together. You're creating this multi-crop farming system where the fish culture plays a part."

However, as Selgin began studying these concepts at places like the Duke Marine Lab, Auburn University, and as a graduate student in marine fisheries economics in Rhode Island, he had the realization that his impending trip to Honduras with the Peace Corps wasn't the road he wanted to travel.

"It occurred to me why there were hungry people in Africa and elsewhere. It isn't because they weren't taking advantage of poly culture, but because they essentially have governments that are robbing them blind. That got me more interested in economics."

The BBC radio debate between Selgin and Skidelsky can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b012wxyg