When Russell Roberts, an economics professor at George Mason University and a fellow at its Mercatus Center and at the Hoover Institution, was approached last April out of the blue by a total stranger, filmmaker John Papola, and asked if he wanted to make a movie, he replied, "Well, that'd be fun."
But, Mr. Roberts told FutureOfCapitalism.com in a phone interview, he wasn't sure the movie would actually happen – he'd been approached before by other people for similar ventures only to see them sputter out.
And indeed, the project that became the Hayek vs. Keynes rap "Fear the Boom and Bust" had some false starts. The economist and the filmmaker started out with the idea of a situation comedy about John Maynard Keynes coming back to life as a financially struggling assistant professor or high school economics teacher, to the tune of the Bee Gees disco song Stayin' Alive from Saturday Night Fever.
But, Mr. Roberts said, they were worried about the rights to the music.
So even though Mr. Roberts, who has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago, describes himself as "not a rap fan, particularly," they settled instead on a rap video, which taped for three hours in front of a green screen in a studio and another 16 hours on location in Lower Manhattan from 1 p.m. on Sunday December 20 to 5 a.m. on Monday December 21. A snowstorm meant that Mr. Roberts only managed to make it up to Virginia at about 8 p.m. on Sunday.
The video, released Monday January 25, has emerged as a runaway smash hit, with about 600,000 views so far on YouTube, including tens of thousands in six subtitled foreign language versions.
"It's kind of shocking," Mr. Roberts said. "Awesome."
The video has been linked on more than 100 blogs, and at one point was the subject of 50 to 100 "tweets" each hour on Twitter. It's been shown to a class at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and the professor who teaches introductory Economics at Harvard, Greg Mankiw, linked to it from his Web log. A "donate now" button on the Econstories.tv site set up to provide information about the video, the lyrics to the rap, credits for the actors, and additional related resources has attracted about 60 paying contributors, Mr. Roberts said.
For Mr. Roberts, the rap video showing John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek dueling over their competing economic theories is a natural step in a career that has regularly focused on making economics accessible to a popular audience. He's written three novels, contributes to a blog, Café Hayek, and does a weekly podcast available at Econtalk.org.
"People want video and audio knowledge, not just written knowledge," he said.
He said that producing the video cost "tens of thousands of dollars" that he raised from "a bunch of donors" through the Mercatus Center. He said it would have cost even more except that some of the dozens of people who worked on the project either volunteered their services or worked at reduced rates.
"Video is cheap, but high-quality, high-end video like this is expensive," Mr. Roberts said. "I think compelling is important, and you've got to pay to create compelling."
The only "major media" attention that has contributed to the 600,000 YouTube views was a piece on National Public Radio's "Planet Money" program. Mr. Roberts happened to be at the NPR studio at the same time as the pop superstar KeSha. Mr. Roberts hadn't heard of her and originally thought she was an intern at NPR, but it turns out that she had the top two songs on iTunes. KeSha initially resisted listening to the Keynes-Hayek rap, Mr. Roberts said, but with some convincing eventually did. The Econstories.tv site quotes her as saying, of the lyrics — which include lines like, "We've been goin' back n forth for a century/ I want to steer markets/ I want them set free" and "Your so-called stimulus will make things even worse" — "It's really good rapping!"
Aside from the NPR piece, the traffic has all been driven by blogs, Twitter, and word of mouth. "It's an incredible world," Mr. Roberts said.
It's hard to capture the fun of a video like this in print, so the best thing is to go ahead and watch it, if you haven't already.
Update: Welcome Instapundit readers. Please check out the rest of the site, sign up for the email list using the box toward the upper righthand side of the page, bookmark this Web site, or subscribe to the FutureOfCapitalism.com RSS feed using the button on the righthand side of the page.