If in your seniority you hanker to acquaint your grandchildren with the eternal truths of economics and Monty Python, and with the clever arts of animation, puppetry, music scoring, storyboarding, illustration, and documentary filmmaking, round up the little kinfolk of middle school age and older for a viewing of Boom Bust Boom co-written by Python luminary Terry Jones and economics professor Theo Kocken. Jones co-directs the film with his son Bill and Ben Timlett. The film is produced by Bill and Ben Productions. Terry Jones also directed The Holy Grail and The Life of Brian. He is a very funny man, and clever and street smart too.
The film deals with the recurrent busts that have followed booms in the history of capitalism, as illustrated within modern memory by the crash and “Great Depression” of 1929 and the bursting of the subprime housing mortgage “bubble” in 2008. At the very least your viewers will understand what happened in 1929 and 2008 after seeing the film. Check out the trailer.
Neoclassical Economics, the approach to economics whose acolytes dominate the graduate schools and universities, teaches that busts need not happen; they are aberrations. Rational actors, each pursuing their own interests in self-regulating markets, as described by Adam Smith, steered by the policies of John Maynard Keynes, and advocated by the likes of Milton Friedman and Allen Greenspan, prevent busts from happening, unless government managers are stupid enough to screw things up. States of the market are in this view portraits of collective rationality.
The alternative view, represented in the film by the insights of the neglected, but prescient, economist Hyman Minsky, says that the tranquility of economic stability leads to undue exuberance, unwise speculation, and debt-fueled booms, followed by inevitable busts. That’s part of capitalism. This is human nature. We are irrational as well as rational economic actors. The unfettered market is not guided by divine authority or by amalgamated rationality. (In one striking scene, a group of graduate students in economics at the University of Manchester is petitioning the faculty to teach economics as a human science applicable to what actually happens in the real world, such as the debacle of 2008. They say their faculty of neoclassical economists has given them little understanding of such events.)
I love the fast pace of the documentary. Lots of interesting and relevant information is efficiently and cleverly presented. Here are examples:
- Animated reconstructions of Tulip Mania in Amsterdam of the 1630s and the South Sea stock bubble in London of 1720 are used to show that economic follies repeat themselves. The sub-prime housing bubble of 2008 had the same dynamics as these disasters, nothing new there.
- Reenactments of the State of the Union addresses of Calvin Coolidge and George W. Bush in 1928 and 2006, respectively, confidently assuring the public of the health and stability of the economy; the two Presidents obviously had no idea of what was about to happen.
- A puppet conveys Hyman Minsky’s hard won wisdom on economic bubbles and human nature to his son Alan, who helpfully appears in person (as an actor in the film) to prove to his puppet Dad that, yes, he gets the message.
- Terry Jones regularly jumps in front of, or even into animations, illustrations, television blips and other scenes to helpfully maître d’ the action.
- Laurie Santos, a Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale, on site at her monkey observation lair off Guadaloupe explains her finding that monkeys share with us a couple of irrational economic habits from 35 million years ago that get us into big trouble, including booms and bubbles!
- Several animated bank scenes show mortgage lenders and customer reps making deals with customers and relieving them of their money.
- Scads of scholars, mostly economists, including three Nobel Prize recipients, interject cogent facts and pithy truths into the discussion. The luminaries include Andy Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England, George Magnus, Zvi Bodie, Paul Mason, John Cassidy, Steven Kinsella, Daniel Kahneman, Robert J. Shiller and Paul Krugman.
- The wisdom of the influential mid-twentieth century economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, (author of The Affluent Society (1958), and The New Industrial State (1967), Harvard Professor and Kennedy administration Ambassador to India, is intoned by a puppet who sounds even more pompous than was the man himself. That is hard to achieve.
- Important professional secrets are shared. Allen Greenspan, the highly regarded Chairman of the Federal Reserve between 1987 and 2006 is shown confessing to a congressional committee that his neoclassical model of the economy was wrong.
- Even the actor John Cusack, who, I guess, is something of a scholar on the subject, offers occasional insights and insults.
- Clever songs are written, adapted, and fashioned for the documentary, much in the spirit of the familiar Monty Python classics. You should be able to reconstruct in your head the finale: an animated chorus of exuberant characters singing “I’m forever blowing bubbles!”
The only thing missing in the film is a cameo by John Cleese and the other Pythons. But it’s not necessary. It’s an excellent piece of art in its own right and your grandchildren will thereafter to be skeptical consumers of the profession of economics. That’s a benefit of which grandparents can be proud. So choose the night, extend the invitation, and buy the popcorn.
Will Callender, Jr. ©
July 12, 2016
Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good