EconPop: Breaking Down the Economic Ideas of Films and TV Shows

EconPop: Dallas Buyers Club

There’s no denying that we live in a pop culture age, and it’s difficult to spread of limited government and free market ideas through ordinary means, especially if we plan to reach and engage young people.

Founded by economist Russ Roberts and John Papola, EconStories has already developed a unique way of communicating economic ideas through visual storytelling.

In 2010, the two created a hip-hop music video, “Fear the Boom and Bust,” in which the economic views of John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayes were debated. The video came at a time when there was a debate over the merits of a $835 billion stimulus bill that was designed to lift the United States out of the throes of the Great Recession.

A little more than a year later, EconoStories released a second video, “Fight of the Century,” featuring Keynes and Hayek. The video focused on the lack of any real economic recovery despite billions and stimulus spending and consecutive years of $1+ trillion budget deficits. To date, the two videos have garnered more than 7.2 million views on YouTube.

United Liberty talked with John Papola, a director and producer, about EconStories’ latest project, EconPop, which is presented in partnership with the Moving Picture Institute. EconPop brings economic ideas found in popular movies and TV shows and breaks them down in a fun and unique way.

United Liberty: Today we’re joined by John Papola, who is one of the producers of EconStories. A couple years ago EconStories rolled out a couple videos talking about John Maynard Keynes and F.A. Hayek and presented a really neat take on economics through music and video. John and EconStories have rolled out a new series called EconPop, in which they offer an economic look at movies. They feature parts of the movie that have economics and highlight them in a fun and interesting way that hopefully will engage younger viewers.

I’m really excited about this, because there’s been a lot of talk about the need to engage young people through pop culture. President Obama just this week went on Zach Galifianakis’ show and stirred up Republicans, they said it was a waste of time. But that was an audience in which the President could share his message in a captivating way. What do you think?

John Papola: Well, I thought the President was pretty funny, I have to say. He’s got a good sense of humor, he’s obviously a charismatic guy. But for what it looks like, he was working off a prompter for some of it, which is understandable. He did pretty good. Thanks for having me on, by the way, Jason.

I’m excited to talk about what we’re doing. I think that you’re right. Obviously, I agree pop culture is a very important vehicle for information and ideas. Even though principally we turn to pop culture to be entertained, inevitably, we end up getting a lot of other ideas that influence our point of view on the world through it.

So I think that is in that context that we decided to create EconPop, so that we could unpack some of the economic ideas that are in movies and pop culture. And really bring a playful, but hopefully accessible and even candid approach to the ideas that you come across in some of the movies that we want to look at. Obviously, not every movie has much of an economic story to tell, but there’s some that have really good ones and really bad ones. So that’s what we’re setting out to do.

UL: Each film that you’re taking a look at contains some anti-big government or anti-bureaucratic message. How are audiences responding to those messages?

Papola: We started off with Dallas Buyers Club as our premiere episode, and you can see it at YouTube.com/EconStories or on our website. That obviously had a very strong message about the role of the regulatory agencies like the FDA play in people’s lives. It was a pretty critical story, and it’s a pretty critical message. But obviously there’s a lot of movies and TV shows that take a different point of view and reinforce different sets of ideas. Like the movie Elysium, which was actually what inspired me to think, hey, let’s make a show that reviews economic messages of movies instead of just the movies’ plot.

For your listeners that aren’t familiar, Elysium is this dystopian future movie starring Matt Damon, where I guess the 1% and Occupy Wall Street view is taken to the extreme, and all of the rich leave earth to live on an orbiting space station and earth is left basically to look like Calcutta. Los Angeles looks like an impoverished city, and apparently that’s because all of the rich left to go to Elysium. They took all the robots with them.

It’s really unclear how or why there would be modern technology for the rich and not for everybody else in a world where the lower-middle class Chinese are buying iPhones. Mobile phone usage in Africa is growing at a faster rate than landlines, so the idea that technology doesn’t proliferate is just one of the bizarre starting points in that movie.

