Bill Black: The OSU Marching Band Exemplifies Why Economists Err by Ignoring Culture
Posted on August 2, 2015 by Lambert Strether
Lambert here: This is a short but important post. In the headline, Black says “culture,” a superset of the “criminogenic environment” concept he uses elsewhere. We often think of culture as far away, or perhaps even practiced in concert halls or museums; and we may think of a “criminogenic environment” as something created only in corporate environments. In fact, our intimate daily encounters are all structured by (among other things) culture, and — as the thousands who went to work creating fake documents during the foreclosure crisis knew — a “criminogenic environment” can be right next door. Black’s case study of corrupt culture Ohio State University Marching Band drives both points home. “If men were angels….”
By Bill Black, the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One and an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Originally published at New Economic Perspectives
The Ohio State University (OSU) marching band is back in the news, which is a very bad thing. Sometimes a story that has no obvious connection to economics provides an understandable example of why economic analysis is often so poor. The OSU band story is featured in the Wall Street Journal in an article entitled “Holocaust Victims Mocked in Ohio State Band Parody Songbook.” The WSJ has a copy of the “OSU songbook” and the title is not an overstatement. The lyrics mock the Jewish victims in graphic terms. The lyrics are also juvenile and lame. The author(s) of the songbook have no future in any creative activity. The lyrics to other songs are homophobic and equally lame. I won’t quote the lyrics and spread the hate.
Band members were also urged to keep the book secret. “Take it with you on trips and to parties. But never leave this out of your sight,” it says. “This book is for OSUMB members only, Past and Present. If they were not out on the field in front of 105,000 crazy fans in black (OK, navy blue) wool uniforms, they do not deserve to see this.”
The existence of a band songbook of crude parodies first came to light in July 2014 after a university-led investigation into the band’s culture. At the time the director, Jon Waters, along with many students and alumni from the band, said the songs—which also featured lyrics about rape, bestiality and homosexuality—had been out of circulation for years and were seldom sung.
But that attempted cover up turned out to be a lie. OSU removed Waters as band director even before the cover up and lies were discovered. At the time OSU acted, it knew that the culture of the OSU marching band was an embarrassment to OSU. OSU now knows additional facts. It knows that there was an organized cover up by band members that succeeded in deceiving the first set of OSU investigators. It knows that the rot indicated problems at the top. Waters was not simply the band director, he was the former assistant director and a former member of the band that knew personally of earlier variants of the songbook.
We also know from the songbook’s directions that the band members knew that it was disgusting and would bring shame and disrepute on the band and OSU if it ever became public. The OSU marching band is huge and we are talking about many years of membership. Hundreds of band members kept the secret, including some lying to the initial investigators, rather than denouncing the puerile, hateful lyrics. Notice how the author(s) of the songbook directions sought to build a corrupt culture: anyone who is not a member of the band does not “deserve to see this.” “Deserve” is used to build exclusivity and special, privileged status. Within this privileged status the normal rules of society, such as not mocking the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis, no longer apply.
This becomes even more apparent in another part of the introduction to the songbook.
The songbook, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, included an introduction that noted “Goodbye Kramer” as a new addition, along with a parody of the fight song of University of Nebraska, then a new member of the Big Ten conference. An introduction to the book said: “Some of these [songs] may be offensive to you. If so, you can either ignore them, or you can suck it up, act like you got a pair and have a good time singing them.”
“Goodbye Kramer” is song mocking Jews murdered in the Nazi extermination camps. The song about U. Nebraska is an embarrassingly unfunny exercise in hate for gays. But my focus is on the last clause of the last sentence – “act like you got a pair and have a good time singing them.” The OSU marching band, of course, includes women. They too are being advised that the band’s culture is proudly and boorishly male and mock brave. The mock bravery consists of being deliberately (but secretly) nasty and bigoted.
There are three key points that conventional economists ignore that are illustrated by this latest sadness out of OSU. First, it is easy to build a perverse culture that can last for many years even though the participants know that they are acting in a shameful fashion. Second, such a culture can only persist with bad or failed leaders. Third, a corrupted culture can lead people who are not intrinsically corrupt or evil to do things they know are wrong. There is no reason to believe that OSU marching band members were sociopaths. They likely exemplified “normal.”
That normality should be the scary part to economists. None of the OSU band directors set out to create a corrupt culture. A corrupt CEO running a “control fraud” deliberately creates a corrupt culture by using all of his immense powers to create powerful incentives for employees and officers to aid that fraud. The CEO can decide who is hired, fired, promoted, praised, ridiculed, and made rich. OSU’s marching band’s perverse culture was successfully constructed and maintained for years by a handful of pathetic teens who were desperately unfunny purveyors of hate. Economists err by ignoring the CEOs ability to shape and maintain the corrupt cultures that drive our recurrent, intensifying financial crises.