Virtue & Vice at Mardi Gras | Off the Clock Economist Explains

Release Date
March 3, 2014


Free Markets and Capitalism

Off the Clock Economist Dan D’Amico gallivants through Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans. Discover what Balinese cock fighting and lavish parades in the French Quarter have in common: keeping corruption low and citizen cohesion high.
Did you know that the breasts, beads, and booze of New Orleans point to something else than just a party? This famous get-together builds social capital and local knowledge through “deep play”. Get to know the culture and community that comes with one city’s most legendary party as Professor D’Amico leaves the podium to dig into the economics of a topic untouched by the classroom.

Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cock Fight (article): The original Clifford Geertz piece that Professor D’Amico references in the video.
Bowling together (interview): Political scientist Robert Putnam goes over the basics of “social capital”
Rock me like a hurricane!: how music communities promote social capital adept for recovery (book chapter): Professor D’Amico analyzes how a culture rich in music is rich in social capital, and how much that can help in times of great need
Study: Direct economic impact of Mardi Gras is $145 million (article): Unlike over-hyped sports stadiums, Mardi Gras actually does generate revenue for the city and its citizens

Virtue & Vice at Mardi Gras
Dan D’Amico:  You know most people think that Mardi Gras is just one big party. Giant parades filled with breasts, and booze, and beads, and… breasts. But for the city of New Orleans and the residents in it, carnival season of Mardi Gras represents something more significant, something about culture, community, and building social relationships.
But to understand this first point, we’ve got to start off the Indonesian island of Bali in criminal cock fighting rings. In 1973 anthropologist Clifford Geertz brought attention to the illegal practice of Balinese cock fighting in his now seminal article Deep Play. But Geertz saw something beneficial in the Balinese cock fighting. He recognized that even though competing tribes often had animosity towards one another, the cock fight allowed these competing factions to learn about one another. To communicate, in other words, the more committed you were to your community, the higher the bet, the higher the bet, the deeper the play. Could you imagine betting your mortgage on whether or not one chicken kills another in a death match? Neither could I.
Located at the mouth of the mighty Mississippi river, the city of New Orleans represented one of the largest trade ports in early American history. With all of that trade came a tremendous amount of diversity: different people, from different countries, different backgrounds, different nationalities, different languages, different religions, all funneled through these waters in early American development. So with all of that diversity came a tremendous amount of potential, and conflict, especially political conflict. So how is it that a city, with such serious social problems and potentials for political corruption, comes to host a party as extravagant and decadent as Mardi Gras. What is it that Mardi Gras could do with resolving social problems like political corruption?
When you’re looking at the different parades what you’re really seeing is a sort of competition between these organizations, the competition between the organizations occurs by who has the best float, who has the best throws, who has the best party, and who has the best time enjoying the Mardi Gras season. The bigger the festival, the higher the cultural stakes, the deeper the play, the more meaningful it is, and the more valuable it might be to the people who participate in it.
Mardi Gras provides value and function to New Orleans society in two major ways. First: it seems to avoid corruption. Every dollar spent on a lavish parade is a dollar not spent on corruption. On the second hand, the parades themselves provide an avenue for the real citizens of New Orleans to build social capital amongst themselves. They participate and they interact in ways that share knowledge and grow their understanding of one another’s preferences, and give them the tools to solve problems in their real and everyday lives. Mardi Gras, at the bear minimum, is a lot of fun for everyone who participates in it. But you really don’t know what it’s like, unless you’ve lived it, unless you participate in the deep play.
Crowd: (Inaudible) Hey! (Inaudible) Here you go!
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