Writing Contest: Runner Up
Song: "Can We Keep It Together?" (Guster)
In the summer of 2004, a few of my friends and I went to the Dave Matthews Band concert down at Riverbend. The band to open for Dave was Guster, a lesser-known band, but they still rocked. As I listened to the lyrics of their song, "Keep It Together," I had no idea I was being exposed to, of all things, some rather interesting economic principles. Who knew?
The Guster song tells a story that strangely resembles the television show Gilligan's Island. A "fearless crew" is shipwrecked on an island. They are cut off from civilization in an isolated location that is "so far away from everyone." Boats and helicopters make rounds of searches for them, but to no avail. As the survivors are all alone, they declared "a national holiday, a chance to build it from the ground." They see their isolation as an opportunity to start their own society.
They are not ready, though, for what happens next. They are discovered by boats but they want to keep their precious society, so they take up arms. They undertake the effort to build a wall around themselves. They fight back against the boats but soon enough they realize that "the spirit was a lot like what it used to be back home." Because they put up their wall, they ended up pretty much where they were before the shipwreck. This is cause for serious regret. They are ruined in their efforts, faced with a crisis that has devastated their society. As it turns out, this simple song has some underlying economic ideas. In the past decades, South American countries like Argentina have decided to increase trade with larger countries like the United States. With that increase in trade came an increase in tariffs. Tariffs are the charges placed on imported goods. The intent is to make foreign products more expensive and so encourage purchase of domestically produced goods. This policy, however, did not work for places like Argentina.
The tariffs imposed became as high as 50 percent on some goods. These high tariffs did not help the economies but instead hurt them badly. This, coupled with poor deficit spending, caused Argentina to go into an economic crisis that required reform in the early 1990s. The government had to lower tariffs and try to recover from what had happened.
Keeping the story of South American tariffs in mind, it is not hard to see the underlying economic principles in "Keep it Together." The wall that the survivors built is like the tariffs imposed by South American countries. It was built out of what was perceived as necessity. The
islanders wanted to be a certain way, and they were willing to fight to be that way. South American governments wanted to be a certain way. Indeed, they felt that they needed to be a certain way in order to be economically successful. It turns out that a high tariff was not what they needed; it ended up hurting them.
The song expresses a spirit of regret; the survivors wanted to be prosperous and different from their old ways. When they fail in this endeavor, they regret their actions. Certainly one could say that South American countries regretted their actions. They only wanted to be prosperous and so they tried to change, but the result was not what they had hoped for. Aside from the economics of tariffs, Guster's song offers the idea that no single policy will work for all situations. Just as the situation for the islanders was different from that in the place they came from, the situation for South Americans was different form that in the United States or anywhere else. There is no one global economic truth that can be applied across the board.
I never would have guessed that the song I sang along to in my car would reveal itself to have so much economic flavor. What I can conclude from this is that economic principles are not something entirely separate from the rest of the world. Economics has to do mostly with the common sense of reality; it is just how things work and work together. So to see these ideas at work all the time is not surprising. There is very little rift between how ideas play out in everyday life and how they play out on the economic front.
Economics is an expression of how our country and our world work. It is not a farfetched notion, then, that these principles should be expressed in popular music. Whether or not artists intend them to be there, economic ideas underlie their thinking and thus their lyrics. Who would have guessed I could derive so much entertainment and so many intellectual ideas from Guster's "Keep It Together"? Certainly not me.
2. "Argentina Business, Import Policy and Procedures." Copyright 1996 Edward G.