Essay 40: Movies as a “Backdoor Into Financial History”

“Financial history” (the Professor Niall Ferguson PBS miniseries, The Ascent of Money, of recent years tries to “flag” this domain) can be exciting and eye-opening if the student fins the kind of “backdoor” into it that makes it all enchanting and not a tiresome slog through opaque textbooks.  Movies are a good way to “parachute” into fields, domains, areas of study:

The 1963 movie Mary Poppins is partly about bank runs and the “Tuppence” song in the movie communicates the centrality of London finance in the world of 1910, the setting of the movie:

“You see, Michael, you’ll be part of railways through Africa
Dams across the Nile, fleets of ocean Greyhounds
Majestic, self-amortizing canals
Plantations of ripening tea
All from tuppence, prudently fruitfully, frugally invested
In the, to be specific
In the Dawes, Tomes, Mousely, Grubbs
Fidelity fiduciary bank

Now Michael, when you deposit tuppence in a bank account
Soon you’ll see
That it blooms into credit of a generous amount
And you’ll achieve that sense of stature
As your influence expands
To the high financial strata
That established credit, now commands
You can purchase first and second trust deeds
Think of the foreclosures
Bonds! Chattels! Dividends! Shares
Bankruptcies! Debtor sales! Opportunities
All manner of private enterprise
Shipyards! The mercantile
Collieries! Tanneries
Incorporations! Amalgamations! Banks”

The current  U.S. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin was a foreclosure king of the Great Recession of 2008.  An American movie on “bank runs” is of course the classic It’s a Wonderful Life (with James Stewart as the local banker.)

The 1910 world of London finance show in the movie Mary Poppins can be now contextualized by realizing all of this crashed down in August 1914 which represents the beginning of post-WW 1deglobalization.”  Thus, finance and globalization issues haunt the present.

Walter Bagehot’s masterpiece of 1873, Lombard Street, is a kind of anticipation of this syndrome and Charles Kindleberger‘s (MIT) Manias, Panics and Crashes gives the sense of the underlying instability.

Kevin Phillips’s book Bad Money of 2008 outlines the dangers of “over financialization.”

The movie and the fun song can help a student find his or her way in to these areas and domains.