There's a long and proud history of tapping economic turmoil for comic content.
MELBOURNE has just enjoyed its annual month-long festival of stand-up comedy. It featured dozens of performers tickling our funny bones. Many of the comedians would have poked fun at the current economic predicament but, like their audience, would struggle to make any sense of the global financial crisis, never mind derivatives or credit default swaps.
There have also been five economic conferences while the comedy festival was on. There was a retrospective on John Maynard Keynes at Trinity College, University of Melbourne. During Easter, ardent young Marxists gathered at Melbourne University to celebrate perhaps the last days of capitalism.
There was the serious business of a macroeconomics workshop at Deakin University. Victoria University hosted a one-day financial conference entitled Emerging after the Storm. Last week the Society for Australian Industry and Employment held a conference at the RACV club entitled Is Innovation enough to save Australian Manufacturing?
Having attended three of the five functions, I can relate that humour was very scarce.
You might think economics a dismal, dreary science and that comedy and economics would be odd bedfellows. You'd be wrong. There is a website devoted to jokes about economics and economists. There is even an American stand-up comedic economist called Yoram Bauman. He is bringing out an introduction to economics in cartoon form.
There are many economic concepts that have proven to be heroic failures. In Australia we have had the J curve, and the twin deficits thesis. The Americans have had the ironically named Laffer curve, which posited that cutting taxes on the rich would generate more tax revenue.
The American satirist P. J. O'Rourke has written a guide to economics for the perplexed entitled Eat the Rich. In explaining how economics is divided into two halves, he jokes that microeconomics concerns things that economists are specifically wrong about, while macro concerns things economists are generally wrong about.
Those old black-and-white British comedies such as Hancock and Steptoe and Son, which were penned by the script-writing duo of Ray Simpson and Alan Galton, used the dire, austere state of post-war Britain as a central theme. One episode of Steptoe and Son was called The Economist while Hancock had an episode titled The Economy Drive. In the '70s The Two Ronnies would quarry material from the affliction known as the British economic disease. Margaret Thatcher closed that quarry down.
Today our television screens are filled with American sitcoms and economic issues are not so prevalent. Walt Disney once said: "The greatest export from America to the world is laughter." Some might see the black humour in how shonky, ill-conceived practices in the American financial system have ended up putting the global economy into a near depression.
If it were not so serious we could all have a belly laugh, not least at American pretensions to be the best in the world.
Right now, with Australia almost officially in a recession, the visage of Mr Swan does not lend itself to humour. At least Peter Costello was always good for a laugh at parliamentary question time with his ripostes and barbs. At budget time, though, an ill-timed haircut and a serious demeanour made him akin to an over-sharpened pencil. In contrast, Swan never varies and comes across as a colourless accountant. His only touch of humanity is that he is a good family man and a keen surfer.
Swan doesn't have an easy command of the colloquial that is useful in connecting with the electorate. This is how Paul Keating described the booming Australian economy in 1988: "Stick your head out of the building in any capital city in Australia and it's a sea of cranes. The economy is so robust that it's taken a pickaxe to stop it. We're laying into it with a lump of four-by-two to try and slow it down. In the past, if you hit it with a lump of four-by-two, it would fall to bits."
It's a pity the comedy festival has come to an end, for the economic news is getting bleaker and a serious budget is heading our way. In the dour 1930s the federal government used to have an entertainments tax on cinema-goers. We got rid of it long ago but perhaps we should now have a subsidy to encourage the making of more comedians we're going to need them.
Alex Millmow is a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Ballarat.
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