Bill Black: The OSU Marching Band Exemplifies Why Economists Err by Ignoring Culture

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.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. geoff gray

    Politically correct example but inaccurate. The bands’ off the record songbook was distasteful but it reflects the expression of attitudes that are proscribed by the dominant culture. E. g. the holocaust has been made into a religion that is cynically used by Zionists to oppress Palestinians. In schools today in e.g. Florida, every year-1st grade through 12 grade– there is a history module on the Holocaust. How about on the genocide of the American Indians? Or the deaths of 20 million Russians in WW2? Etc. Protesting against the propaganda that is American culture can only be done surreptitiously.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Sorry, not buying it. “[Y]ou can either ignore them, or you can suck it up, act like you got a pair and have a good time singing them” doesn’t read like popular resistance to me.

    2. Gio Bruno

      @ geoff

      Point taken: Americans know little of actual world history, including that of their own land. That’s partially cultural and partially educational (they’re related). Unfortunately, the OSU band members are supposedly the “best and the brightest” from the state of Ohio and should know that what was condoned by their “leasers” was wrong.

      Black’s point is that culture (national or group) is an essential element to the function of any enterprise (social, financial, or otherwise). In the US, fear of losing one’s job is a clear and present element in maintaining control of behavior; especially at the TBTF banks.

    3. Edward

      I doubt the authors of the songbook knew much about Palestinians. In any case more evidence is needed for such conclusions.

  2. jonboinAR

    Other non-“elite” alleged corruptions, alleged because they’re often discussed but not often truly exposed:
    1) Any big city police force. The meme that pretty deep corruption exists within police forces is widespread within American culture. It’s featured in our police dramas with the “bad-cop” brotherhood that the “good-cop” hero semi-successfully struggles against.
    2) Large and small town governing bodies who venally do the bidding of business interests large and small. As an example, a friend of mine, another construction guy once told me this story of his dad, a small-time contractor who was having trouble with a certain building inspector on a certain part of a project. My buddy said his dad walked into a room with the inspector, dad carrying in his pocket an envelope of money, and came back out without the money but with his permits signed off on.
    3) How about this particular one that got a little circulation (maybe here, I don’t know). Supposedly, the alumni boosters of the SEC (South East Conference) for decades have run a ring paying off players and their families to play at their particular schools. This ring would be all completely informal, probably pretty unstructured, and operated by otherwise upstanding and otherwise completely -for all intents and purposes- respectable and successful graduates of the respective universities. It’s been talked about, again, fairly recently, but never, as far as I know, actually exposed (beyond rumor).

    It seems as though corruption is a fairly universal thing on high levels and low. What makes this so?
    Very beginning of thoughts:
    -Organizations are often “brotherhoods”. That is, members share a cultural intimacy with one another that they can’t violate by exposing mis-deeds to “outsiders” without violating and damaging that brotherhood. This seems, both in the examples above and others I can immediately conceive of to be widespread if not universal amongst organizations. I would guess that it is a central part of causing organizations, both formal and informal, to be vulnerable to corruption. That is, cultural intimacy.
    (I don’t have time now to go on. Perhaps someone can add).

    1. TheCatSaid

      Cultural intimacy

      Well put. With bonds of loyalty usually assumed without needing to be made explicit, combined with the near-certain shunning and becoming an outcast that would accompany “snitching” (i.e., honesty or not tolerating corrupt actions within one’s circle).

      The goals of honesty and integrity are primarily internal to oneself and to being consistent with one’s personal standards and values and rooted in a belief that integrity is ultimately beneficial to society as well.

      Look, however at what most are brainwashed into accepting as social aims to strive for. (Advertising, media messaging and entertainment–subliminal messaging presented by framing and options that make up a veritable ocean of subversive signals. Like fish swimming in it, we do not perceive that it’s there.)

      It’s no surprise we’re surrounded by corruption and that it is tolerated.

      1. JTMcPhee

        Any takers for the notion that a certain amount of what we call corruption (diversion of public assets to private profit or use, by people who “ought not to be doing that,” is that right?) is inevitable and maybe even necessary to “the system,” the political economy? The Godfather doing favors by murdering people for the benefit of those who kiss his ring is not what I have in mind, but there are other “adjustments” we wlecome, like the cop who does NOT give us our our teenage kids tickets for clearly illegal, dangerous behaviors — “Phew! That was close!” I have heard this elasticity referred to as “slack.”

        The US approach to alcohol addiction is predictably Puritanical-hypocritical abstinence, with a close to zero lifetime success for 12 step and the rest. I read that in Europe, the seductions of drink are well known too, and the incentives to dose oneself are vastly increasing as the political economy delivers more and more miserable outcomes. But the European approach, again going from memory, is to teach moderation. Seemingly with greater outcomes., and in our profitable-pill-for-a-problem culture,

        One view I ran across, and there are apologists for everything of course, especially mayors of New Jersey cities: “Necessary Evil: The Mayor of Jersey City on Tammany Hall,”

        Too bad that humans don’t seem capable of creating and sustaining institutions that limit corruption to that “cheerful necessity.” And certainly are incapable of holding to a standard of forced, 100% rectitude… Is there a pill that compels honesty and righteousness in all public dealings?

