Funny money: Boom Bust Boom

Former Monty Python member Terry Jones takes a topical, unique look at why economic crashes happen, and how to protect the world from boom and bust.

Taking as its starting point the global credit crisis of 2008, Boom Bust Boom aims to address “the Achilles heel of capitalism… How human nature drives the economy to crisis after crisis, time and time again”. The objective here is twofold; to investigate the systemic nature of financial instability – the boom and bust cycle of the film’s title – and raise the question of whether we can avoid another global collapse in the future.

The global economic crisis is an unusual topic, you might think, for director, historian, writer, actor and comic Terry Jones, but the former Python has tackled it with his characteristic boundless enthusiasm. The film is co-written by Jones and veteran economist and entrepreneur Theo Kocken. A Bill And Ben Production, it incorporates puppetry by filmmakers Jonny & Will and animation by Arthur Cox and Moth Collective.

Jones and his team have assembled a diverse range of economics experts as talking heads, such as Andy Haldane (Chief Economist, Bank of England), Paul Mason (Economics Editor, Channel 4 News), Nobel Prize winners Daniel Kahneman, Robert Shiller and Paul Krugman and, for mass appeal, John Cusack, to explain the situation with lucidity and advocate for change. Meanwhile, Jones acts as anchor, host, and linkman.

To illustrate its theme, the film uses a fluid, kinetic style of line art-based animation and Avenue Q-esque, all-singing, all-dancing muppetry. You may ask does a documentary on such a sober topic need gimcrack and gimmickry? It certainly doesn’t harm the message – it’s a recognisably Pythonic trait, to attack a subject, no matter how serious, with mischief and eccentricity, and to cut through the verbiage and waffle. Furthermore, with a number of BBC documentary series under his belt, Jones has a proven track record of being able to engage the viewer in his chosen subject matter, with a unique personal style that’s not only informative and engaging, but also inclusive, and above all never dull.

Jones puts on his history hat to provide some context, taking us through credit crises of previous eras, from the Dutch ‘tulip fever’ of the seventeenth century and South Sea bubble to 1840s England’s ‘railway shares mania’ and, inevitably, the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the result of an overinflated American economy. All of these crises were dependent on the same thing: financial euphoria.

This phenomenon was summarised by distinguished scholar and economist Hyman Minsky in no uncertain terms: “Stability leads to instability, euphoria makes us blind, and we take irresponsible risks that lead us to disaster.”

The key to understanding this cycle is understanding how the free market economy works – or rather, should in theory. More of an ideology than a system, previously discredited in the 1930s, its history is here traced from its revival under financial regulator Alan Greenspan in the ‘80s. This flawed system, essentially based on what Sartre would term ‘bad faith’, has become the dominant ideology of Western capitalism; and, the film explains, the systemic nature of financial instability – “boom-bust-boom” – will remain a causal inevitability for as long as the fairy tale of the neoclassical economical model exists, as long as economists refuse to learn from history, and as long as the wise words of Galbraith and Minsky remain unheeded.

Delivering its sobering warnings through history with a crooked smile, does Boom Bust Boom, as it promises, offer hope for a new paradigm, a post-crisis economy? Only, the film concludes, by changing the way economics is taught, challenging the existing economic model and engaging with the real world. Your writer was left with a much better understanding of what the financial crisis is all about, and at 70 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

‘Boom Bust Boom’ opened theatrically in the UK on March 23, followed by release on iTunes and On Demand March 29.

Running time: 72 mins. Rated 12A

Image credit: copyright Nick Rutter, used with permission

Author bio: James Gent has contributed to several acclaimed publications devoted to cult and popular television including 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die, You & Who: Contact Has Been Made and Blake’s Heaven: Maximum Fan Power. In 2014, he wrote the biography for the official Monty Python website.  

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