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Rappin’ with Economist Russ Roberts

By Colleen Kearney Rich on September 9, 2010

In the upcoming fall issue of the Mason Spirit, we feature a number of Mason economists and their somewhat unusual research pursuits. One of the economists we chatted with for the feature was Russ Roberts, who is known for bringing economics to the creative arts. He is a novelist with three books to his credit—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—and a huge desire to share his passion for economics.

Earlier this year, Roberts, who is the J. Fish and Lillian F. Smith Distinguished Scholar at Mason’s Mercatus Center and a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and filmmaker John Papola produced and wrote the lyrics for a rap music video titled “Fear the Boom and Bust,” which features two of the great economists of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes and F. A. Hayek, who come back to life to attend an economics conference.

Since its January 2010 debut in a number of media outlets including NPR, the video has had more than 1.5 million views on YouTube and has at least 10 subtitled versions in languages from Chinese to Estonian. It has already won an award, a Sammy, from the Sam Adams Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to free market activism.

Where did you get the idea for the Hayek and Keynes rap?

John Papola, a filmmaker who became interested in economics, contacted me about doing a video together that would teach economic principles.

We bounced around a bunch of ideas, including a sitcom (Keynes in the City) where Keynes would come back to life as a young assistant professor in New York. That was a lot of fun but not particularly realistic. So we thought let’s just do the theme song. So we chose “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees because Keynes’s ideas are always coming back to life. “You can tell by the way I hold my chalk I’m an econ man, I love to talk.” But we worried about getting permission from the Bee Gees to use their music. So we decided to write a rap song. It was a crazy idea because neither of us had written a rap song before. But it turns out John is very good rapper. The best rhymes are his. He also knows a great deal about Hayek’s business cycle theories. Having Hayek face off against Keynes, which I think was John’s idea, gave us a lot more drama in the video.

On the video side, once we came up with the idea of Keynes and Hayek going out for a night on the town, we were all set. My only disappointment was that we didn’t get to use the Rolls Royce limo we had planned–the snow storm in New York made the owner nervous about renting it out on our filming date.

I understand the video has won at least one award. How has the overall response been?

We won a Sammy. The video has had more than 1.5 million views across the different versions that are up on YouTube including at least ten subtitled versions in foreign languages: Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, Czech, Finnish, Polish, French, Estonian, Italian, and Portuguese. It’s been used in a lot of classrooms around the world to help students understand the ideas that are behind the policy debate. And we have a page of educational resources here for any one who wants to learn more about Keynes and Hayek. We’re planning to release footage from interviews we’ve done with economists on Keynes and Hayek’s ideas.

Will there be more?

I hope so. We’re working on another video right now.

We’ve discussed your novels before. I see this as a similar pursuit, tapping into yet another audience to teach economic principles. Is this just your desire to share your love of economics with the world?

I’m interested in helping people understand how the world works. Economics is a powerful lens for looking at the world. But not everyone wants to major in economics or study it formally. There’s a huge demand for understanding economics especially using nontraditional (non-print) media. So that’s why I do a weekly podcast EconTalk and why I did the video.

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