Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Revisiting the Nacirema


In the American Anthropologist of June 1956, noted anthropologist Horace Mitchell Miner (1912-1993) 

described the bizarre “body rituals” of a relatively primitive people known as the Nacirema. Well into the 

1990s, the classic description remained a staple of undergraduate anthropology courses, where I first

 encountered it.

Traveling recently by automobile from the wilds of Montana to the wilds of Georgia, I was reminded of 

the Nacirema and decided to interact with some of them, dangerous as that has become. They still live

 on the same territory described by Miner. Despite adding a veneer of modern technology to their 

relatively primitive ways, their body rituals and use of magical potions has changed but little. They are 

much more numerous now than in the early postwar period despite relying on their magic now more

 than ever, but their fortune may soon reverse.

Perhaps the biggest change in the Nacirema since Miner chronicled them is the devolution of their two 

great political factions. In Miner’s time, and for long afterward, one faction wanted to control most 

aspects of the daily lives of Naciremans, while the other wanted to control all aspects.

Today, both factions want total control but members of one faction believe that the “nation,” as they term

 their territory, has never been better, while the other believes that it needs to be reformed root and

 branch. Various smaller factions also vie for attention but receive little because the great talisman 

Demos holds that only the great factions matter. To follow the magic of one of the lesser factions is to

 waste one’s life, or so it is made to appear.

Both great factions are, of course, led by elders of legendary antiquity. Those from the smaller factions

 and other outsiders find most of the elders comically ludicrous in their pronouncements but members 

of the great factions hold them in great esteem and repeat their mantras whenever and wherever they 

can. Buffoonery, they believe, magically transforms into wisdom through mere repetition. Of course 

such magic is extremely weak tea, so both of the great factions appear ready to splinter into pieces at 

any moment. 

The faction that thinks that Nacirema has always been a horrible place is animated by a great many 

young people who spent years of their life imbibing deeply of a metaphorical liquid resembling Kool-Aid.

 They show great disdain for their ancestors, even desecrating graven images depicting their hoary 

exploits. They also disdain their own elders who do not repeat their youthful mantras with sufficient 

verve or, even worse, offer up antiquated mantras of their own. Their Chosen One barely speaks when 

he leaves his dwelling, which seldom occurs.

The Chosen One of the faction that believes that Nacirema is better now than ever before is technically 

the putative nation’s Supreme Elder but his leadership is largely ineffectual, partly because of the 

machinations of the other great faction, partly due to the machinations within his own faction, and partly

 due to his own inadequacies. Many from all factions have asked him to step down but he refuses to do

 so because apparently he has nothing else to do even though he claims to possess great riches.

The not-so-novel coronavirus has exacerbated the fissures in almost all the factions, great and small.

 Most Nacirema, being the relatively primitive, un- or rather ill-educated people they are, at first believed

 that the virus could be “defeated” by staying indoors, unless an elder said it was necessary to go out. 

When that magic failed, they decided that staying outdoors would work but only if they shielded their

 faces from Demos. Any old rag will do for these deeply superstitious people.

COVID-19 ravaged some parts of the putative nation, especially those where staying indoors was most

 fervently encouraged by the elders and their armed minions. Of course these relatively primitive people

 have little sense of natural law, human rights, or constitutional protection of civil liberties so they 

deserved to remain imprisoned in their own dwellings while their shamans concocted new magical 

medicines. Other parts of Nacirema, especially those where staying indoors unless absolutely 

necessary was thought to be more than a little silly, were barely touched by the pandemic, but their

 magic remained unpopular or unknown. 

Some shamans, especially the ones fed by the great factions, appear to be little more than zombies

 programmed to repeat mantras like “stay in your dwellings,” “remember to complete your body rituals

 often and for a long time,” and “cover your faces” before Demos. Other shamans appeared to reject

 such magical incantations for something akin to Western scientific methods. The Big Hawkers fed by

 the great factions roundly disparaged such shamans, however, and removed their images from public

 places for their apostasy even though their magic would likely have saved many Nacirema lives, some

 of which are considered of even more momentous import than others.

