Film Review: Boom Bust Boom

Terry Jones’s breezy, puppet- and song-filled jaunt through the dismal science of economics satirizes the tragic inability of experts to foresee the 2008 crash, or any of the dozens of others that preceded it.
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Wearing the dashingly ironic grin of a BBC host who just can’t wait to let you in on a real cracker of a story, Terry Jones starts off his musical-theatre economics lecture by pointing to what he calls “the Achilles’ heel of the economy.” What he’s referring to is the fact that most economies are irregularly plagued by seemingly random and unpredictable crises. This is despite the fact that universities pump out a steady stream of newly minted economists who one would imagine would be able to focus their well-trained brains on preventing the next such crisis. As more than one of the experts interviewed here reminds us, studying the past theoretically helps us understand the future. The problem, as seen by Jones and risk-management professor and co-writer Theo Kocken, is that almost no economists have been schooled in how economic crises happen, and how they can be avoided. To them, it’s as though firemen were only trained to clean up after a fire burns itself, not stop one from turning a city into ash.

With little preamble, Boom Bust Boom hops right into a pocket-sized explanation of how the time bomb of toxic subprime mortgages and the housing bubble created the Great Recession. This serves as a neat jumping-off point for Jones’ dissection of how the stability of each financial bubble is defended with cries of “This time it’s different” by those making money off unsustainably inflated prices. The film dials things back for a swift, bottled history of financial busts, from the 17th century’s Tulip Mania to the 18th-century South Sea bubble and then to the stock market bubble that led to the Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. Each story is rendered the same: A commodity is priced at ever higher and less realistic prices, while ever more investors ignore the warning signs and buy in.

They’re afflicted, the film argues, with a mercenary desire not to miss a gravy train and also a kind of tunnel vision that blinds them to the inevitable bust. As Lucy Prebble—one of the few non-economists in the film, she’s likely here by dint of having written a play about Enron—sums it up, “When you’re in a bubble, you can’t see out of it.” Why would somebody pay thousands of guilders for a rare tulip or buy a house they could never afford? Because, the film would argue, not only can they not see that they’re in a bubble, the people who should be warning them about it don’t have the tools to see the danger signs either.

Once Boom Bust Boom starts digging into its stance that economists are essentially untrained for economies to go haywire, the tone turns from bemused sarcasm to incredulity. There is a more academic sensibility on view and fewer (though still some) intrusions by puppet-show skits. A swiftly edited interweave of bold-name types like Paul Krugman argue that the basic neoclassical model that most economists are taught comes with a couple of fatal flaws. First, it assumes that markets and human beings always behave rationally. Second, it doesn’t account for crises. It’s a seemingly epic level of institutional folly that all but guarantees future societies will be just as unable to believe that a bubble is forming and act accordingly to deflate it.

It’s possible that Jones and Kocken are overstating the case, that in fact some if not many economists are trained about the boom-and-bust cycle. But a warning from mid-20th-century economist Hal Minsky about how “euphoria makes us blind” to risk, not to mention pedal-to-the-medal bullish quotes from Alan Greenspan, make clear that even if every economist in America had warned about the dangers of a housing bubble, it’s not clear that anybody would have listened. As a history-minded satirist like Jones, who has always been attuned to humanity’s tragic folly, is well aware, greed and gullibility are frequent bedfellows.

At times, Boom Bust Boom is so intent on entertaining with animation and musical skits (the climax is an ironic rendition of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”) that the message is nearly undermined; it’s a mistake that the similarly eager-to-please but angrier The Big Short never made, no matter how deep it got into explaining credit-default swaps. Still, the clips from Life of Brian and South Park help land their points effectively. And although it’s never clearly articulated just what John Cusack is doing in the presence of Krugman and a puppetized John Kenneth Galbraith, his everyman’s take on the situation is appreciated nonetheless. On the subject of how economics students should respond to professors pushing the rational-markets neoclassical model, he suggests throwing fruit, or perhaps urinating on them. “That’s what I would do.”

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