No Joke: Terry Jones Explains the Last (and Next) Financial Crisis

Monty Python’s Terry Jones argues that economics isn’t a science—it’s history!  Forgetting that history inevitably dooms us to the next financial crisis.

When Thomas Carlyle first referred to economics as “the dismal science” in the 19th century, he meant the dismal, end-of-the-world predictions economists often made.  Today, economics inspires dread not just with apocalyptic predictions, but also with deadeningly dull, distressingly dense complexity.  If economics bores or frustrates you to tears, turn them into tears of laughter with former Monty Python member Terry Jones’ new documentary Boom Bust Boom—a  look back at the 2008 world financial crisis and forward (perhaps) to the next one.  Jones (shown above) demonstrates with humor, talking heads, animation, and puppet economists how the cycle of boom, bust, and boom’s rolled over people for centuries and how we might stop it from rolling over us again.


  • Image: Terry Jones in a scene from Boom Bust Boom.
  • What, you may ask, qualifies a comedian to talk about economics?  In the past, Jones used his Oxford history degree and antiauthoritarian comedy to delve into medieval lives, question who really were the barbarians in the days of the Roman Empire, and ask if heroic knights of yore were just cold-blooded mercenaries.  All fine and well, you may say, but that’s history, not economics.  If you listen to Nobel Prize-winning economist, New York Times columnist, and Boom Bust Boom talking head Paul Krugman, however, economics really should be a branch of history, not the hard science that economists enamored with theoretical models would like you to believe. As Krugman and other economists point out in the film, even the most beautifully elegant model can’t reproduce real life the way history can.  Jones rides that history all the way up to the present day as a lesson in past mistakes and a warning not to repeat them, if at all possible.

     

  • Image: An animated version of Terry Jones in a scene from Boom Bust Boom.
  • Starting with the Tulip Mania that gripped 17th century Dutchmen, to the 1720 South Sea Bubble maddening Englishmen, to the more recent 1929 Wall Street Crash insanity, Jones shows how each case followed the same mind-blowing pattern:  cautious investing gives way to euphoric speculation, which blows each bubble to unsustainable proportions, resulting in devastating busts exacerbated by mass pessimism, which leads to protective regulation, which leads to periods of stability that inspire a false sense of economic security ripe for (you guessed it) euphoric speculation, and on and on the cycle goes.  The particulars may change, but the basic story remains the same.  Using Maisie Noble’s imaginative animation (shown above), Jonny Sabbagh and Will Harper’s hilarious (sometimes musical) puppetry, a selection of economist talking heads such as Krugman known for their smarts and accessibility to the general public, and Jones’ guiding spirit of Pythonesque irreverence, Boom Bust Boom makes economics simple and interesting enough for anyone.

     

  • Image: Poster for Boom Bust Boom featuring economist Hyman Minsky in puppet form in lower right corner.
  • But if we know this cycle rolls on, why can’t we stop it?  Why don’t economists warn us?  One reason is that many economists make their predictions while relying on economic models that leave out “inconveniences” such as debt, which Irish economist Steven Kinsella calls the equivalent of a doctor presented with a bleeding patient who refuses to acknowledge the blood.  One economist who did see the blood and who emerges as the forgotten hero of Boom Bust Boom is Hyman Minsky (who died in 1996, but appears in puppet form in the film and above). Minsky’s “financial instability hypothesis” argues the paradox that economic stability is economically destabilizing.  In other words, when we feel too good about the economy, we tend to go crazy and ruin it.  Alas, Minsky’s ideas proved too “inconvenient” for more optimistic economists such as Alan Greenspan, who are lauded as geniuses in good times, but helplessly clueless during the inevitable crashes.

     

  • Image: An animated scene from Boom Bust Boom.
  • This mass magical thinking (imaginatively illustrated above) plagues economic experts and novices alike, so how can we stop it?  Boom Bust Boom even visits Yale psychologist Laurie Santos on Puerto Rico’s “Monkey Island” to show how our evolutionary forebears make the same irrational economic choices we do and argue that we may be neurologically hardwired to boom, bust, and boom again, if left to our own devices. How can we be saved from our evolutionarily irrational brains?  One answer is protective regulations, but sticking to those regulations in good times has proven impossible in the past.  The real answer lies in the study of history, something few economics students learn today.  Students from the global education initiative Rethinking Economics express on camera their frustration over this crucial gap in their learning while providing hope that the next generation of economists will remember the lessons of history and stop the cycle of financial bloodletting that bleeds the world dry.

     

  • Image: Characters from the cartoon TV show South Park, including Elton John (rear) with (from L to R) Kenny, Stan, Kyle and Cartman are featured in a 1998 episode. (Photo by Getty Images)
  • Monty Python lives on deep in the DNA of American comedy in figures such as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park (shown above). Boom Bust Boom taps into that same vein of smart, smart-ass, socially conscious humor to tell an important story while offering a hopeful glimpse into a more aware, better educated, crash-free future.  When Boom Bust Boom uses South Park’s “And it’s gone…” and “Bailout” bits, you know the climate’s already there for the word to spread fast and furious to those still reeling from the “great recession” and already flinching at the next economic failure. In this election year 2016, Boom Bust Boom should be required viewing for every candidate and every voter, because we all need to learn and we all need a laugh.

  • [Image at top of post: Monty Python’s Terry Jones in a scene from Boom Bust Boom.]
  • [Many thanks to Bill and Ben Productions & Brainstorm Media for providing me with the images above from, other press materials for, and a review copy of Boom Bust Boom, premiering in New York City March 11-17, 2016 at Village East Cinema and at other select locations worldwide.]
  • [Please follow me on Twitter (@BobDPictureThis) and Facebook (Art Blog By Bob) for more art news and views.]
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    What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

    During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

    Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
    Politics & Current Affairs
    • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
    • After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps, ostensibly for national security purposes.
    • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

    On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

    How did the camps get their start?

    With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

    Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

    "I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

    DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

    "We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

    Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

    Life in the camps

    Japanese American concentration camp

    Hulton Archive/Getty Images

    Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

    For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

    Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

    Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

    As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

    The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

    Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

    "They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

    Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

    The aftermath

    When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.