These are the kinds of things that we want to tackle. When the plot of a film rests on a set of economic ideas and biases that really are necessary for the film to work but are either really strong or really weak, that’s something that I think the average viewer is not necessarily paying attention to. And that’s what we’re trying to draw attention to.

UL: You have movies like V for Vendetta or Children of Men, and I can think of a couple others, that present a dystopian society, and young viewers especially seem to really respond to that, given everything that’s going on. I think Robocop, the recent remake, is probably a good example as well. It shows infringement of personal privacy and things like that. But why don’t you think young people respond to economic messages as much as they do, say, privacy.

Papola: I think that economics is abstract discipline. The best way to think about it is Frederic Bastiat, a favorite of myself and a lot of people who are interested in economics, talked about the seen versus the unseen. For every action that you see in the marketplace or with a particular intervention, there’s a whole set of things that happen that go unseen.

So, for example, you see the benefits that are bestowed on people that get subsidies and tax breaks, etc. But you don’t see the costs that are imposed on the people who either have to pay those taxes ultimately or perhaps even the people who have resources taken away from them competitively by the company that gets the subsidies.

So if you have the solar industry, which is clearly bigger than it otherwise would be, they’re bidding away smart people that could have gone to work at, maybe a geothermal plant, or maybe just a national gas plant, that might have actually been a better use of their skills and delivered more value for more people. But you don’t see that, you only see, oh, this many jobs are created at the solar plant because it got X hundred million in government grants. And that’s hard. It’s hard to make a movie about the unseen. Movies are sort of a visual medium.

UL: I see a lot of particularly young libertarians and young conservatives doing things to reach out to that crowd. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Ron Paul Problems, they’ve taken memes and things that you may see on Reddit and Facebook and Twitter and they’ve really pushed pop culture messages about free market and libertarian ideas to the younger crowd. I just don’t understand why young people have never grasped the economic messages.

Papola: I think there’s a lot more people who are getting excited about economic ideas because they’re seeing there’s a lot of bad ideas and broken promises being made by people who are in authority. I think there is a change in the air, and I think we’re part of it. We’re sort of inspired by this stuff in part because of the environment that we’re living through right now. I do think that it’s on us, those of us that really believe in sound economic and classical liberal ideas.

Though EconPop isn’t meant to be an ideological platform, per say, but obviously good economics tend to promote private property rights and as minimal distortion by politics as possible in the lives of people. So I think it ultimately promotes classical liberal values, good economics. I think it’s on us to try to get our ideas out there and to sort of compete for mind-share in the public space and in the pop culture space.

UL: So what do you guys have coming on tap? I’m told that House of Cards and Ghostbusters could be included in your next couple videos. Those are my two personal favorites. A coworker and I sit around and constantly quote Ghostbusters, we’re obsessed with it. And then House of Cards, obviously, being a political thriller is also a favorite. What can you tell us about the economics of those and what you have on tap with EconPop for those?

Papola: Well, we’ve got our next episode where Andrew Heaton reviews House of Cards. And that’s going to be coming out this coming Wednesday. House of Cards is generally a pretty terrific series on so many fronts. I love the performances and the story, and it’s fun to watch in that sort of anti-hero kind of way. It’s weird to root for such a bad guy, but you do. While at the same time being disgusted by the entire political process.

The episode coming up will focus on the realization of public choice economics. Which is a school of thought that basically says politicians are people that face incentives and that have their own self-interests in mind just like the rest of us. And they don’t suddenly become public serving automatons when they win an election. They carry with them the same incentives and baggage.

So what does that look like in a world of political institutions? Because political institutions are kinda strange. We don’t have strong relationships between what politicians say, what the outcomes are. The system of accountability there is pretty weak. If I go to the Apple Store and I buy an iPhone and it doesn’t work, I can blame Apple and I can return it and go buy something else. My ability to do that isn’t tied to 51% of all phone buyers. But that’s not the way politics works. Politics is a really loose joint where we elect these people, or a portion of us elect these people, and they make decisions that don’t necessarily ever come back to them.

