Hoover fellow Russell Roberts is using rap music to make the dismal science far less dismal. By Charles Lindsey.
Rap songs are often criticized—or celebrated—as anthems to excess. Hoover research fellow Russell Roberts took this theme of overindulgence and steered it in a different direction. He and a musical partner came up with rhymes for recessionary times—a pair of hip hop videos that pose this question: what happens to an economy when the Cristal champagne, or some other form of stimulus, wears off?
The strutting rappers in this case are a magically revived John Maynard Keynes and F. A. Hayek, played by a pair of actor/musicians who stalk through the videos, bushy mustaches twitching, trying to settle their economic beef. Incongruous as it seems to watch these twentieth-century heavyweights arguing in verse instead of dense prose, Hayek and Keynes really were vocal intellectual rivals (but true-life friends) in their attempts to influence the theorists and politicians of their day. Today their stances are sometimes reduced to phrases or sound bites—Hayek with his Road to Serfdom, his rejection of governmental “distributive justice”; Keynes, godfather of the free-spending activist government, who suggested that even paying people to dig holes and then fill them in would stimulate the economy. Both have a powerful posthumous role in the struggle to right the world economy after the great recession. (Keynes was famous for noting that “practical men . . . are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”) But unless you have the technical background, you might not know exactly what the great rivals were fighting about, or what the stakes are today. Rap turns out to be a great way to explain that—with a spritz of animal spirits for entertainment.
Roberts and his collaborator, filmmaker John Papola, launched their first video, Fear the Boom and Bust, on YouTube early last year. In it, Keynes invites Hayek along for a night of boozing and high times, complete with standard-issue rap trappings such as stretch limos, champagne, cash, and attractive hangers-on. The bingeing, of course, symbolizes the economy: unsustainable credit expansion and artificially low interest rates (Roberts and Papola make that point by staging the party at a bar called The Fed and showing the dismal scientists rapping and dancing next to Wall Street’s bronze bull statue). Flashing in the background are phrases like “C + I + G = Y” and “sticky wages.” The bartenders’ nametags say “Ben” and “Tim.” Keynes wakes up with something no one’s ever seen before in a rap video: a hangover.
Millions of YouTube views later, Fear the Boom and Bust had a sequel: Fight of the Century. In their rematch, the Keynes and Hayek doppelgangers resume their rap battle, alternating between a boxing ring and a hearing room, landing jabs both physical and verbal. Hayek seems to prevail, but the referee—who is also the chair of the congressional hearing—proclaims Keynes the winner. Like the first video, Fight of the Century collected millions of Internet viewers and garnered interviews for Roberts and Papola on national media. By then, the collaborators were hearing about teachers who used the videos in class to explain economics in a lively way, giving a fresh meaning to “Austrian School.”
Roberts, also an economics professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, has found other ways to make the dismal science both easier to understand and less dismal. He’s written three novels, The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance; The Price of Everything: A Parable of Possibility and Prosperity; and The Choice: A Fable of Free Trade and Protectionism. He also hosts a weekly podcast on EconTalk (www.econtalk.org) and blogs at a site called Cafe Hayek (“Where orders emerge”). The Keynes-Hayek battles royal can be viewed on EconStories (www.econstories.tv), along with expert commentary by Hayek scholar Lawrence H. White and Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky, plus other web-based resources for digging deeper into the work of both economists.
Charles Lindsey: You may be Hoover’s first ever rap impresario. How did that come about?
Russell Roberts: It’s been a dream of mine for years to get into rap. Well, that’s not true, actually. It has been an incredible ride of serendipity. One of my EconTalk listeners, John Papola, sent me an e-mail in 2009, I think, explaining that he was a filmmaker, liked economics, and wondered if I wanted to collaborate on a project. I said sure and that I didn’t really have time, but if he kept pushing me, eventually something could happen. He kept pushing and we eventually hit on the idea of a sitcom where John Maynard Keynes comes back to life as an assistant professor in New York. We talked about that for a while (OK, it was more like a brainstorming fantasy that wasn’t very realistic) but finally I suggested that we write the theme song for the sitcom as a sort of pilot project to see what it would be like to work together.
Together John and I wrote some great lyrics to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” from Saturday Night Fever. We thought that was a good choice because Keynes seemed immortal—no matter how many times the economics profession buried him, the politicians would bring him back from the dead. But then we worried about using the Bee Gees’ music, even though it was something of a parody. So we figured, no problem, we’ll write our own music. One of us suggested rap, which was a crazy idea. Because even though John and I both love music and I’ve written a fair number of economics parody songs over the years, neither of us had much experience with rap. With some help from a professional composer, Richard Jacobs, who wrote the music, we pulled it off. John turned out to be a great collaborator. He wrote a good chunk of the lyrics and I contributed a good chunk of the visual ideas. So it’s been a real partnership, because John has taught himself a lot of economics and I’ve always been interested in storytelling.
