This may seem a little out of context for a resource economics blog, but hear me out. I’ve been thinking about how best to write about the Broadway phenomenon Hamilton for months now. This is due in large part to the fact that the cast recording is playing almost constantly in my home, as requested by my 1st grader – it has been a good way to connect him to the US while living abroad. The show is piling up the awards: a Pulitzer prize for drama, adding to a Grammy, a MacArthur genius grant for Lin-Manuel Miranda, among many others; the cast recording has ‘gone gold’ and topped both the rap album and Broadway cast album charts, and its unprecedented box-office sales are transforming the economics of New York Theater – including a new agreement to share profits with the original cast. Negotiations are underway to produce it in London and Chicago, with a tour production as well. If you haven’t heard about it already, you will and you should.
While it isn’t directly a resource economics story, it is an amazing and inspiring example of the way in which academic research can filter through to a cultural transmission of great influence and import. Reading Ron Chernow’s Hamilton in conjunction with the Hamilton cast recording, you directly experience the transmission from academy to biography to hip-hopera. For example, Chernow describes the process of Alexander Hamilton ghost-writing George Washington’s famous and durable farewell address as a blending of voices that could not have been accomplished by either independently. Onstage, it becomes a beautiful duet and literal blending of voices in “One Last Time,” including pieces of the address and other Washington primary documents, the tensions in the Washington administration, and capturing the importance of the address in setting precedent for the 2 term president. It’s stunningly brilliant translation of one cultural medium to another.
I’ve long admired Chernow’s ability to turn academic economic history literature into informative and entertaining biography for oil baron JD Rockefeller (Titan) and finance mogul JP Morgan (The House of Morgan) but had missed the Washington and Hamilton biographies. Lin-Manuel Miranda has brought the Hamilton biography directly to song and stage, and now my 1st grader – in Denmark nonetheless – is discussing the challenges of independence and Washington’s generalship, King George III’s foolishness, playing “Alexander Hamilton” at school with his (Dutch, Australian — immigrant –) classmates (to whom he has enthusiastically introduced Mr. Hamilton), expounding upon the virtues of the banks, expressing genuine surprise upon learning that all the founding fathers and the women who gave them strength and support were white, not multi-ethnic like the wonderfully talented and beautiful cast he loves to watch in video clips (and which absolutely riveted him for 3 hours live). In short, he is exhibiting all the transformative behaviors that Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt (2006) discuss in another excellent translation of a body of academic work to lay participants, Freakonomics, regarding the economic and social power of information (and its transmission) in Chapter 2: “How is the Ku Klux Klan like a Group of Real Estate Agents.“
Upon seeing what Hamilton: An American Musical has done for the 1st Secretary of the Treasury’s reputation and position in current society (He’ll stay on the $10 US bill, for one thing, and is unlikely to be misidentified there by so many – as he was in this clever scene from 2002 in The Wire [start at 2:00; explicit language warning]), and the ongoing evolution in attitudes, information, and acceptance regarding immigrants, hip-hop, culture, and perceptions of the founding fathers – and actors portraying them – in general, I have begun to wonder (hopefully) about when we will get “Climate Change: The Musical.”
As an American economic historian living in Denmark, I find myself ‘introducing’ Hamilton to Europeans as the ‘great grandfather of the Euro’ and they get a piece of the story. But to date, as an environmental and resource economist, my strongest research interests from the time period follow Jeffersonian lines: the Land Ordinances of the late 1780s and the wide-ranging and long lasting implications of these acts that prepared the US for orderly, rapid spread West and made possible the fantastic common property, multiple use resources covering about a third of the US – mostly in the West and Alaska.
Cain, L and B Kaiser. “A Century of Environmental Legislation” in Hanes, Christopher, and Susan Wolcott, eds. Research in Economic History. Vol. 32. Emerald Group Publishing, 2016. p. 1-72.
Levitt, SD., and SJ. Dubner. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. Penguin UK, 2006.
Kaiser, B. A. “The National Environmental Policy Act’s Influence on USDA Forest Service Decision-making, 1974–1996.” Journal of Forest Economics 12, no. 2 (2006): 109-130.
Kaiser, B. and M. Margolis. “Deforesting the American Midwest: Property Rights and Resource Dynamics in the 19th Century,” presented at the 3rd annual AERE summer conference, Banff, CO. June 6-8, 2013.
Image Credit: Hamilton Broadway Logo from http://www.broadway.com/shows/hamilton-broadway/