The Nacirema appear doomed but a few of them remember their Origin Story and believe it could again

 help their tattered “nation” to heal and grow. Many, many moons ago, some of the ancient Chroniclers

 say, a Great Demon a Long Way Off ruled over the Nacirema. At first his rule was relatively benign but

 he increased his exactions following a series of great wars against the frogmen. Although relatively few

 and poor and of course primitive, the Nacirema eventually stood up to the Great Demon a Long Way 

Off, not once but twice, both times sending his minions scurrying away, once by the great East sea 

and once by the great South sea.

Then, the Origin Story continues, the Nacirema lived in increasing peace and prosperity for generations

 simply by promising to leave each other the hell alone unless absolutely necessary. Only a dispute over

 the proper boundaries of property ownership broke that promise and calcified in power the two great 

factions that trouble the people today.

If you still do not know the identity of the relatively primitive people to which I refer, please read this

I would hate for anyone to think that I am disparaging an American Indian tribe when I am actually 

disparaging all Americans (= Nacirema backwards.)

Wright on Business

I wrote these in August-September of 2019 for a TV news syndication tentatively titled "Wright on Business" that will never see the light of television. Here is what I was thinking about then, with some light editing/updating of links. The times have moved on, and so must I! See if you can catch my catch phrases. Not quite "grind my gears" a la Family Guy but "not too shabby?"

Pilot 1: Crazy College Costs


I’m Robert E. Wright and this is Wright on Business.

Today I want to talk to you about college and why it costs so damn much.
Forbes recently reported that since the 1980s, tuition has risen eight times faster than wages.

Eight times faster!

Why has tuition risen so quickly?

Yes, tenured professors, like me, can be lazy AF. But we ain’t that lazy. 

In fact, on average, we teach more students in more courses and publish more articles and books than 
ever before.

And outside of professional schools, you know schools of business, law, and medicine, we don’t make a 
whole lot of money, especially given that some of us went to graduate school for 6, 8, even 10 years 
 beyond college. Many of us could have been real doctors.

In any event, something else must have occurred to drive up college costs so much and I know what it 

A few decades ago, professors outnumbered administrators by a large margin.

Today, administrators outnumber professors and some of them make quite a bit of money and never step 
foot in a classroom.

What do all those administrators do today that they did not do 30 years ago?

Some of them help students to succeed because many high schools do not do as good a job preparing 
students for college as they used to.

Most administrators, though, were hired merely to ensure that universities were meeting new regulatory
 obligations, some of which have been promulgated directly by the federal government, like President 
Trump’s recent executive order on campus speech.

Other regulations came down through regional accrediting bodies, like the Higher Learning 
Commission, at the behest of the Department of Education.

The most recent wave of such regulations concerns something called assessment. 

I wish I could give you a good definition of assessment but I can’t, because there isn’t one. 

Basically, though, the federal government, through the accreditors, wants to ensure that professors are 

teaching students what they purport to teach them.

And somehow this is different from giving students grades. It is more like professors giving themselves
 grades based on how their students do on various so-called assessments, which you might know as 
exams and assignments.

This sort of assessment is trash, a huge waste of time and money, hoops that professors need to jump 
through when instead they could be teaching, writing, and researching.

Trust me, lots of professors, parents, and students would like to tell Uncle Sam where he can stick his 
accreditors and their regulations.

Most universities, though, accept federal money in the form of research grants and federally guaranteed
 student loans. 

The money is sweet, soooo sweeeeet, but it gives the federal government the so-called power of the

In other words, it gives the government the leverage to force universities to do anything it wants by 
threatening to yank their grants and loans if they don’t take the regulatory spanking … and then beg 
for another.

What can be done?

For starters, universities could tell prospective students, look dude … or dudette, if you want to go to 
school here you need to pay us, say, $22,000 a year.

You, or mom and dad, or your rich uncle, need to come up with $2,000 of that but we will lend you the 
rest at 5 percent interest a year, starting after you graduate. 

Why would universities do such a thing?

For starters, good ones that actually help their students to get good jobs after graduation will earn 
higher, safer returns than investing their endowment in the stock market, which can go up, but also can
 go down, in both cases irrespective of the quality of the university.

But more importantly, such an arrangement would induce universities to focus on their students’ 
employability, with no need for assessment or other baloney regulations from on high.