Lindsey: I wonder if your blogging and podcasting and fiction writing made rap music the next step on this path to making economic theory accessible to the layperson. That seems to be a goal of yours.
Roberts: I don’t know about the rap music, but the video part is a natural progression. I’m a storyteller. I like dialogue and conversation and narrative. My fiction uses dialogue to teach economics. My podcasts are dialogues between the guest and me, and video is just a more vivid medium. One of the most challenging and entertaining parts of these videos was brainstorming with John about the visual storyline. We didn’t want to have visual images that corresponded to economic jargon; we wanted a narrative. So in the first video, Fear the Boom and Bust, Keynes invites Hayek to a nightclub called The Fed for a night of revelry that ends up in a tough morning after. The whole thing is a metaphor for out-of-control Fed intervention in the economy—the essence of Hayek’s theory of the business cycle. In Fight of the Century, the second video, a congressional hearing turns into a prizefight with surprising results.
Lindsey: There’s a strain of rap music—so-called “conscious hip hop”—that tries to deal with social problems but also wanders into territory like September 11 conspiracy theories, hatred of presidents Bush and Reagan, even sympathy for Osama bin Laden. Did you ever think of your videos as a kind of fact-based corrective to poorly informed or politically hostile entertainers?
Roberts: Not really—I just don’t know the genre.
Lindsey: Do you know how your videos have fared with fans and performers of socially conscious rap?
Roberts: I don’t, but what’s interesting is that a lot of people like the videos because they’re fun and alive even if they don’t agree with all of the ideas.
Lindsey: I’d really like to hear that schoolchildren are spitting your rhymes on the playgrounds of America.
Roberts: My favorite e-mail was from a parent who told me his ten-year-old son had memorized one of the videos. The parent overheard his son saying to a friend, “Dude! You don’t know anything about Austrian economics?” It gives you faith in the future. Seriously, a lot of high school teachers use it in their classrooms and tell me that their students really enjoy it. That’s very satisfying.
Lindsey: “Compare and contrast the Austrian School and Keynesian economics in rhyme”—it sounds like an improv troupe’s nightmare. How hard was it to distill these two men’s life work into lyrics?
John Maynard Keynes, wrote the book on modern macro The man you need when the economy’s off track [whoa] Depression, recession now your question’s in session Have a seat and I’ll school you in one simple lesson
BOOM, 1929, the big crash We didn’t bounce back—economy’s in the trash Persistent unemployment, the result of sticky wages Waiting for recovery? Seriously? That’s outrageous!
I had a real plan any fool can understand The advice, real simple—boost aggregate demand! C, I, G, all together gets to Y Make sure the total’s growing, watch the economy fly
You see it’s all about spending, hear the register cha-ching Circular flow, the dough is everything So if that flow is getting low, doesn’t matter the reason We need more government spending, now it’s stimulus season . . .
My General Theory’s made quite an impression [a revolution] I transformed the econ profession You know me, modesty, still I’m taking a bow Say it loud, say it proud, we’re all Keynesians now(From Fear the Boom and Bust. © EconStories. Reprinted by permission)
Roberts: The whole thing was a blast. People made fun of the idea of these videos when they heard about them, assuming they’d be cheesy and dumbed down. But we worked very hard to get serious economics into the mouths of both characters. It also helped that John knows Hayek’s business-cycle theory and is a great rhymer. A lot of the best rhymes are his and a lot of the Hayek details in Fear the Boom and Bust are his.
Lindsey: What qualities did you look for in the performers who portrayed Friedrich Hayek and John Maynard Keynes? When I asked them whether they needed to know economic theory to perform these roles, they told me, “Since we’ve been involved with EconStories, our grasp of the intricacies of macroeconomics has gone from nonexistent to barely existent.” Tell me about these rappers.