UL: It’s interesting you say that. In House of Cards we see Frank Underwood strongly influenced by one lobbyist from SanCorp, Remy Danton. And then you also see in the second season, episode three, they take on the very serious topic of entitlement reform. Is that something that we can expect to hear anything about in the next EconPop video? What do you think about this issues? Especially entitlement reform being such a real physical threat to the country, it seems right up your alley.

Papola: I think we’re going to steer clear of anything that’s sort of specific legislative issues or public policy in that sense, and instead, the episode really focuses on what public choice is and why it is that politicians behave the way they do. And ultimately, the lesson that you should come away from is this isn’t really about we have to get the right people in office, public choice is about understanding that politics creates some very nasty incentives for bad behavior, for predatory behavior, through the self-interest of political powers and the sort of interactions they have with special interests who are able to capture their attention even though they have a very narrow self-interest for themselves that usually comes at the expense of everyone else. And it really, to some extent, doesn’t matter if you get a great guy in office or a scoundrel.

In some cases, you might be better off with the scoundrel than with the do-gooding utopian guy. So the next episode is really going to focus on that. I think it’s interesting that part of the show —  and perhaps this is the show’s own bias — the show ends up having Frank Underwood, who’s politically a Democrat, making concessions at each step that undermine the Democratic Party platform. You have the education reform in the first season, entitlements in the second. You could argue that that’s perhaps a sort of bias towards politically left point of view to show those things as being bad. I think the show really hits everyone in politics hard enough that any particular biases in one way or another get washed away under the broader roof in the corruption of the whole show.

UL: We mentioned Ghostbusters as well. With the death of Harold Ramis, there was a lot of talk about Ghostbusters being the most libertarian movie ever because of some of the themes it takes on. It takes on environmental policy, EPA. A lot of other things. What do you guys have in store for Ghostbusters?

Papola: Obviously the EPA character is a self-important, power-hungry bureaucrat, much like the FDA characters in Dallas Buyers Club. In a certain sense, those movies sort of mirror each other quite a bit. But on this next episode, I think there’s a lot to focus on. It actually is one of the best entrepreneurship movies ever made. You’ve got the lead academia, and they take such great snipes at everybody.

UL: Ray says, “You guys have never worked in the private sector. They expect results.”

Papola: I know! “Academia is great, they gave us a bunch of money and they don’t expect us to do anything with it!” Even when they meet with the Mayor, he isn’t animated to action until Venkman says, “Lenny, you will have saved the lives of millions of registered voters.” It’s like a pure public choice self-interested… you see the sparkle in the mayor’s eye as he suddenly kicks out the EPA guy. I don’t know if the mayor can call upon the National Guard, but somehow that ends up happening.

UL: A business like Ghostbusters, if it were started in 2014, probably would never exist because of all the regulatory hoops it would have to go through.

Papola: I think there’s this underlying theme that I think is a part of our bigger political discussion and our society and our culture about regulation. There’s a worldview that saw regulations are this necessary check against predatory behavior by big business. That’s sort of best captured by that statue of the muscular man trying to wrangle the stallion in front of the FCC in New York City.

So you can see that’s sort of the progressive era worldview. We need robust, strong government intervention to constrain the excesses of the marketplace and of private greed. And it’s a view that I can understand people taking. I think there is greedy people out there who put their self-interest above everything and are willing to hurt other people in the process. But those people exist in politics too, which is the public choice problem. Is there a worse group of people seeking power and control than politicians? But even beyond that point, there’s this broader point that is the entire history of government intervention is a history of supporting and protecting large politically-connected organizations.

Corporations, labor unions, basically the cronies, who end up not just capturing the regulatory agencies by having close relationships with regulators, but literally writing the legislation. Whether it’s Obamacare in recent years, which was written by the industry in large part. You have members of the committees that wrote the legislation immediately going back to work at companies like Wells Point. But this goes back to the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887. I mean, right from the beginning, all of our childish textbook history about the robber barons and role of the Teddy Roosevelts of the world really doesn’t have any connection to reality. So it’s a big fallacy to be unpacked, to point out that regulations end up actually empowering the very corporate interests that I think well-intentioned supporters think they won’t.