Could such a crazy idea work?

It does at Hillsdale College and a few other places and there is no economic reason why it couldn’t 
work elsewhere.

Of course all those administrators who see arcane regulations as job security don’t like this idea.

But they can go back to the red tape infested hell from whence they came if that will lower the cost, 
and improve the quality, of America’s once great universities and colleges.

I’m Robert E. Wright, and this has been Wright on Business.

Stay vigilant y’all.

Pilot 2: Modern Monetary Madness


I’m Robert E. Wright and this is Wright on Business.

Today I want to talk to you about Modern Monetary Theory, or MMT for short, and the threat it poses to
 this nation and the happiness and its inhabitants.

MMT is all over the news because some of the Socialists running for the presidential nomination for the 
Democrat Party have summoned it from the depths of academic hell as the best way to pay for the 
Green New Deal, free education and free healthcare for all, and a bunch of their other kooky, crazy 

What AOC and Bernie Sanders and some of the others are doing should be illegal because it comes 
down to vote buying. What they are saying in effect is if you vote for me, I am going to give you a 
bunch of free stuff. They should not be allowed to promise to give voters anything, much less what they
 cannot possible deliver.

Ah but anything is possible say the advocates of Modern Monetary Theory. They claim to believe, now
 hold on to your horses, and more importantly your wallets, that the government can do whatever it 
wants without borrowing anything or increasing taxes. All it has to do is to print money and use it to 
pay for whatever it wants.

Well, gooooolllly ain’t they a bunch a smart city slickers! Why didn’t anyone think of this before?

Oh wait, just about every country has tried, at one time or another, simply printing money to accomplish
 some goal, like winning a war, or an election. It ALWAYS and EVERYWHERE ended badly, in what 
is generally termed hyperinflation.

What is hyperinflation? That’s when the prices of everything you want to buy goes up. And up, And up. 
And then up some more. All today, just like yesterday, and just like tomorrow.

This is seriously important stuff. Hyperinflation helped cause World War II. After World War I, the 
loser, the Germans, tried MMT in order to pay war reparations to the Brits and the French. At the 
beginning of the failed experiment, a purse full of money bought a wheelbarrow full of groceries. 
During the hyperinflation, people needed a wheelbarrow full of money to buy a purse full of food. 
At the end of the hyperinflation, people ran into the store to check the prices and came out to find their 
wheelbarrows stolen.

That’s a joke, but no exaggeration. During the hyperinflation in Zimbabwe a decade ago, you needed a 
trillion Zimbawean dollars to pay for a haircut. And you might have heard that Venezuela is in the 
throes of a hyperinflation right now, and it is ripping the fabric of its society apart, just as it did in 
Germany, paving the way to power for the silly little man with the silly little mustache.

One big problem is that hyperinflation destroys the savings of the middle class as life insurance policies,
 bonds, and bank accounts become worthless, or nearly so. Wages and house prices will increase along 
with other prices but stock prices will not because most businesses do not do well during 
hyperinflations, which drives up unemployment and creates misery. Many a German father had to trick
 out his wife or daughter to obtain enough food for the family.

America, great as she is, is not immune to hyperinflation-induced chaos. During the colonial period, 
South Carolina and New England both suffered bouts of hyperinflation, as did the entire new nation in 
its long struggle during the American Revolution, which it won, incidentally, only after returning to a 
silver standard. During the Civil War, the CSA also suffered from hyperinflation, which was one of the
 reasons it took the South a full century to recover from the war.

At this point, some MMT advocates will start talking in circles, throwing around some big words which
 they little understand. They are just trying to confuse you. No amount of talking can give the 
government the power to consume real resources -- people’s labor, raw materials, computing power, 
energy, and so forth -- at zero cost. Lunch has to come from somewhere. You might not pay for it, but 
somebody has to.

As the great political economist Adam Smith once exclaimed, MMT advocates think they can waive 
their hands and make “a wagon way through the air.” Well, they can’t. The resources have to come from
 somebody, and in this case, that somebody is ME and YOU and everyone you care about.