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          I think you’re talking about “honest graft”:

          EVERYBODY is talkin’ these days about Tammany men growin’ rich on graft, but nobody thinks of drawin’ the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft. There’s all the difference in the world between the two. Yes, many of our men have grown rich in politics. I have myself. I’ve made a big fortune out of the game, and I’m gettin’ richer every day, but I’ve not gone in for dishonest graft – blackmailin’ gamblers, saloonkeepers, disorderly people, etc. – and neither has any of the men who have made big fortunes in politics.

          There’s an honest graft, and I’m an example of how it works. I might sum up the whole thing by sayin’: “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”

  3. Joel

    Now that we aware that using negative stereotypes of certain humans, ie blacks, women, gays, etc as pejoratives is wrong and serves to perpetuate those prejudices, can we now notice that young people do not deserve maltreatment either? Let’s let go of “also juvenile and lame” ” puerile, hateful lyrics” ” pathetic teens etc.

    1. Oregoncharles

      Not sure I agree. Youth is a key characteristic of, for instance, college students (though not of the band leader). And youth is subject to characteristic faults, like inexperience, ignorance, or impulsiveness. Humor takes a long time to learn; children typically don’t get it.

      Youth is also subject to characteristic virtues, like boldness and creativity. It’s an important feature, unlike, say, skin color.

  4. Larry

    This is a great illustration of how most organizations with incentives much more lucartive than membership will be hopelessly corrupt. The only solution is to prosecute frauds forcefully and to provide strong protections for whistle-blowers.

  5. Jerry

    Rape, bestiality homophobia and genocide but no pedo songs? How do they expect to beat Penn State?

  6. Tertium Squid

    “desperately unfunny purveyors of hate”

    Why do you have to qualify your “purveyors of hate” statement. So if it was actually funny it would be okay?

    Actually for some people it might. People will forgive a lot if you make them laugh.

    1. Steve H.

      The Greek comedies had vicious satirical barbs, often aimed at individuals whose corruption and incompetence (de)merited the invective. Hate the haters, but leave funny alone, it’s all some people have to tolerate bad situations.

      “Say only that which is true, necessary, and kind. If it’s also funny, then you’re a master.”

    1. Pepsi

      The message of the post is “internalize control or else.” I disagree. Stupid and tasteless jokes bond strangers better than anything other than going through some life or death situation.

      I would call it stupid, I would call it tasteless, I wouldn’t call it corrupt. Unless you could prove that the band was excluding jewish members, gay members, etc.

  7. Beans

    Surely Bill Black and the folks at WSJ realize this OSU band incident is normal college club behavior on many campuses? I get his point, but he hopefully realizes the widespread nature of toxic club songbooks, and yes toxic club culture on campus. I was a one year marching band member of a college halfway across the country from OSU – the same type songbook was there, although it was stored in the minds of the members, instead of existing in print, and was passed down to the next generation on bus rides to football games where freshman band members were “taught” the words to the songs, among other things. In the old days, this was called hazing – and was part of the celebrated band culture that was fully supported by all band faculty. I quit after one year and was promptly ostracized by my former “friends”. The OSU incident is the norm, not the exception.

  8. Pelham

    One finds similar instances in various militaries around the world, and, in fact, in lots of organizations of all sorts. It has to do with unit cohesion, which often involves the deliberate and secretive crossing of widely accepted lines within a unit to ensure that everyone shares something potent and objectionable and stays together.

    In the OSU case, I doubt that many necessarily found these lyrics funny or entertaining. Taking a swipe at that misses the point. So what conclusions DO we draw? Should we assume that any member or former member of the OSU band is some kind of sociopath for having participated? Hardly.

    Nonetheless, Bill Black makes a good point that tightly knit, insular groups in the financial industry tend to be criminogenic. And these outfits as a result need to be tightly controlled and fully exposed to daylight — constantly. Unit cohesion would be out of the question under such scrutiny and constraint. But in their case that would be an unalloyed good.

    Then the question is whether this holds for every institution? Would we be willing to sacrifice unit cohesion in the military, for instance, to eliminate the deep, dark bonds that play an important role in holding them together? Should a band of brothers be reduced to a band of amiable, conditional, scrupulously PC acquaintances?

    1. Ormond Otvos

      When I hear “PC” used to neutralize good analysis of culture, I hear “I approve of the behavior, but I can’t bring myself to say so.”

      You can be PC and do accurate analysis.

  9. JEHR

    Jessica Ernst was working in the oil industry in Alberta until she began to see deregulation of environmental protections and the contamination of her water supply. She will be bringing her suit to the Supreme Court in January 2016. Her story shows that the Energy Regulator, the provincial government, the NEB (National Energy Board) and Encana worked together to corrupt regulations.