UL: I live in Georgia, and we just had a scenario where the taxicab industry and limo association basically wrote a bill to regulate Uber and Lyft and other mobile-based transportation upstarts out of business. They actually tried the deregulation angle on the lobbyists in the taxicab industry, flipped out.

Papola: You can see that across the board. One of the things that people don’t talk about very much in our politics today… I wouldn’t be surprised if a substantial part of our high unemployment is the fact that there’s been an enormous increase in licensing requirements to get any kind of job. If you go back to the 1950s, we had a freer market along a lot of dimensions in the 1950s than we have today.

In the 1950s, if you wanted to go into business trying to braid hair or rearrange people’s furniture in a way that’s more pleasing and be an interior designer, there wasn’t any state mandated with a test with a local board that happens to be occupied by the existing incumbent players in the interior design or the — whatever the word is for the industry for people that braid hair, I’m not a big salon goer. But if you’re just an average American and you want to start a business and you happen to be good at a particular set of skills, it’s much harder today to do that. Precisely because the cronies have erected this regulatory apparatus. If you’re a Haitian American that wants to drive a cab and doesn’t want to buy a million-dollar medallion to try to help members of New York City get from A to B, oh, the cronies are gonna take you down.

 

UL: One thing you mentioned was that politicians are powerful and they get all these special favors from lobbyists and stuff. One thing I think we’re seeing is that becoming a bureaucrat, working for an agency like the EPA or the Department of Health and Human Services, those agencies, given the role-making power that they have, you could make the argument that being a bureaucrat is a more powerful position than being an elected official.

Papola: Well, it certainly can be depending on whether you happen to be under the prevue of that regulator. If you happen to be attempting to make a business selling natural food or natural medicine remedies, USDA and the FDA are more powerful to you than the President of the United State, who’s barely going ot have any time to pay any attention to that. While budget-maximizing bureaucrats who want to see their department grow — and understandably so, it’s their career, they want to advance. This is the thing about an economic point of view. If you’re doing good economics, you’re not drawing moral judgements on people’s decisions. That’s for another sphere, that’s for ethics or theology.

Economics attempts to understand why things happen in the social sphere. Why do people make certain decisions in a somewhat regular way when they’re faced with certain choices, certain incentives, certain cost/benefit opportunities. So if I’m working at an agency, and I’m a perfectly good person that takes care of their family and is an upstanding member of the community, I want to do better. I want to do better for myself so that I can do better for my kids. And if finding a way to expand the authority my particular agency has, whether it’s working at the FCC and trying to expand my authority into the cable or the internet, which has no reason for the FCC to play any role in.

The internet is not an over-the-air problem. There is the mobile net, with cellular data, but that’s a data spectrum issue. The content of what goes over that spectrum has really nothing for the FCC to say. But hey, that’s an opportunity to increase my budget, increase my role, my sphere of influence.

UL: I have one more question, or actually two more questions for you before we go. Andrew Breitbart used to point out that politics is downstream from culture. How is the liberty movement, young conservatives, young libertarians and the liberty movement in general, impacting culture? And where do we succeed or fall short?

Papola: That’s a big question. I don’t know if I’m in a very good position to answer that with any authority. I’m a big fan of Friedrich Hayek, and that’s one of the things you can take away from Hayek — be very skeptical about what you think you know about a complex system like our society, or like our culture. I think that there are not nearly as many classical liberal ideas being infused into entertaining content where the entertainment is the first priority. We’re not doing that. Certainly, EconPop and the work at EconStories, education is an equal part, if not a dominant part of what we’re doing. So we’re just as guilty of this in this respect.

But great movies, great TV shows, they are entertainment first. And the ideology that might be baked in is a secondary or even tertiary element. And I think that that’s a fundamental thing that gets missed by people that lament the lack of a certain point of view out there in the cultural domain. I come from the entertainment business; I spent over a decade working at MTV network. Have a lot of great friends in the business. It’s a very highly capitalist industry. It’s almost so intensely competitive and capitalist that I think some of the anti-capitalistic tendencies of certain members of the creative community is partly the outgrowth of experiencing unbridled capitalism within entertainment. You want to talk about raw self-interest, get into a contract negotiation in Hollywood. You want to talk about extreme inequality, map out the distribution of film industry income, and you’ll see that it’s a pretty incredible sloped curve.