MMT advocates will then say, oh, we will see prices going up and stop them from doing so. Well how
 are you going to do that? Well, by increasing taxes and destroying the money that comes into the IRS.
 Of course admitting that taxes will be required lays bare the entire scheme. They know that Americans 
do not want to pay higher taxes for their government boondoggles so they want to FORCE them to pay
 higher taxes, either in the usual way through the IRS, or in the form of hyperinflation.

In other words, MMT is all just smoke and mirrors, a veiled attempt to trick Americans into socialism, 
when it should be moving in the exact opposite direction, back towards its roots as a nation of 
enterprising entrepreneurs, not adult babies looking for their next ba ba.

So if you hear somebody talking about how great MMT is, do something about it. A bomb throwing 
terrorist is less of a threat to America than monetary cranks hell bent on imposing their will on you and

I’m Robert E. Wright, and this has been Wright on Business.

Stay vigilant y’all

Pilot 3: American Racism


I’m Robert E. Wright and this is Wright on Business.

The white author of White Fragility and various spokespeople for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement have recently claimed, quite stridently, that white Americans are inherently racist and use their “privilege” to extract rents from black Americans. The last part of that claim will come as no surprise to classical liberals, who have long claimed that governments extract rents from all Americans.

The ire of the BLM, however, directs itself only partially at local, state, and federal governments because, as “progressives” and perhaps even communists, BLM adherents, like too many other Americans, see much good in government, at least governments they control. So they take pains to paint individual Americans as “racist,” whatever that means these days.

Rather than engage in semantics about definitions, I would rather try to place parameters around the degree to which black Americans feel they are being treated poorly by American governments and individual non-black Americans. That may seem like a gargantuan or even Sisyphean task but, in fact, we have pretty solid theory and empirical data to make a ballpark estimate by looking at migration flows. Similar reasoning, laser-focused on behaviors rather than mere words, is used frequently in economic history.

The theory is called Push-Pull and it posits that people leave Area X for Y when the expected discounted net benefits of living in Y exceed the total costs of moving there (costs of transportation, learning a new language, climate, culture, etc.) from X. In simpler terms, people migrate when they believe it will benefit them. So, for example, millions of people left Europe for America in the late 19th century because economic, social, and political conditions in Europe were relatively sucky compared to the United States, which was an increasingly affordable destination to boot. Similarly, millions of Muslims left India for what is today Pakistan and Bangladesh because of the way they expected the Hindu majority to treat them when British rule ended. Examples of such mass migrations throughout global history abound.

It’s no secret that black Africans were enslaved and forcibly sent to the New World and it is no surprise that many of their descendants who ended up in the American South chafed enough under slavery that they violently rebelled or fled it through suicide or running away to the North, Canada, or maroon societies tucked away in the swamps of Florida and Louisiana. Some manumitted slaves and free blacks in the North felt oppressed enough to flee to Africa, a continent foreign to them.

After Emancipation, many freedpersons moved within the South to get away from their old masters, reunite with family members, and so forth. Few, though, moved to the North or abroad. After white Democrats re-took power in Dixie and began to implement Jim Crow laws in the late nineteenth century, though, black Americans, mostly the descendants of former slaves, moved to the North en masse, taking up residence in cities near their new manufacturing and service jobs.

And there most have remained ever since, though some have joined other Americans in the exodus to the Sun Belt. No law prevented them from moving abroad and as native English speakers they could have moved at relatively low cost to anglophone Africa, India, or any other part of the former British Empire. Their English skills would also have been valuable to businesses in Brazil, which since the 1930s has been heralded as a “racial democracy.” Yet the vast majority of black Americans calculated that they were better off staying in the United States, even when goaded to leave by Marcus Garvey and other leaders of the “Back to Africa” movement.

In fact, in the twentieth century many black Americans embraced their American-ness, first calling themselves Afro- and then African-Americans. Instead of fleeing the country, they sought to improve it, first by switching party allegiance from Republicans to Democrats during the New Deal, then by fighting heroically in the great struggles against fascism and communism, then by engaging in peaceful protests to end segregation and unequal laws. The assassination of their great leader Martin Luther King, Jr., combined with mounting opposition to the increasingly bloody war in southeast Asia, brought them to temporary spasms of violence.

