The Economy Is Us: A Tribute to John Papola

For many people around the world, the first they had ever heard of the great economist Friedrich A. Hayek came from a rap video. That’s right. Some 3.4 million people have watched “Fear the Boom and Bust” since its release two years ago. It has been shown in classrooms and been featured in countless stories on economics.

This video did more than just educate people on the alternative to Keynesian-style macroeconomic policy of which only a small number had been previously aware. It shocked free-market advocates out of their stupor and made them realize they had to do more than write thick treatises that sit on library shelves to get their message out.

This video made economics interesting and dramatic. It took an intellectual battle that had being going on behind the scenes for nearly 100 years and put it into contemporary imagery. The lyrics were not only clever and intelligent; they were accurate as regards the theories of Hayek and Keynes.

Then there was a follow-up last year: “Fight of the Century.” It already has 1.7 million views, and many people think it is even better than the first one (both videos have their strengths, in my view). Then there have been hundreds of media appearances, thousands of stories and blogs, spinoffs and public debates. Several books have come out on the topic.

You can see here the way ideas work to change the ideological landscape. It is now widely understood that there is another side to the issue — a point few understood in the days of FDR’s “fireside chats” or Walter Cronkite’s nightly instructions on what Washington wanted us to think.

Today, not even mainstream journalists can write about the topic of countercyclical policy and economic stabilization without acknowledging another side to the debate. And this new awareness is leading people to truth that has otherwise been suppressed.

Hayek himself would have been overjoyed. He wrote that liberty is doomed unless we “can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task that challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds.” (Emphasis mine.)

The minds behind the videos: economics professor Russell Roberts (who has specialized in finding new ways, such as novels and podcasts, to get the word out) and media genius John Papola. I’m focusing on Papola here because he gets the least attention of this duo, and it has been my pleasure to get to know him personally and interview him on several occasions.

Of course, I’m pleased as can be than John wrote the long and thoughtful introduction to Spy Briefing Books’ new edition of Hayek’s outstanding compilation, A Tiger By the Tail. It is available in a fabulous softcover edition or e-book. Or you can get both for free by joining the Spy Briefing Club, which provides an unrelenting stream of digital bling.

John’s background is in media, having done outstanding work for Spike TV, Nickelodeon and MTV. Then in 2006, he watched the PBS documentary Commanding Heights. He caught the economics bug. He realized that the science of economics holds the secret to the rise and decline of societies, the answer to so many of our cultural problems, the crucible that determines whether we thrive or die as a people.

He could have stopped there, but — as he explains in this introduction — he continued his studies and found his way toward a truth that goes beyond the choices we are presented in current political debates. He realized that contrary to conventional wisdom, neither Reagan nor Thatcher represented some kind of free-market ideal. There are more foundational issues in play than any political party represents.

He set out on a gigantic, and even obsessive, reading plan that took him through the works of the Austrian School economists from a century ago to the present. It was a heady intellectual journey that ended up causing a dramatic vocational change in his life. He decided to use his skills and talents to advancing the cause. He would do it not by merely propounding doctrine, but through civil, creative and imaginative means, just as Hayek has suggested. He was pushing ideas that were otherwise ignored.

The most-conspicuous results of his intellectual journey are the two rap videos. He worked with Roberts to create fabulous rhyming couplets and memorable phrases that have changed the way free-market advocates talk about the issues. If you spend some time with him, you can observe his talent for this at work. I swear that he can make a great rhyme out of anything. It is dazzling just to hear him think out loud.

Here are two of the most-famous passages from the second video, put into the mouth of Hayek:

The economy’s not a car, there’s no engine to stall,
No expert can fix it, there’s no “it” at all.
The economy’s us, we don’t need a mechanic,
Put away the wrenches, the economy’s organic.


We need stable rules and real market prices
So prosperity emerges and cuts short the crisis.
Give us a chance so we can discover
The most valuable ways to serve one another.

Just reading those last two lines absolutely warms my heart. This is the language of genuine liberalism. This is the great truth of the market that has been so long suppressed. The second video in particular makes heavy use of the notion that we face a choice between a society organized top down or bottom up. That’s it exactly, a fantastic summary of what liberal minds have been saying for centuries, finally given to us in an easy-to-understand image.

What his introduction to A Tiger by the Tail reveals is that John Papola is not just a media genius. He is also a first-class intellectual. He discusses the history of thought here, along with the misuse of economic metaphors, capital theory, banking institutions, the role of prices and entrepreneurship, interest rates and the role of money. He places special emphasis on the issue of “Say’s law,” which Keynes claimed to have refuted, but which still stands as the theoretical bulwark of the market’s capacity for self-management.

His essay, which stretches to 5,000 words, is a veritable primer on Hayek and the Austrian School. Of course, he ends with a few rhyming couplets. What a performance! As Hayek would observe, this is the way to use ingenuity and imagination to make economics and liberty living intellectual issues.

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