An offbeat take on economics

This Giant Beast © Amazon
Kal Penn tackles economics in a hands-on manner

This Giant Beast That is the Global Economy

Presented by Kal Penn
Available on Amazon Prime

Economics plays an important role in our everyday life, yet the subject is still seen by many as dry and boring. Over the past decade several hit books, most notably Freakoconomics by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, have attempted to make the subject more accessible to a wider public. This Amazon Prime documentary series aims to perform a similar function on the small screen by examining some important economic issues in an offbeat way.

The series is composed of eight episodes that individually last for just over 40 minutes. Each episode deals with a particular topic that is related to the global economy, including money laundering, automation and corruption. Penn uses the topic as a hook to explore wider economic concepts, such as how competition and self-interest work to make everyone better off, or how economists attempt to put a value on human life.

The economic issues are discussed in serious interviews with experts, but these are interspersed and lightened with sequences where Penn tackles the topic in a hands-on manner. In the first episode, for example, he tries to set up his own Cypriot shell company; in the penultimate episode he “hires” a hitman. There are even some comedy sketches – in one, the manager of a cafeteria demonstrates the many ways in which corruption can harm consumers. Another skit involves a wealthy student buying access to exams, illustrating how anti-money-laundering rules catch small-time crooks while allowing the large-scale criminals to carry on cheating.

The series has room for improvement. Some of the humorous sketches, such as the one set in Santa’s workshop, are a bit cringeworthy; other segments are a little crude, such as the one featuring an adult-products factory that concludes the second episode. Penn also tries to cram too much into every episode, which sees him flit from topic to topic at a rapid pace. Indeed, you get the feeling that the episodes would benefit from being five to ten minutes longer, or at least examining a narrower range of topics in more depth.

Despite these shortcomings, the series is generally sharp and witty, and provides an original take on economic topics that frequently appear in the headlines. It is also nice to see a company such as Amazon taking some risks. Let’s hope that the show encourages people who are otherwise uninterested in current affairs to think a bit more deeply about the economic underpinnings of modern life.