But yet again the vast majority of African-Americans decided to stay, each admitting, in essence, that their prospects in America were better than anywhere else. In fact, according to Glenn Loury (the first African-American economist tenured by Harvard and now at Brown University), African-Americans are the wealthiest and most powerful group of people of African descent anywhere on earth. Another Nobel-worthy African-American economist, Thomas Sowell [who turned 90 on 30 June 2020 btw], has expressed a similar view, adding that their own culture, more than racism, explains the relative impoverishment of many African-Americans.

None of this means that African-Americans have not suffered oppression at the hands of police or from the War on Drugs, which increasingly looks like it should be called the War on African-Americans, but it does mean that America is not as racist as most other nations on the planet throughout history have been. Or, if you want to insist on its intense “racism” for some reason, America must provide African-Americans and other minority groups with sufficient countervailing benefits, like, oh, I dunno, LIBERTY.

Trump’s stupid wall, after all, is to keep foreigners out, not Americans in. At least for now.

I’m Robert E. Wright, and this has been Wright on Business.

Stay vigilant y’all.

Pilot 4: Minimum Wage, Maximum Unemployment


I’m Robert E. Wright and this is Wright on Business.

Today I want to talk about helping the poor. Let’s start by making sure that our public policies don’t 
hurt them.

Listen, I grew up poor. I lived in a federal housing project in Webster, New York for over a year and ate
 the government cheese many a time. I also went to bed hungry, or ate mystery meat that I later learned 
was roadkill. If it were in my power, no one would ever suffer even the social indignities that I had to 
endure, like not being able to ask out a girl on a date because we had no car available and lived in a 
time and place virtually devoid of other modes of transport, public or private. But it’s not in my power
 to end poverty, and neither is it in the government’s power.

But what about mandating a high minimum wage, often called a living wage by its proponents? Just tell 
employers that they must pay workers at least $15 an hour, index that floor to increases in the cost of living, and whaala, poverty is solved. Well of course if matters were that easy, we would have eliminated poverty long ago. Heck, we could have made everyone rich simply by raising the minimum wage to $150, or $1,500, or $15,000 an hour.

Of course few people create $150 worth of value in an hour, let alone orders of magnitude more than 
that, not at the current value of a dollar anyway. If policymakers were ever so daft as to increase the
 minimum wage to $150 an hour, inflation would erode the real purchasing power of the high minimum
 wage away until we were in the same spot as we are today, but with hamburgers that cost $50 or $100, 
instead of $5 or $10.

Raising the minimum wage to just $15 will cause some increase in prices but you might conclude that 
paying a few nickels more for your hamburger is well worth it if the person making the burger for you
 is better off. Of course if you really believe that, our society has an entirely voluntary system in place 
for you to put your money where your mouth is. It is called a tip. 

But maybe you think that tipping makes workers try too hard to please you. You’ll take your 99 cent 
taco with an attitude because you know the worker doesn’t make very much. Fair enough, but recall 
that there is a third economic entity involved in your transactions, a very important one called, in this
 context, employers, the persons who own or operate the businesses you patronize.

Employers suffered passage of the nation’s first minimum wage laws during FDR’s New Deal and have
 allowed them to continue ever since for two important reasons. First, traditionally they have had very 
little economic bite. Most employers find it profitable to pay their workers more than the minimum 
wage because most workers produce more value, on average, than the minimum wage. Moreover, until 
recently, most minimum wage laws have had important exemptions for agricultural and other workers 
paid by the piece and tipped workers. 

In addition, until recently minimum wages have not been indexed to inflation. Even in times of low 
inflation, the minimum wage adjusted for the value of the dollar declines rather quickly. Currently, the
 federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. When that floor was established in 2009, $7.25 could buy 
what you need $8.67 to buy today. The cumulative effect of inflation is one reason why 29 states now
 have minimum wages that exceed that mandated by the federal government. Even some Republican 
states, like South Dakota, are included in that group but others, like Alaska and Tennessee, have no
 state minimum wage, so the federal minimum wage applies.

But the main reason that employers have acceded to minimum wage laws is that the laws contain a huge
 loophole because they in fact apply only to human American employees. Governments do not mandate
 how many people employers must hire, as all agree that would entail outright socialism. So employers 
can skirt minimum wage laws simply by not hiring any American whose mandated wage exceeds the 
average value they produce. Employers can do that by substituting animals, machines, or undocumented
 foreign workers, depending on their relative cost and productivity performing the tasks required of them. 

