The fight of the century: behind the scenes

May 4, 2011

Keynes and Hayek are back. As rappers. For those who don’t know about these two economists, or can’t keep their philosophies straight, there’s a great rap video just out that clearly explains the warring ideologies of those two men, titled “Fight of the Century: Keynes vs Hayek Round Two.” And it is the fight of the century, or at least, right now. If Hamlet were giving a soliloquy about the economy, it would start, “to spend or not to spend. That is the question.” For John Maynard Keynes, the answer is to spend. For Friedrich August Hayek, the answer is to not.

What is interesting, and less known, about this economic rap video is that the idea for it didn’t come from an economist. Or anyone remotely close to being one. Instead, it came from a video producer named John Papola, who went to Penn State for film. And despite having worked at MTV after graduating from college, it’s also his first dive into rapping.

Papola become interested in economics partly because of the Ron Paul campaign in 2007. He was struck by what Paul was saying and how the economy played out in 2008. “Nobody else was saying what [Ron Paul] was saying,” Papola says.

With his growing interest in politics and the economy, and a sense that what was unfolding following the collapse of Bear Sterns was history in the making, Papola started to listen to audio books about American history and important political figures like John Adams and Ben Franklin on his two hour-plus commute between Vernon, New Jersey and Manhattan. He also listened to various podcasts, including’ EconTalk, Russ Roberts’ “economics podcasts for daily life”.

“You start to get a little bit of history under your belt and it comes alive,” Papola says. “Those were real people going through real life, and it makes for great stories — and movies. (I don’t know why it makes for such bad lectures).”

And bring history alive is what Papola has done with Roberts. Both of their “Keynes vs Hayek” rap videos make tangible what is happening in the economy and what Keynes and Hayek believed should be done about it. Despite no longer being alive — Keynes was born in 1883 and Hayek in 1899 — their philosophies are quite relevant today. For what we are seeing now is not much different from what happened in the 1920s. And the US economy may soon look like it did in the 1970s, when the we had high unemployment and low production.

“This is it,” Papola says. “This is my generation’s crazy time, along with 9/11. There wasn’t much I could do about 9/11 but I felt like there was something I could do about the stimulus with video.”

Papola was enraptured with the history and economic theories he was learning but he wanted to capture economics and freedom in a 21st century way so he turned to video, which he knows quite well and thinks is the pamphlet of the 21st century, especially since he believes people don’t read too much nowadays. “We are like the Thomas Paine of the 21st Century,” he says.

Papola started beating down Roberts’ telephone and skype to help him capture economics on film in a broadly relatable way. Papola says Roberts was the perfect collaborator because he talks about the economy in a way that non-economists can understand. (Papola also thinks Roberts is one of the greatest economists of the 21st century.)

“I’m interested in communicating economics to a general audience,” Roberts says. “My books are all novels because I know people don’t want to read an entire econ book. So I do podcasts, and video had been on my mind for a long time.”

The first Keynes vs Hayek video was shot in 2009 on a shoestring budget — about $15,000 to be more precise, a figure that you could charge on a credit card, Papola says. It debuted on January 25, 2010 and since then over 2 million people have watched the 7 minute-plus video on YouTube. It didn’t hurt that the pop singer, Kesha, endorsed the video as a really good rap one. Either way, the popularity of it is quite a feat considering the original idea for an economics video was a sitcom based on Keynes’ challenges and love life, where he would come back to life as a struggling assistant professor.

The rap idea came later when Papola and Roberts decided to first tackle writing the theme song of the sitcom, which was set to the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive”, “because that’s Keynes,” says Roberts, “he’s staying alive.”

Rap is also more appealing to a younger and broader audience, who Roberts and Papola wanted to reach. Besides, songs are more catchy, especially with kids and when it comes to learning. When Roberts showed the video to his own four children, ages 10-17 at the time, they loved it — and before long had learned the lyrics by heart, which Roberts took as a very good sign. “The part I found particularly amusing was that the kids know the rappers’ hand gestures by heart, too,” Roberts said.

What is less known about Keynes and Hayek, but comes across in the videos, is that despite having opposing philosophies, they were good friends in real life. Which is why Roberts thinks the video works so well: “Keynes and Hayek were friends and intellectual adversaries in real life so that adds a layer of emotion that you don’t easily find.”

For those marveling at the production of the most recent video, “Keynes vs Hayek Round Two”, released on Thursday, it’s because it was shot on a much larger budget, one more in the range of what a typical music video costs, which is somewhere between $250,000 and $500,000. Within the first 24 hours of its debut it garnered 175,000 views. As of today, that number is close to the half a million mark with well over 487,000 views. Most of the video shows Keynes (played by Billy Scafuri) and Hayek (played by Adam Lustick) duking it out in what looks like a tribunal room (which is really a room at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey) with bits of a boxing match interspersed throughout the 10 minute video.

“We wanted to make it look like the senate hearings in the [the film] ‘The Aviator’, which are beautifully libertarian moments,” says Papola. “I love the look of those hearings, and I wanted the look of the hearings in our piece to have a timeless quality.”

Papola wanted a timeless appeal not only because Keynes and Hayek are gone, but also because he suspects we will still be talking about “this stuff” in 20, even 200, years from now. Papola’s sense of urgency to convey these differing market ideologies comes from his desire to make economic and historic events more understandable in the mainstream, especially since he thinks they aren’t explained well in school.

“Both videos have a shocking amount of comments,” says Papola. “It’s the most intelligent comment thread you’ve seen. It gives you hope.”

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Economists never had a debate on whether or not to ignore the depreciation of Durable Consumer Goods. They just did it. But then they make a big deal of this trivia like it is important.

How many trillions of dollars have gone down a rat hole while economists pretend it does not matter?

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