On the Roof with Hayek & Keynes
and how Plan-B Theatre’s playwright-in-residence got there: a look at Clearing Bombs.
—by Eric Samuelsen
Sometime in the summer of 1942, the economists John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek spent the night on the roof of the King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. The Germans were in the midst of what some called the “Baedeker bombings,” a campaign to destroy the quaint and historical sorts of buildings that might be found in a Baedeker travel guide, in an effort to break the British fighting spirit. The Cambridge faculty volunteered to spend nights protecting their buildings from damage by extinguishing flames from incendiary bombs. Keynes was a long-time fellow of King’s College. Hayek was in Cambridge for the summer, the London School of Economics having closed due to the blitz.
Keynes’ greatest book, his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money had been published in 1936, to the acclaim and fury of the entire field of economics. Hayek had just finished what was to become his greatest book, The Road to Serfdom, but he had yet to find a publisher for it. When he did publish it, the impact would be explosive.
Both men were intellectual bomb throwers; creatively destructive in their attacks on prevailing orthodoxies.
Prior to Keynes’ book, it was generally believed that economies, left to their own devices, found a kind of equilibrium, with full employment and steady growth. Keynes saw no evidence for it. Economic growth and investment were fundamentally irrational; investors invested and entrepreneurs built businesses out of raw animal spirits and enthusiasms. (See The Wolf Of Wall Street; high finance is hardly a staid profession.) As a result, fluctuations in aggregate demand could wreak havoc on an economy. Governments could bring some order to chaos; affect outcomes through monetary policy by a central bank, and through the fiscal policies of governments. Hayek, on the other hand, believed that any centralized economic planning carried the long-term seeds of tyranny and oppression.
Based on his own experiences as a young man in Austria, with hyperinflation leading to Hitler’s Anschluss, he was a classic liberal, fearful of any restrictions on individual and economic freedom. At a time when planned economies were all the rage, Hayek was an economic anarchist.
I grew to admire them both immensely.
I had to write about those men, that night, that roof. It tugged at me, like a nagging, ticking time bomb. I worked on it,obsessed, for two years. These two bomb-clearing bomb throwers knew each other, and regarded each other as friends, though they were both busy men. Their night on the roof of King’s College Chapel may have been one of only a few rare opportunities for the two men to talk alone.
Which, of course, I couldn’t allow. They probably just talked macro-economics all night, and even if I were able to re-create it, an average theater audience, listening in, wouldn’t have the foggiest notion what they were talking about. And so I invented Mr. Bowles, a middle-aged fire marshall up from London, bluffly patriotic and bluntly outspoken, a man convinced that the arguments of economists were nothing more than so much bollocks. Mr. Bowles gave me an opportunity to hear Keynes and Hayek in full persuasive voice, arguing not just for their respective positions, but also for the value of their shared profession itself.
And yet, their conversation has resonance today, does it not? Haven’t we, as a nation, seen the devastation wrought by the bursting of an economic bomb in housing? Isn’t much of our national political conversation really just a fight over economics, over rival economic doctrines and theories and approaches?
Writing the play during the last Presidential election, I was struck by how many of Governor Romney’s ideas echoed themes I found in Hayek. And while I would have preferred for President Obama to have defended neo-Keynesian ideas more full-throatedly, still he spoke about stimulus and full employment in ways that Keynes would certainly have recognized. The debate between Keynes and Hayek has hardly abated even today.
I began this project knowing essentially nothing about economics. I don’t even balance my own checkbook. My wife handles all our family finances, allowing me a small allowance, which I routinely squander, mostly on movie tickets. But I found Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: the Clash that Defines Modern Economics in the New Book Nonfiction section of our Provo Library, and couldn’t put it down. That led me to my son, who actually is a practicing economist, and to his always patient tutorials in the field, and to Robert L. Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers, a terrific general interest introduction to economists which turned out to be just about my speed. That led in turn to Baron Robert Skidelsky’s magisterial three-volume biography of Keynes, and to Bruce Caldwell’s splendid Hayek’s Challenge: An Intellectual Biography of F. A. Hayek. I’ve kept reading, and I hope I do my sources some kind of justice in the play.
Above all, I hope I can make economics exciting. Bombs are always good dramatically.
Clearing Bombs, written and directed by Eric Samuelsen
Featuring Kirt Bateman, Mark Fossen and Jay Perry.
Feb. 20-March 2. 8pm, Thurs.-Sat. Also 4pm Sat., and 2pm. Sun.
Rose Wagner, 138 W 300 S (Studio Theatre).
No late seating, no intermission. Running time 90 minutes.
Tickets: $20. PlanBTheatre.org
Eric Samuelsen is Plan-B Theatre Company’s resident playwright.