If what goes up must come down is true for economies as well as gravity, we should all be bracing for the next big bust. That's the basic premise of the new film Boom Boom Bust, a delightfully wry movie about the inevitability of free markets to crash.
Try as we might, we can't break this pattern. There's a moment in the film in which former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan appears before the U.S. Congress at the height of the 2008 financial crisis to admit he had it all wrong. Greenspan is being asked why the nation's banks, managed by some of the world's highest-paid and (presumably) smartest executives, were forced to plead for massive government bailouts.
The man who Bob Woodward adoringly called Maestro, and who had successfully convinced U.S. presidents, no matter the party, that corporations work best without government oversight, concedes in tortured prose that he had found a "flaw in the model that I perceived as the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak."
"I was shocked," Greenspan says, "because I had been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well."
But it wasn't, and it didn't.
The system of self-regulating industries, the sanctified "invisible hand" that Greenspan and the country's leading bank and corporate executives had long defended as the holy grail, had failed. And the agonizing outcome was a painful financial crisis that threw millions from their homes, and their jobs, both in the U.S. and around the world.
But the 2008 financial crisis isn't the story that Boom Boom Bust filmmakers Bill Jones and Ben Timlett want to tell. Their tale is a far bigger and much more interesting story. Boom Boom Bust is concerned with the root of capitalism's proclivity for crisis. Why it is that time and again, societies are forced to struggle through booms and busts.
"It's not just one crash, it's a repetitive thing," Theo Kocken, an economist professor who helped Jones and Timlett write the film, said in an interview in New York earlier this month. "It's not one thing, the banks, but the people at the central banks, the government, and it's not one big conspiracy but more about human nature, endogenous to the next crisis -- and it happens all over again."
At a time when U.S. stocks are declining, the Eurozone is flirting with deflation and China's once meteoric growth is slowing, are we headed for yet another global financial crisis?
The clear answer the film gives is, "Hell Yes!"
And to expect otherwise is to be foolish.
Just look at history. Booms and busts are an integral part of modern economies despite the protests of Greenspan and other staunch defenders of the neoclassical economic model that rational people operate in perfectly competitive markets.
There's Tulip Mania of 1637, the South Sea Bubble of 1715, Railway Mania of 1840, and most spectacularly, the Crash of 1929. In each instance, optimism led to euphoria that led to more optimism, and then, seemingly overnight, intense pessimism and financial crisis.
"Speculation combined with borrowed money is the most toxic combination in capitalism," Terry Jones explains, his eyebrows rising.
If Greenspan is the movie's villain, the film's hero is Hyman Minsky, the largely marginalized Chicago-born economist whose Financial Instability Hypothesis all but predicts the inevitability of booms and busts.
In one scene, Minsky comes to life as a puppet, speaking with his father, Alan Minsky, who sits in a chair in the professor's study. The conversation tries to distill his father's analysis, a theory based as much on economics as human nature.
"Wait, let me get this straight," the son says, "after a deep depression, government's impose regulation on the financial world, and there follows a period of stability. But the problem with this stability is that it breeds overconfidence, which leads to financial euphoria, during which time the politicians relax the regulations. This leads to excessive borrowing, and excessive borrowing and euphoric bubbles, cause instability."
"By jove, I think my boy's got it," says the father-puppet.
Of course, politicians and especially, the economics academy, doesn't get it. Or more precisely, insists, as if on cue in the cycle, that regulation isn't needed, and actually makes things worse. Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz argue the economy would function better if the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law were repealed.
Boom Boom Bust says otherwise.
"Another crisis is inevitable," said Bill Jones, whose previous film was A Liar's Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman. "The only thing we can know is whether we can mitigate the ripple effects, the repercussions that effect everyone. Can we minimize those effects -- that's the only question."
Narrated by Jones' father Terry, best known as an original member of Monty Python's Flying Circus, the film's otherwise dry subject is sweetened through a fast-paced series of interviews with surprisingly colorful economists, lots of ingenious animation, some of its reminiscent of Python, and some engaging and amusing puppets.
"It's very hard to engage normal people in probably the driest subject of all, which is economics," Timlett said. "Straight off, we needed other things, we needed humor, and animation and puppets. We needed to keep it funny and entertaining if we were to get across these complicated, difficult ideas."
Boom Boom Bust, which opened earlier this month and is now available on Apple's iTunes and Amazon Prime.