Paul Solman: Forgive the sensationalist headline, but after the pummeling we took for debuting the Keynes v. Hayek rap smackdown in December, what harm in bringin’ in more noise and funk?
First came the mocking blog posts about our upcoming story. Then, after it ran, the emails:
‘I am appalled at your infantile effort to appeal to your viewers by incorporating a rap appeal to “try” and educate “all” your regular viewers about the philosophy of John Maynard Keynes. You have reached a new low, assuming increasing ignorance of the viewer, to the point that you have offended everybody.’
‘This segment was the worst waste of time I can ever remember seeing on the news hour.’
‘PLEASE do not use rappers for any reason!! They are so loud and offensive.’
‘I felt that the use of “rap-music” to accompany your segment on the financial news was disruptive, irritating and tasteless.Trashing one of the greastest minds of the 20th century with that rock crap is insulting to his memory and thoughtful economists everywhere.’
And finally: ‘Never do that again.’
Those were just the first five emails, mind you. There was not a voice in support, save on Twitter, where I suppose the audience is, well, more rap-friendly if nothing else.
Now I did write back to the detractors, pointing out that Lord Robert Skidelsky, Keynes’ famed biographer who anchored our story, had himself thought the rap “brilliant,” at least on paper. But given the stirring antipathy roused in our normally equable audience, the contagion of enthusiasm now spreading in cyberspace has caught me by surprise. The fully produced rap (embedded above) has been up on YouTube for only a few days and it’s already got a quarter million or so views, 1200+ comments, while holding a 5-star rating. To what should one attribute it? Surely not pent-up demand from the NewsHour audience.
The novelty is key, of course. So too the cheeky cleverness, without question. And to some perhaps significant extent, the politics of rap and its makers, Russ Roberts and John Papola and its funder, George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. These are conservatives all and the video not only gives Hayek the last word, but it’s Keynes who’s getting drunk, not his old Austrian colleague and intellectual antagonist.
A few words, then, on the substance of the actual economic debate. First, watch Skidelsky spar with Roberts and you’ll get Keynes’ arguments. Skidelsky, a former Conservative Member of Parliament in Great Britain, also has new book, Keynes: Return of the Master, which does a far more elaborate job. It’s eminently readable, a whole lot shorter than his 3-volume biography.
But for those in a real hurry, the nub of Keynes’ case is this: Economies have a built-in tendency to optimism and pessimism, just like the people of which they’re made. While the economy may indeed right itself eventually of its own accord, the pessimism can last long enough to cause great pain to a great many. Because, in economic terms, pessimism means no investing, no spending and ultimately, no jobs. Or, to be more accurate, fewer jobs and thus high unemployment — a waste of human resources. Moreover, if unemployment is high enough for long enough, it may pose a threat to political stability. Keynes constantly pointed to the alternatives to free-market capitalism surging in the 1930s as he wrote: Nazi German fascism and Soviet Russian “communism.” His explicit objective was to save capitalism from its own worst excesses by rebuilding confidence through reignition of the economy. That takes spending, said Keynes, an action that, in a Depression, only the government has the wherewithal to take.
Hayek, and his latter-day followers, are government skeptics. His great insight was that knowledge is too dispersed for any one person or group to know best. Thus his reverence for The Market, whose whole purpose is to aggregate what we all know into a common collective denominator: price. (He’d hate that word “collective,” maybe, but then so would Keynes.)
The current debate turns on whether one thinks The Market would have gotten us out of the slump without concerted government economic action — or at least have done a better job than the Administrations — Republican and Democratic alike — that presided.
Having been a journalist for 40 years, believe me, I’m as skeptical of government as the next guy. But I’m at least as skeptical of those who say: “Things would be so much better if only you’d done it MY way.” Finally, I don’t remember a whole lot of people arguing that we ought to let The Market take its course the week after it DID — and flushed Lehman Brothers down the drain.