Boom Bust Boom documentary review: monkeys with money

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Boom Bust Boom green light

From Monty Python’s Terry Jones comes an amusing, informative breakdown of just what the hell is wrong with the economy and a few ideas on how to fix it.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

There have been a lot of documentaries about the 2008 economic collapse, but to my knowledge, there hasn’t been one before in which a puppet of legendary economist John Kenneth Galbraith sings. There hasn’t been one before in which a member of Monty Python uses animation to explain how the 17th-century tulip mania and the 1929 stock market crash are like subprime mortgages. As actor and activist John Cusack says here, “If the 2008 crisis didn’t wake people up, I don’t know what will.” I’ve been saying that about lots of terrible events for years now, and nothing ever seems to change… but maybe this silly yet serious documentary can prod us along. Because here, in Boom Bust Boom, Python Terry Jones presents — with the help of his cowriter Theo Kocken and his codirectors Bill Jones and Ben Timlett — a highly amusing and highly informative breakdown of just what the hell is wrong with the global economy. And, in a rare bonus for any type of muckraking documentary, it has a few ideas on how we can fix the problem.

I did not know this: Apparently the economic theories that are most taught to students and most followed in the political and financial realms do not take into account the inevitability of crashes. This is in spite of the fact that the most cursory look at economic history shows a regular cycle of booms followed by busts. Jones leads a slew of experts who explain how the way we behave economically is, in many ways, a function of the most unevolved layers of our monkey brains; how economics is literally a fantasy in that it refuses to acknowledge real-world behavior of both people and markets; how “free market ideology” is more akin to a religion than to a science (the movie comes down hard on Alan Greenspan, a primary architect of 2008, and rightly so); and how irrational human responses such as “speculation euphoria” can be primary drivers of financial matters (because monkey brains). Some of the film’s experts are long dead, but their ideas live on here, as via puppet Hyman Minsky, the human version of whom made a seemingly contradictory claim, way back in the long boom of the American postwar period, that stability invariably breeds instability. He was laughed at then but after 2008 began to be vindicated… and even this sort of thing, we learn here, is an unavoidable part of the boom-bust-boom cycle.

There are signs of hope here: we meet a group of students from the University of Manchester who have started a movement, the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics, to reform economics education. Perhaps in the not too distant future they will take economics into the new realm that Boom Bust Boom insists — very persuasively — that it must go: one that takes into account irrational human nature and designs legal and financial systems that can counteract individual idiocy in order to minimize the damage we can do to ourselves. It’s not impossible, but we’re just not doing it now, for some inexplicable reason. Boom Bust Boom may make a very complicated subject much easier to understand than I have ever seen a film like this do before, but even it has no explanation for how incredibly stupid our leaders have been.

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Tue, Mar 31, 2015 10:01pm

As an economist I think it’s a bit more complex than that (stability breeds regulatory capture as financiers say to politicians “look, it’s fine, what can go wrong, trust us”, and looser regulations lead to crashes) but this isn’t the place to go into it in detail.

We don’t necessarily need smarter bankers. We do need a system that doesn’t reward bankers for causing crashes.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  RogerBW
Wed, Apr 01, 2015 10:48am

I had to simplify the argument a bit for the review. As a noneconomist, the movie seems smart to me about this stuff.

Mon, Mar 14, 2016 2:55am

If you happen to be in New York, some of the screenings at the Village East this week have guest appearances by economists and people involved with the film. Minsky’s son was at the screening I attended. (He shows up in the movie, talking to a puppet version of his dad and giving psychologists years of material.) Bernie Sanders’ economic advisor is rumored to be appearing on Thursday, even though she isn’t listed on the official schedule:

Also, the film is pretty terrific and includes adorable monkeys.