Film and TV producer/director John Papola was working at Spike TV in New York, commuting into the city by bus and becoming an economics geek. He often listened to podcasts recorded by George Mason University economics professor Russell Roberts, and in 2008 he reached out to Roberts with an idea: Create a music video that explained the theory behind our economic mess.
Roberts loved it. And the result, a full-blown rap battle between economic philosophers John Maynard Keynes and F.A. Hayek, was not only brilliant in vision and conception, it blew up on the Internet: Over 2.2 million hits since its release last year, now translated into a dozen different languages and the subject of extensive online dissection and analysis.
And now, Papola and Roberts are back with a new video, released last month, again pitting Keynes and Hayek in a war of theory that Hayek seems to win, only to watch the media anoint Keynes the champion. In less than three weeks, it’s already taught more than 600,000 viewers the difference between “Austrian Economics” and “Animal Spirits.”
Above is the first video, “Fear the Boom and Bust,” starring Billy Scafuri as Keynes and Adam Lustick as Hayek. After the jump is the new video, “Fight of the Century,” and Roberts and Papola explain how they launched their geek phenomenon.
Roberts is a professor and distinguished scholar at Mason’s Mercatus Center in Fairfax and a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. He has written books, he has a blog called Cafe Hayek, he does a podcast called EconTalk, and he’s passionate about economics.
Papola, a Penn State film school grad living outside New York, had been in TV for 10 years, working at Spike, Nickelodeon and MTV. He recently formed his own production company, Emergent Order, which is currently filming in Norway. Papola writes an economics blog called “But What the Hell Do I know.” The two seemed unlikely to ever meet.
“I have no formal economics training,” Papola said in an e-mail Wednesday, “but my commute into NYC every day afforded me plenty of time to read and listen to podcasts...One of the podcasts I listened to most religiously was EconTalk with Russ Roberts. It’s awesome.
“So when the crisis really reached its most intense in late 2008 and the world turned toward the long-refuted ideas of John Maynard Keynes (we need more debt in a crisis driven by bad debt), I turned to Russ Roberts to collaborate on videos that could offer a fuller palette of intellectual choice.”
Roberts said he’d wanted to branch out into video before, but “people that produce them don’t know much about economics. John proved to be both persistent and well versed in economics, so it’s been a good collaboration.”
Roberts said the pair initially planned a situation comedy, maybe “Keynes and the City.” Then they pared that down: Let’s just do the theme song for the show. Roberts had written a number of song parodies. Papola had no music writing experience.
Over 10 months in 2009, they eventually hammered out a number of verses and then Papola put together the production. Released in January 2010, the video was a smash.
“This is glorious,” Roberts said. “We have more than 3 million views, including the subtitled foreign versions.”
Kids are memorizing the lyrics, with Hayek lines like, “You must save to invest/Don’t use the printing press/Or a bust will surely follow/An economy depressed.” Someone told Roberts that they heard a fifth-grade boy remark to a friend, “Dude, you don’t know what Austrian economics is?”
“Russ is amazingly creative, especially for being an accomplished academic economist,” Papola said. “He’s probably the most accessible, creative economic thinker since Milton Friedman...He’s incredible.”
As “Fear the Boom and Bust” went viral, Papola and the actors were invited to appear and perform at a gathering sponsored by The Economist magazine. Roberts and Papola decided to write some new verses for the event, then expanded those into a new song instead, “Fight of the Century.” It was formally released April 28.
“We get e-mails,” Papola said, “ranging from college professors to moms with young children from all around the world, all praising the way our work is breathing life into economics education.”
The videos try to be even-handed, though both Roberts and Papola openly favor Hayek’s free-market view of economic theory, rather than Keynes’ preference for government intervention. Balance between the two “is something we put serious effort into doing right,” Papola said.
“We’re making an impact,” Roberts said. “It’ll be fun to see what else we can do.”
For more background, go to Econstories.tv.
The Daily Kos did a detailed breakdown of the lyrics of “Fear the Boom and Bust.”