This series of "20 short films" (actually 23) is an entertaining introduction to economics that often overreaches its mandate and becomes both inadequate and partisan, but not all of the films are so flawed. The filmmakers include producer Paul G. Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, and executive producer Morgan Spurlock who directs some of the better episodes. It should be said that even when this series deals with global issues it does so from a U.S. perspective. These films are introductory, so some simplification and even over-simplification should be tolerated. Some episodes are sugar-coated and slanted. "The Unbelievably Sweet Alpacas" episode is almost literally sugar coated with its story of three alpacas – why not go ahead and make them unicorns? – who work at a lollipop factory. Can you say, dumbed down? "Value of Work" comes down on the side of granting an ever higher minimum wage while giving the contrary opinion too little consideration.
"Cave-o-nomics" and "Supply and Dance" are entertaining and informative even if elementary, using comedy to teach how economies began and how supply and demand work. Another entertaining episode is "Lemonade Wars" featuring Patton Oswalt (in these films you will recognize actors from TV even if you don't know their names) as a father running a lemonade stand with his sons, competing with another lemonade stand operated by a little girl. These competitors bring in a female government regulator who is much too chummy with the father. Fortunately the little girl is precocious enough to cite anti-trust precedents that compel the regulator to slap fines and orders on the man – sometimes. At the end, a grandfatherly figure arrives to right the wrongs so things are "how they should be". Good luck with that in the real world. Buried somewhere in there is the insight that, too often, the regulatory system supposed to help the little guy instead helps Goliath put David out of business.
The two part entry "First Film about Money" and "Second Film about Money" teaches that money is not just paper in one's wallet but an abstraction of what people owe each other. Money is also something that the Federal Reserve creates to give to banks to distribute. Here again, people in positions of authority or influence do not always do the right thing. The Fed gives money to banks ostensibly hoping they will distribute it as loans to small businesses, but the banks instead loan too much of it back to the federal government – at interest. The film fails to note that this only happens because the government wants those loans and knows very well, when it gives banks that "free" money, that they are going to turn around and loan it back to the government.
"Foreign Aid Paradox", a good primer on the problem of aid to other countries, becomes a lesson about unintended consequences. The United States has been giving food aid on a regular basis to Haiti, a country that only needs outside food during emergencies. Now Haitian farmers cannot make a living because of competition from nearly free and nearly permanent U.S. food aid.
Some films just state a fact or problem with no solution or an inadequate one. "Made by China in America" tells how China, which previously put U.S. textile factories out of business through competition, is now buying a few dormant factories and putting Americans back to work, but under Chinese management. "Fed Head" is a funny story about a Federal Reserve chairman who wakes up after having drunk an elixir of oblivion called "Vision Quest" (don't expect an explanation). His young daughter has to explain to him in terms appropriate to a child or an idiot (she being the former, he being the latter) just what the Federal Reserve is and what the chairman does. "Taxation Nation" also explores a problem without offering any solution. "This Won't Hurt" is entertaining, but deals with the high cost of health care worse than simplistically, actually suggesting that the problem has been that the states regulate health care instead of Washington, DC. Really? That's the problem? The film blames private insurance companies but not the federal government, which plays a part through Medicare and Medicaid in driving up costs. Other films offer absurd observations and/or solutions such as "Your Tax Dollars at Work", which suggests that the future of "social security is fine", and another film suggests all would be well if we just made more things free, when, in fact, nothing is ever free. (Some filmmakers should have watched the other films in the series.) "Recession" implies that stimulus bills are always spent on stimulus projects (another case where what people in authority are expected to do and what they actually do are not always the same) and states that recovery from recession is "inevitable". "Recession", however, also points out the influence of weather on the economy, which is a good insight. Another film that addresses the relationship of nature to economics is "Bee's Invoice", which starts out with some good observations about the economic phenomenon of "common pool resources", but it ends up taking a pro carbon-tax-as-panacea approach without addressing the con arguments. (For one thing, can anyone say "derivative"?) Yet another foray into the economics of natural phenomenon is "Ebola Economics", which shows that even when epidemics are limited to a region, anything that that region produces in large quantity will become noticeably more expensive everywhere in the world. That is the kind of worthy insight that these films impart when at their best.
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