But it’s also because it’s an industry that, when you get it right, you can entertain and create value for millions or even billions of people. And I think if that’s the effort made, in some respect, I’d almost like to see more libertarians and classical liberals spending less time actively talking about liberty and more time writing books and telling stories that are simply informed by their point of view without it being so didactic.

UL: I know that’s what the Moving Picture Institute has been really pushing, is telling stories, and telling stories of how big government policies hurt people. That stuff sort of resonates. I recall someone telling me once that people talk about big government, but people can’t really relate the term big government to how it actually affects them until you put something in front of them and say here, this is big government.

Papola: Well, the Moving Picture Institute is awesome, and they’re actually our co-production partner on EconPop. They share our vision of trying to bring more classical liberal ideas and good economics to pop culture. So they’re definitely a very heroic organization and we’re happy to be working with them on this. There’s a controversial book in the screenwriting community by a man who recently passed away, Robert McKee. It’s called “Story.” And in a lot of respects, it’s the human action of screenwriting. He’s almost as strident as Mises, I think, in a lot of ways. Only in this case, what he talks about is that character is revealed through action.

So it is the thing that your characters do, the choices they make, that reveals what their character is. And I think that maps directly against a Misesian classical liberal point of view on the nature of society, and the value. Individuals reveal their true nature by the choices they make. And their preferences are only revealed through action, not through words, not through opinion polls, but through, when the rubber meets the road, when they have to put up their own money or put themselves on the line for a choice, you see what they really care about. And in the case of something like House of Cards, voting is a very low cost decision. Nobody’s really gonna come to my house and hold me accountable for the fact that I may or may not have voted for somebody that did something terrible.

So I really have no incentive to be an educated voter, and I don’t get any reward for being educated. In a complicated world with a lot of challenges, I’m much more educated about the things that affect my daily life, and I care more about them. And so stories end up ultimately being impactful when they come down to the level of being understandable to people on that real level. Abstractions about big government or big business, regulations in the abstract as a concept, they just don’t connect.

UL: A friend of mine would kill me if I didn’t ask this question: would you guys take a look at the Harry Potter series?

Papola: You know, I’d have to think about the Harry Potter series from an economics point of view.

UL: I kid you not, they actually sent me an article about the big government bureaucracy, written from a libertarian perspective, in the Harry Potter series. It’s actually pretty funny.

Papola: Well, you know, socialism would actually work perfectly fine in a world without scarcity. It’s the fact that we have scarcity that reveals the need for prices and for property. If I could have magic and pull anything I want out of a hat, then you really literally could distribute that to everyone. We’d live in that sort of Marxian, post-scarcity world. But in the real world, we don’t have any magic, and going to the voting booth is no more magical than any other exercise.

UL: Well, John, I really appreciate this. This is probably one of my favorite discussions I’ve had. It’s outside the normal realm of just politics. And talking about movies and things that are more fun, especially Ghostbusters and House of Cards. Do you have any final thoughts before we go today?

Papola: My final thought would definitely be: Go check out EconPop at EconStories.tv. But secondarily, one of the things we do at EconStories is try to present our ideas in a way that they’re accessible to people beyond those who might happen to share our particular view of the world. And I think that trying to understand people that disagree, trying to come at people who disagree, from the position that they are probably a good person, that probably wants pretty similar outcomes, and just currently see a different path to getting to those outcomes, is I think the healthiest way to have a vibrant conversation and have a more civil discourse about these ideas. So I definitely strongly endorse having openness and embracing the liberal in classical liberal and remembering that that tradition is about openness.

UL: A lot of people would think you’re talking about modern-day liberalism whenever you talk about classical liberalism, they get the two confused.

Papola: Well, it’s only a Google search away.

UL: Any chance of another Hayek and Keynes showdown?

Papola: We actually have a draft of Hayek versus Keynes debating the Fed in a much more deep and detailed way. Russ [Roberts] and I do. Those projects were many many months in the making from a writing standpoint. Hopefully, we’ll have more to talk about that soon.


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