News flash, undocumented foreign workers will accept illegally low wages rather than face deportation.
 And you might not think of animals taking jobs from humans but seeing eye dogs and other so-called 
service animals are indeed performing functions that humans could do, if the government did not 
mandate a minimum wage. I personally at present would not aid a visually-impaired person for $5 an
 hour but only because I can earn much more than that doing other things. But a kid or an elderly person
 might well do such work for a dollar an hour and I know that for a fact because one of the odd things
 about our minimum wage laws is that it is illegal for anyone to work for a buck an hour, but they can
 work for free perfectly legally. It’s called volunteering. Or an internship.

Hopefully you are starting to get the sense that minimum wage laws are quite flawed. Maybe though, 
what we need to do is to beef them up instead of taking them to the slaughterhouse. But beef them up 
how? The biggest threat to low-skilled workers is of course not animals and not foreign workers, at least not during the current administration, it is machines. 
So let me perfectly clear about this: almost all of our current prosperity is directly attributable to 
replacing human or animal workers with dumb machines, and dumb machines with smarter, or more 
autonomous machines. Any law or policy that interferes with that process will hurt the poor by preventing the productivity increases that make poverty increasingly palatable, that have raised every American’s living standards dramatically over the last two and a half centuries.

Just a few minutes ago, I whined about eating roadkill and not being able to date in high school. Well, 
without the productivity increases made possible by the introduction of machines in the nineteenth and 
twentieth centuries, I would not be whining because I wouldn’t be here. I would have died before age
 five, if I was born at all. The same likely goes for you.

But where is the empirical proof that a higher minimum wage leads to higher unemployment and
 vice versa? It is all around us. Here it is for the U.S.

Every time the minimum wage goes up, so, too, does the unemployment rate for teens, the group 
most likely to have low skills. As the inflation-adjusted wage decreases, so, too, does the teen 
unemployment rate. It’s not magic, it’s common sense.

The higher the minimum wage, the older and higher-skilled the people who will find themselves 
replaced by machines, wishing that they could earn $10 an hour rather than nothing. This is not theory, 
or a guess, an experiment actually took place recently in Germany and France, both of which use a 
currency called the euro. Immediately after eliminating its minimum wage law in 2005, unemployment
 in Germany plummeted from over 10 percent to less than 5 percent by 2015, and barely ticked upward 
during the Great Recession of 2009-10. Nearby France kept its minimum wage laws and saw its
 unemployment rate remain in the 8 to 10 percent zone. 

Most strikingly, perhaps, the labor force participation rate in Germany, long known for multitudes of 
jobless youths not even looking for work, is now higher than the United States. With more people
 working more hours, per person output in Germany has increased rapidly and could shortly surpass
 that of the United States.

In short, there is no economic reason to keep the minimum wage laws currently in effect in the 
United States and very good reasons not to increase it by any significant amount. But there is a 
moral issue here too, one that cuts in a direction diametrically different from the way it is usually 
presented in the mass media.

Where do policymakers get the idea that the Constitution allows the government to tell an American 
citizen that she can work for nothing, but not for $5 an hour, even if she wants to? Is this still a free 
country or not? And if you personally support minimum wage laws, I gotta ask where do you get off 
trying to tell another human being, of whose situation you know nothing, absolutely nothing, that they
 can’t work for $14.99 an hour if the minimum wage is $15. You are impoverishing that person, which
 is morally reprehensible. Go to church and repent ye sinners for intruding, uninvited, on strangers’
 lives and livelihoods. 

By all means help the poor, but do so by asking them how you might assist them. Listen and respect, 
don’t assume. Most would rather find a job at a freely negotiated wage than risk unemployment, and no 
wage at all. Ask them over for dinner and subtly make clear that they need not reciprocate. Ask if their child would like a toy that your kids are bored with. Know them and be generous; don’t be pompous and espouse policies that come with high costs just to assuage your conscience.

I’m Robert E. Wright, and this has been Wright on Business.

Stay vigilant y’all.