Using Show Tunes to Teach about Free (and Not-So-Free) Markets.

Author:Rousu, Matthew C.
Position:Educational Note
 
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  1. Introduction

    Many economics instructors are using pop culture to help educate students (Becker and Watts 1996, 2001; Becker, Becker, and Watts 2006; Watts and Schaur 2011). These nontraditional methods include teaching economics from works of art (Watts and Christopher 2012; Al-Bahrani et al. 2016), historical novels (Cotti and Johnson 2012), movies (Mateer, O'Roark, and Holder 2016; Mateer and Stephenson 2011), television series (Kuester, Mateer, and Youderian 2014; Kuester and Mateer 2018; Ghent, Grant, and Lesica 2010; Gillis and Hall 2010; Hall 2005), and social media (Al-Bahrani and Patel 2015). By incorporating these methods, educators are attempting to better reach students with examples that may resonate more than some textbook lessons do.

    Economists have been using music to teach for many years. The first scholarly article in an economics journal to discuss the benefits of music as a teaching tool was published in 2000 by Tinari and Khandke. They list dozens of songs that could be used to teach economics and describe two assignments they piloted with students. Several other economists have subsequently written about the benefits of using music to teach. Students can relate to song lyrics, are more likely to discuss economics outside of class when the lesson is contained in a song, and find learning economics through music more enjoyable (see, e.g., Hall and Lawson 2008; Hall, Lawson, and Mateer 2008a, 2008b; Krasnozhon 2013; Mateer and Rice 2007; and Van Horn and Van Horn 2013.) While these authors have highlighted many song types, one could argue that show tunes-songs from musical theatre performances--are best for educating because musicals tell stories through songs. Further, many of their stories are related to economic concepts.

    In this paper, I will describe how musical theatre songs can be used to teach economics. In particular, I will focus on how show tunes teach about the benefits of free markets and the costs to society when markets are not free. The songs are appropriate for either high school or college courses and can be used in any course that touches on capitalism, economic history, government, or markets. All songs discussed here can be found on BroadwayEconomics.com and/or CriticalCommons.org.

  2. Songs That Illustrate the Benefits of Free Markets

    Several songs illustrate the benefits of free markets, and the main benefit that is usually discussed is innovation. Free markets can provide monetary rewards to firms that create and market innovative products. While firms such as Apple, Facebook, and Google are current examples of innovative firms that are worth billions because of their new products, often the biggest beneficiary of innovation is the public at-large. Some estimates indicate that the firm that creates an innovative product only captures 5 percent of that product's value (Conard 2016, p. 195). The public at-large collects the rest of the value.

    "Welcome to the Renaissance" from the musical Something Rotten does a great job of illustrating the gains from innovation. Something Rotten follows the story of two playwrights who are competing against William Shakespeare in 1590s England. This song is the opening number of the musical and introduces the audience to the setting. "Welcome to the Renaissance" illustrates the benefits society gains from innovation and entrepreneurship. The cast sings, "Here we've made advances in the sciences,/ We have the latest gadgets and appliances." The song also describes innovations such as the printing press, tobacco, and meat preservation through freezing.

    "Welcome to the Renaissance" is a great song to illustrate the benefits that accrue to the public at-large from new inventions. After all, the printing press was amazingly important for the evolution of society. While Gutenberg, the inventor, benefited financially, the public at-large benefited in so many other ways from its proliferation.

    Perhaps the most famous entrepreneur of all time is Henry Ford, who gets his own song in the musical Ragtime. In the song, simply named "Henry Ford," Mr. Ford and his workers sing:

    Mass production Will sweep the nation. A simple notion, The world's reward. Even people who ain't too clever Can learn to tighten a nut forever, Attach one pedal Or pull one lever. The production line, created with the idea of improving profits, had an enormous impact on the well-being of millions, if not billions, of people (Krafcik 1988; Ogburn 1955). While Ford became incredibly wealthy, the public also benefited as cars became affordable thanks to more efficient production. The assembly line and future process improvements led to continual reductions in prices. Ford also innovated by offering a then-generous $5 daily wage, and the increased efficiency also led to a then-rare forty-hour workweek. The increased efficiency led to much more leisure time for workers.

    The classic musical The Music Man features the entertaining song "The Wells Fargo Wagon," which helps illustrate the benefits of innovation. The emerging transportation system in the twentieth century created new ways for products to be delivered. For Iowans in 1912, this meant receiving products ordered through the mail-which was much more convenient than assembling items or traveling to locations to obtain products. Since then, Americans have gone from buying many items via catalog, to visiting large shopping centers and shopping via television (e.g., through the Home Shopping Network), to shopping online. This song is a great one to introduce the fact that American businesses are always seeking ways to get products to consumers more efficiently.

    The 2015 winner for Best New Musical, Fun Home, has a song that illustrates how firms innovate in competitive markets. In the song "Come to the Fun Home," the three children decide to make a commercial explaining why people should use the Bechdel Funeral

    Home instead of another funeral home, including how their home has silk-lined caskets, folding chairs, and smelling salts. Competition by firms helps provide customers with the products they demand--a big advantage of free markets over command economies. And while the kids in the song are singing about some odd innovations-"smelling salts for if you're queasy," for example--entrepreneurial innovations have added tremendous value to society.

    Several other songs also harmonize through a discussion of how a business will innovate to survive, and in the process improve society's well-being. Two that are on the Broadway Economics website include "A Musical" from Something Rotten and "Everybody Say Yeah" from Kinky Boots. "A Musical" shows that the way to improve business is with an innovative product (in this case, a musical in an era where there are only plays). "Everybody Say Yeah" is based on a local shoe company that wants to change its products and marketing to survive.

    "Santa Fe," a song from the musical Rent, discusses the benefits of entrepreneurship on a more personal level. The characters Collins, Angel, and Mark sing about their desire to open a restaurant. This song shows one of the benefits free markets provide--allowing workers to sort themselves into the tasks they most enjoy. The right to choose your own occupation may seem like a fundamental human right to many people who have always had that option, but it is a right that did not exist in many countries throughout history. For example, the government of the former Soviet Union often assigned workers to specific jobs. In addition, students were often assigned to a school based on the government's future job expectations for that student, not based on the student's interests (Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 2015; Federation of American Scientists 2000).

    Not every song that shows the benefits of free markets is discussing innovation. A song that shows how free trade can benefit society is "Rhode Island Is Famous for You" from the musical Inside U.S.A. The singer names the product that each state is famous for producing. The singer is...

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