“I was simply astonished!” Terry Jones, the former Monty Python star and director of the troupe’s classic Holy Grail and Life of Brian movies, tells me in his typically understated way of his new feature documentary, Boom Bust Boom. “I wanted to get involved when I learned that students studying economics are taught that crashes simply don’t happen.”
Boom Bust Boom is the result of a meeting between Jones and economics professor and entrepreneur Theo Kocken, also who co-wrote the film, which is narrated and co-directed by Jones with his son Bill Jones and his longtime filmmaking partner Ben Timlett.
“The key to this all coming together was Theo Kocken,” Timlett explains. “He’s an entrepreneur and a professor at Rotterdam University. His company advises massive pension funds on risk. Basically they just ignore what he tells them, but he’s paid very well for them to ignore him. But his anger had been slowly rising over the years, because he was one of the few people who seemed to know there was something going wrong in the run up to 2008. And when he was first invited to Rotterdam, he was invited to do a speech about what he was going to teach. Now your typical economics professors teach the standard neoclassical stuff, but his speech was going to be about Hyman Minsky, whose ideas go completely against everything taught in just about every economics class in the world, and all the professors got together and wrote a letter to the dean asking for him to be fired. It was ridiculous, and that was the final straw for him, I think.
“Terry shared the speech with us but I didn’t understand it,” Timlett goes on. “I had to send it to my brother, who went to Oxford, to explain it to me. But Terry understood it and got very angry about it, particularly about the fact that they don’t teach any historical aspects to economics students. So that was what really sparked this off. But, of course, then we had to figure out how on earth are we were going to make a documentary that anyone was going to sit through, on the driest possible subject you could ever think of.”
The answer is an unusual but winning mix of live action, animation, puppetry and song. Boom Bust Boom succeeds because it turns the typically stuffy story of the ancient cycle of boom and bust into an engaging history lesson.
“I bumped into a friend and I told her we were doing a documentary about the economy, and she literally yawned in my face,” Bill Jones says with a laugh. “So I said, ‘It’s got animation, puppets, and songs in it.’ And she immediately said, excitedly, ‘Oh!’”
The film opens theatrically in US today, Mar. 11, at the Village East Cinema in New York, followed by iTunes and On Demand releases on Mar. 15. It investigates the worldwide economic crash of 2008, with a unique perspective on how we can best avoid another global collapse in the future: By heeding the lessons of history. By analyzing the direct link between our remarkably unstable financial system and its reliance on mainstream economics, at the expense of any historical perspective, the film puts a spotlight on the mistakes of the past that most politicians and bankers would seemingly prefer we forget.
“There’s a line in the film that says it all to me every time: ‘The typical economics degree is made up of information that is 100% make believe’,” Bill Jones tells me. “When we dug into the story with my dad and Theo we knew there was a massive problem with education and we knew we had something important on which to build the film around.”
“We interviewed a lot of great people in business and academia, but they all have slightly different views of what needs to be done, and there’s all this jargon that they use that isn’t universal and makes it incredibly hard to follow,” Jones continues. “Plus, there’s no organized effort to get the message out.”
“Some universities try to include history in the economics curriculum, but its usually not even a course, it’s usually just a unit,” Timlett says, picking up on Jones’s thought. “The students we interviewed for the film from Manchester University–who had founded a Post Crash Economics Society there–told us that there was only one class available that dealt in any way with the 2008 crash. But that’s because they demanded it. But they’ve all graduated now so even that course is probably gone now.”
The story kicks into high gear about midway through, when it introduces Hyman Minsky, the Washington University professor whose work tried to make sense of the wild swings in what he saw as our fragile financial system, but who was ostracized for ideas that, while logical to most people outside the financial markets, didn’t toe the capitalist, free-market party line.
“He wasn’t being paid by the powers that be,” Timlett says flatly.
“One thing that a lot of other films say is that fraud is the reason for the 2008 crash,” Jones explains. “But we’re saying, ‘No, the reason it crashed is because the whole system is unstable.’ If you just apply Minsky’s ideas, it’s pretty obvious, people get overexcited making a lot of money, which caused them to get–as he called it–euphoric. And because of that euphoria, people are able to perpetrate fraud, because if people are making a lot of money it’s just a lot easier. No one is looking that hard and people are quite happy to take more risk.”
There’s also a telling moment in the film when Alan Greenspan, then the chairman of the Federal Reserve, admits in testimony before Congress that everything he’d believed to be right about economic theory in the months and years before the 2008 crash turned out to be false.
“There was a moment for him when he did actually publicly say that there was no correlation between the growth information in the manufacturing base that he was looking at and growth in the financial sector. In fact, he said, they’re completely separate. And he saw that that was a problem. He identified it. But he got talked out of that line of thinking very quickly and that was a key moment in history, really. He spotted it and got attacked and then he turned the other way. He completely backtracked.”
Ultimately, Timlett and Jones seem to know that the message of their film is an uphill battle, though one that is worth waging.
“There needs to be a morality that is taught to people going into the finacial sector,” Timlett says, animated by the frustration he experienced in delving into the topic. “It’s important. People lost a lot here in America in 2008: Pensions, houses. But the next time around, when there’s another bust, it will be money out of their bank accounts. So, if even the basic economics degree includes some of the history of what’s happened in the past, when they go on in their careers and end up advising, going into policy, going into government, they’ll understand the fundamental basics that stability breeds instability. And they’ll understand to watch out for anyone who starts saying something is a cast iron given. Because it’s not, especially in finance. It never is. Then, at least, we can try to work to develop a system that protects us from the inevitable boom and bust, or even that limits the effects. Because right now all they’re being taught are the same models that have been used ultimately to run the economy in the same boom bust manner.”
“We’re not even giving students the tools so they can work out a better system,” Jones says, equally exasperated by everything he’s learned in making the film. “We’re not economists. We’re not in that world. We don’t understand all the theories, and we got lost very easily while we were making the film, just like normal people do trying to understand these issues everyday. But if we can get intelligent people–because a lot of them have just bought into thinking that the system’s great and working–to even begin to acknowledge that going back, as my father says in the film, to Tulip Mania in the 1600s and the South Sea Bubble in the 1800s, that there are problems inherently in the system, and that we should try and better the system, then that would be a great first step.”