Roberts: We hired Adam Lustick and Billy Scafuri, after a false start with some others, because they had a comic sense and could deliver the lines clearly. They also write and perform with a sketch-comedy group, the Harvard Sailing Team, and rap as a group called Snakes. They improvised some of the jokes, such as when Adam, who’s Hayek, introduces himself to an unimpressed hotel clerk as “Hayek. F. A. Hayek.” Pause. “With an ‘H.’ ” Keynes, of course, has just gotten a much more effusive greeting. We taped that scene at four in the morning in the lobby of the Millenium Hilton in Manhattan. . . . That was one very long day. Both Adam and Billy are consummate professionals. We pushed them many times for another take when we were in the music studio or filming and they never complained. I think they’ve really enjoyed the process. They tell me that they’ve been recognized on the street as long-dead economists. [“Although we barely recognize ourselves without the mustaches,” the performers added in an interview.]
Lindsey: There’s someone else, in your second video, who looks amazingly like Ben Bernanke. As I recall, he lights his cigars with $100 bills. What’s the message here?
I’ll begin in broad strokes, just like my friend Keynes His theory conceals the mechanics of change, That simple equation, too much aggregation Ignores human action and motivation
And yet it continues as a justification For bailouts and payoffs by pols with machinations You provide them with cover to sell us a free lunch Then all that we’re left with is debt, and a bunch
If you’re living high on that cheap credit hog Don’t look for cure from the hair of the dog Real savings come first if you want to invest The market coordinates time with interest
Your focus on spending is pushing on thread In the long run, my friend, it’s your theory that’s dead So sorry there, buddy, if that sounds like invective Prepare to get schooled in my Austrian perspective . . .
Your so-called “stimulus” will make things even worse It’s just more of the same, more incentives perversed And that credit crunch ain’t a liquidity trap Just a broke banking system, I’m done, that’s a wrap(From Fear the Boom and Bust. © EconStories. Reprinted by permission)
Roberts: The character who plays the chair of the Fed is actually John Papola’s dad, who is also named John Papola, and who shaved his head and trimmed his beard for the role. Both John and I were alarmed and upset about the willingness of the Fed to subsidize and give a do-over to financial institutions that make bad bets. We think the Fed is part of the problem rather than the solution, and those $100 bills in the video are symbols of monetary irresponsibility.
Lindsey: I’m impressed with your evenhandedness in these duels. You gave Keynes some great lines and a fair shake. You even mentioned in another interview that the Keynes actor looked better shirtless than his opponent, and everybody knows that’s a boost to one’s rap cred. Was it hard to be balanced?
Roberts: It’s always tempting to take cheap shots, but we did work hard to be fair to Keynes. When Robert Skidelsky, Keynes’s biographer, saw the lyrics to Fear the Boom and Bust, he said, “Absolutely fair and brilliantly rhymed. It’s not a complete account of Keynes, but it seems to be completely right.” My other favorite was a commenter on YouTube who said the video was biased because Hayek got the last word. If that’s the biggest criticism people make of our objectivity, we’re doing a good job. And if you go to our website, EconStories, you’ll find resources about both Keynes and Hayek that champion the ideas of both men. Having said that, we do prefer the ideas of Hayek to Keynes, and that’s pretty clear in both videos.
Lindsey: You do realize that Creative Destruction would be an excellent title for a rap song or performer, if you wanted to broaden the franchise.
Roberts: Love that idea.
Lindsey: Taking the economic angle, who paid for the videos? Did they turn out to be a good investment?
Roberts: The videos were financed by donations from private individuals we reached out to and by donors who clicked the “donate” button at our website. In general, they’re people who care about economic education and who, like us, don’t think that an expansion of government spending is very effective at creating prosperity. Was it a good investment? You’d have to ask them, but I think everyone involved in these two projects has been surprised by the reaction. I’d have been thrilled with fifty thousand views, and a hundred thousand would have been a wild success. To be over four million views, between the two videos and the subtitled versions in eleven languages, just couldn’t be imagined.
Lindsey: Will there be a Round Three?
Roberts: John and I are talking about it. We’ll see. Don’t know what it will be yet, but whatever it is, we hope it will be educational, entertaining, and visually compelling. That’s the sweet spot we’re trying to hit.
Russ Roberts is the John and Jean De Nault Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He hosts EconTalk, a weekly award-winning podcast. His Keynes-Hayek rap videos (created with John Papola) have been viewed more than 6 million times on YouTube. His blog is Cafe Hayek. His latest web-based project is The Numbers Game, on which he discusses data and charts using annotated videos.
Roberts is the author of The Price of Everything: A Parable of Possibility and Prosperity, The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance, and The Choice: A Fable of Free Trade and Protectionism. The Choice was named one of the top ten books of the year by Business Week and one of the best books of the year by the Financial Times.
Roberts has taught at George Mason University, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Rochester, Stanford University, and UCLA.
Special to the Hoover Digest.