An entertaining, if scattershot, look at the global economy

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“THE BIG SHORT” (2015) managed to make entertaining drama out of the 2007-08 financial crisis, and win a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar to boot. Its director, Adam McKay, used humour and celebrity cameos to illustrate some of the more arcane financial jargon that might otherwise have bewildered audiences. Now he has brought an eight-part series of a similar nature to Amazon, called “This Giant Beast That Is the Global Economy”.

Despite the title, it is pretty clear from the first three programmes of the series (the ones The Economist has seen) that this is not a comprehensive look at the world economy. There is barely a mention of issues like technology, inequality and unemployment, trade flows, monetary policy and the like. Instead, this is a quirky set of snapshots, which generate some laughs and allow for some attractive cinematography. Kal Penn, the engaging and likeable presenter, travels the world from London to Washington, from Thailand to Cyprus. Perhaps his most memorable visit is to a dildo factory, which inevitably results in a panoply of penis puns. As with “The Big Short”, some famous figures explain some dull-sounding issues such as rent-seeking and futures markets.

The series begins with the issue of money laundering, providing a useful explanation of how shady money is hidden via offshore banks and in cash-based transactions like taxi driving or art auctions. It is undoubtedly an important subject, though many viewers might already be familiar with it from “Ozark”, a drama in which a financial adviser desperately launders drug money to save his family. Indeed, this show’s light style might have benefited from a touch more anger; much of the money in question is laundered to evade tax, with the result that public services are short of funds and honest people find more of their wages are taken by the government.

The second programme focuses on the “dickishness” of rich people (hence the dildo factory). Quite neatly, this demonstrates that the selfishness of capitalists is constrained by competition and how the main problems emerge when insiders extract rents through monopolies or the exploitation of regulations. Again, this analysis might have been taken a lot further by demonstrating how corporate lobbyists use lax political funding rules, particularly in America, to get the rules changed to their benefit.

The third episode veers off in a completely unexpected direction by focusing on how leaf blight has the potential to wipe out the world’s rubber crop. The film-makers may turn out to be astonishingly prescient—airplanes and trucks depend on natural rubber, so a shortage would be economically devastating—but it nevertheless seems an odd choice of topic. Latin American leaf blight has been around for more than a century; it may spread to Asia but the series gives no particular evidence that this is about to happen. Instead, the creators ask why the rubber price is so low, given the threat of blight; low enough that Asian farmers are cutting down their rubber trees. The fault was attributed to futures traders, although the traditional complaint about speculators is that they push prices up, not down. A bit of analysis might have helped here. Speculators might distort prices in the short term but the rubber price has been trending lower for much of the time since 2011; that suggests a surplus of supply rather than market manipulation.

Perhaps some of the later episodes will deal with more central topics in economics; perhaps the series will go on to explore the themes it does cover in more depth. But, like much of Mr McKay’s other work, “This Giant Beast That Is the Global Economy” is wonderfully entertaining, and makers of more conventional documentaries would benefit from his stylistic flair. Just don’t rely on the series if you are revising for economics exams. 

“This Giant Beast That Is the Global Economy” is available on Amazon now

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