  10. Gerard Pierce

    There is a complex lesson here that may be separate from any guilty actions. Back in 2006 we had the Duke University Lacrosse team “rape scandal” — where the final result was the dismissal of all charges. It appears that this was a false accusation.

    While all of this was going on a number of “cultural” items were reported in the media. Apparently the Lacrosse team members were considered members of an elite group on campus. Membership on the team could even act as a entre to various jobs on Wall Street through the influence of former team members. Some of the student body respected them and others hated them, completely separate from the “scandal”.

    At the height of the scandal, there was a report on 60-minutes (If I remember correctly.) It was not very widely reported that the parents of some of the students had connections to the TV/Cable networks.)

    At the end of the “scandal” the District Attorney was found to have over-reached. My memory is unclear but he at least was forced to resign and possibly was disbarred.

    My only point is that even the culture of a sports team is connected in some very complex ways to other cultures/subcultures in society. Money and power will be involved under some circumstances.

    A secondary point is that we do not much understand how we work as individuals or as a society. If we did understand we would understand why a whistle-blower is attacked by members of his own company even after demonstrating corruption on the part of the supposed leadership of the company.

    It might even explain why when Nixon did it, it was not a crime.

    1. alex morfesis

      you drank the duke kool-aide

      former naval veteran crystal magnum found herself being a stripper…etc…to deal with the cost of her substance abuse problems…

      after the events of 2006-7…

      she fell deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole…losing custody of her kids and then getting into an altercation with a boyfriend that led to his being hospitalized for stab wounds…when the hospital fumbled his medical treatments ten days later and he dies, the state took the opportunity to charge her with murder…

      that is how we treat our soldiers…like dogs…not therapy…just throw her in the trash heap…

      meanwhile the three stooges…who never spent one minute in jail it appears…were handed off about ten million dollars each for their suffering….

      one ends up at a tall building law firm…and the other two on wall street…db and apax…poor babies…must be hard being one of the chosen ones…and have some untouchable complain when the brahman burps his bodily fluids at them…you should be proud we indulged our deviance upon you serf…

      and the prosecutor had his law license yanked by the bar association…for having dared to listen to the ramblings of a stripper and acted upon them…

      how many prosecutors who have sent people wrongly to await execution have been made to pay by having their law license yanked…??

      crickets….do i hear crickets….???

  11. Anonymous

    I would like to give some perspective here.

    I am a former member of the Ohio State Marching Band.

    I can honestly state that I never saw this book. I knew we had parody/offensive alternate lyrics for several other schools’ fight songs, but I believe it was just a small clique within the Band that maintained these lyrics. Also, most of these lyrics are over 30 years old, when it was much easier to mock certain minority groups.

    Additionally, Jon Waters was a scapegoat that the university used to try and sweep the whole thing under the rug. He had only been Director for a year, and was in the process of attempting to change the culture when he was fired.

    One more point: the original report was an exaggeration and misrepresentation of peoples’ views. Some of the women cited in the report said that their words were misconstrued, and that they did not feel that they had been victims of sexist behavior.

  12. ekstase

    Narcissists withhold information because it gives them power, which they otherwise would have no ability to attain. Students may feel that they will lose all access to the adult world if they raise their heads. However, some people seem to find an inner guage that tells them the difference between right and wrong, and the courage to use it to do right. And real courage is contagious, and it makes us happy. I’m hoping that the opening up of communication is beginning to make this better chain of events happen.

  13. Oregoncharles

    Sorry if this is a duplication, but: importantly, “culture” has two barely connected meanings. One is essentially art, “high culture,” “low culture,” etc. That’s the one Yves references in her introduction. The other is originally a technical term from anthropology: “culture” is the stuff we learn because we’re members of a particular society (or subculture), as opposed to human universals or physical setting. It includes a lot, from attitudes to technical knowledge, and a large, complex society is full of subcultures.

    Black is talking about the subcultures of industries or companies – or marching bands. I think he means to include the reward system – more of a structural than a cultural factor, but of course it affects the culture. (“Structure” vs. “culture” is a long-running dispute within anthropology – that can’t really be settled, because they interlock.)

  14. animalogic

    I agree with bill black’s central thesis: that ” economists” singularly fail to deal with the inevitably complex “human” aspects of social organisation. Indeed, as a “science” economics has traditionally sought to reduce any “human” element to insignificance. Corruption problem ? No worries ! The market will sought that out. After all, as rational profit seekers, no ceo would risk the long term survivial of their firm for some short term corrupt profit, would they ?

  15. nat scientist

    Unkindness is a social disease fostered by the free-for-just-us when the alternative of individual expression is suppressed for some imagined survival theme. Domination by tribal mentality is the short-term winning game. It’s a culture like staphylococcus aureus that eats its hosts, but it’s not civilization nor sustainable.

  16. Melvin Mehalko

    Sometimes a story that has no obvious connection to economics provides an understandable example of why economic analysis is often so poor. Holocaust Victims Mocked in Ohio State Band Parody Songbook.

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