Pop Economics: Economics through the lens of pop culture
So, the economy is in crisis. Well, when is it not? The global economy is becoming like that one histrionic person that is always miserable, in shambles and crying for attention.
And those cries for attention seem to be working. We have politicians, policymakers, environmentalists, lawyers, global action groups, local community groups, writers, actors, singers, and talk show hosts talking about the state of the economy. Interestingly, these groups of non-experts seem to understand the economics of daily life better than their accomplished counterparts, or at least they have a knack presenting the ideas more easily.
This realization dawned on me when I started my economics PhD on the nexus between debt and the real economy, at which time I had an existing specialization in marketing and only an elementary knowledge of financial concepts. As I read through books, reports and academic papers, I found myself on a perilous expedition with complicated models, charts, techniques and a lexicon that left me baffled.
It took me months of annotations, underlining and highlights to make sense of economic text, which continues to date. During this time, I came across multiple pop culture economics references that were closely associated with daily life, more so than tortuous journal papers which often focus on very specific areas of research that aren’t very relatable. It seems impressive how pop culture references integrate the intricacies and complexities of economic concepts and principles into our daily experiences, while economic texts and journal articles feel distant and notional.
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So, I got insights into economics’ most debated topics from philosophy, poetry, jazz, rap, satire, movies, podcasts, etc. For starters, consider the statement "Inflation is when you pay fifteen dollars for the ten-dollar haircut you used to get for five dollars when you had hair" which comes from a former baseball player, Sam Ewing. This humorous quote fits the general sentiment very well during times of inflation.
We also have the Beatles singing about the government's tax policies, a topic you least expect to make for a good gig, with the catchphrase, "Let me tell you how it will be, there's one for you, nineteen for me". Meanwhile, the line "the way the taxes are, you might as well marry for love" by Joe E. Lewis is another comical take on the grave issue of high taxation.
These statements seem to traverse the boundaries of politics and time, remaining relevant to people and groups throughout the eras. Though pop culture has touched all significant economic areas, two trends that tend to be prevalent are consumer sentiments and widening inequality. Time and again, messages about economics in pop culture has represented the aspirations, problems and expectations of the general populace, and when an economic crisis hits (which is often), it highlights the on-the-ground realities better than the designated indexes compiled by economists to represent sentiments.
Famous 18th-century philosopher and composer Jean Jacques Rousseau observed, "When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they'll eat the rich", accurately representing the kind of animosity behind growing populism and cynicism towards the elite class.
A similar point was put forward in the 1970s by Gil Scott-Heron in his song “Whitey on the moon” , where he blatantly points out the partisan policies of the US government. He writes, "I can't pay no doctor bills, But whitey's on the moon. Ten years from now, I'll be payin' still, While whitey's on the moon.”
Similarly, in his satirical take on the government's policies, comedian Will Rogers comments "The money was all appropriated for the top in the hopes that it would trickle down to the needy. Mr. Hoover didn't know that money trickled up."
We also have prose and poems commenting on the economy and offering suggestions. The 1980s rock band Dire Straits provided an accurate description of the state of affairs when they sang, "these are class symptoms of a monetary squeeze…sociologists invent words that mean industrial disease". Then we have the 2008 song “Circulate” by Jeezy. "Sound like the country's going broke. The industry's going up in smoke…Please (please), Please (please) Let the dollar circulate", a seemingly workable solution to the liquidity crisis faced by the countries then.
In the drama realm, we have popular movies such as Modern Times, Mother India, The Wizard of Oz, Robin Hood, and more recently, The Pursuit of Happyness, Sorry to Bother You, Parasite, Inception, Born Equal, Nightcrawler, High Rise, and Squid Game. There are also dystopian movies like The Hunger Games, The Age of Stupid, and Atlas Shrugged which explain the dynamics of the economy, though they are not a part of the typical wall street genre.
So, while you are going over your economic textbooks and journal articles again and again, it might be nice to take a step back and reflect on how these topics affect the average person. And, while you’re at it, you might as well play some good records.
Header image picture credit: Pixabay.com
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