Economics takes the rap in YouTube videos

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Print this page by M.J. McAteer

Marshall McLuhan didn’t envision YouTube or rap music when he said, “The medium is the message,” but Russ Roberts can attest to the continued accuracy of that pronouncement.

In the past couple of years, Roberts, a professor at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, and John Papola, a Spike TV producer, have collaborated on videos that have gone viral on the Web. Their subject matter that generally stirs scant interest outside think tanks and academia: the opposing theories of long-dead economists John Maynard Keynes and F.A. Hayek. But thanks to a clever presentation and a savvy use of social media, “Fear the Boom and Bust” (released in January 2010) and “Fight of the Century: Keynes Vs. Hayek, Round 2” (released in April 2011) together have logged more than 4.3 million views on YouTube.

The unusual videos are presented as rap smack-downs, complete with all the macho posturing and finger-stabbing verve of Snoop Dogg or Eminem.

At one point in the latest video, actor Billy Scafuri, as Keynes, raps:

When we’re in a mess, would you have us just wait?
Doing nothing until markets equilibrate?

Adam Lustick as Hayek is undaunted. His tongue-twisting rejoinder:

Econometricians, they’re ever so pious.
Are they doing real science or confirming their bias?

With lines such as these, the videos are really a primer on macroeconomics, but they manage to be drolly entertaining as well as educational. Their fan base is international (they have been subtitled in 11 languages) and diverse. One 10-year-old boy learned all the lyrics by heart, Roberts says.

Making economics understandable to the general public has been a mission for Roberts. He is a regular commentator on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” blogs at Café Hayek, and has a podcast called EconTalk. He also has written three novels centered on economic issues such as price gouging and free trade; one is even billed as an “economic romance.”
Although Keynes and Hayek get equal time in the videos, Roberts admits that, like Hayek, he’d rather see government doing less. (The better-known Keynes advocated government spending to jumpstart stalled economies.) The federal stimulus “doesn’t appear to have done a great deal of good,” Roberts says, and government interference in the housing market has only been “the vehicle for bad behavior on Wall Street.”

Roberts would rather see the U.S. live within its means. “I’m eager to end up somewhere other than Italy,” he quips, in reference to the financial turmoil in that country. Perhaps, though, Roberts stated his position most succinctly in one rhyme he wrote for Hayek’s most recent rap:

Stop bailing out the loser, let prices work.
If we don’t try to steer them, they won’t go berserk. 

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