The late French philosopher Rene Girard was known for his theory of mimetic desire — that we desire something after seeing someone else desire it, then fight over it, then find a scapegoat to blame all the aftermath on so that we can go back to being at peace with one another.

Earth’s resources are limited, inhibiting the fulfillment of all of our desires. Without a fitting scapegoat to blame, we turn to fighting each other and power grabbing.

A lot of bad things happen in Mississippi, as I suppose they do anywhere in the world.

Change occurs rarely here, but there is one change agent that always seems to stir up things from time to time. That change agent, and all-around scapegoat, is Yazoo clay.

You see, Mississippi is home to the Yazoo Formation of the Jackson Group, a “fairly homogeneous unit consisting of blue-green to blue-gray, calcareous, fossiliferous clay, cropping out in a northwest-southeast trending belt across nearly three fourths the width of central Mississippi.”1

In fact, it’s so fossiliferous that great big prehistoric whales have been found here, such as the Basilosaurus, our state fossil. Or Cynthiacetus maxwelli, discovered in Cynthia, Miss., by Britt Maxwell, an engineer who blogs about things like Yazoo clay.

I grew up in the clay region. I lived the life of a city slicker in the metropolitan that is Jackson, so I have hardly ever seen or touched this clay personally, but I heard about it so often it feels like I’ve been digging in this stuff my whole life.

Is there a crack in the wall? Is the doorknob jammed? Do the closet sliding doors not meet in the middle exactly right?

It’s the Yazoo clay.

This special dirt, according to Maxwell’s blog, once thrived on other lands. The polygon cracked surface formations of deserts in parts of Texas, called hogwallows, are the result of prehistoric Yazoo clay-like conditions. Maxwell’s extensive blog posts on this subject show that even Mars may have had Yazoo clay, because it has hogwallows too. It’s everywhere!

Or at least it was everywhere. Texas and Mars are better off nowadays. I’ve been to Texas, and they have massive, high bridges the likes of which I’d never dreamed living here in Mississippi. The Martians are said to have better technology too. I choose to blame that on our wet soil and clay, which is very much still alive.

Sometimes I even wonder if the federal government had a hand in the shifting mess we’re in. That’s right, the feds. I was having dinner with someone in Hattiesburg the other day who told me half-jokingly that the foundation problems of a new residential development down there could be related to the atomic bomb they detonated 30 miles southward.

What?

Yes. “Just google it: ‘hattiesburg atomic bomb,’” he said and went back to eating his pasta. It’s true. It’s all true.

Home foundations are one thing, but the roads — they are the real doozies. The roads in central Mississippi are terrible.2 Everyone else in the nation has immaculate roads compared to ours. Many a concerned citizen has brought the issue up before city councils and boards of aldermen. Investigations have been initiated to find the councilmen and -women responsible for all the potholes and bumps. News reports abound, calling attention to the matter. There is much finger-pointing to go around.

You can blame potholes on city governance, a faulty foundation on the construction company, and a door jam on the guy from Lowes.

But I like to think that on most days we just carry on with our lives and blame it on the Yazoo clay.

Because you can’t stay mad forever, and Yazoo clay, lying entombed under the ground and out of sight, is as good a scapegoat as any.

Matt
March 26, 2017, Byram, Miss.

  1. Stover, Curtis W., Ross D. Williams and Charles O. M. Peel. “Yazoo Clay: Engineering Aspects and Environmental Geology of an Expansive Clay.” Circular 1. Mississippi Department of Natural Resources, Bureau of Geology. 1988. 

  2. As well as the rest of the roads in the state, but the clay is in central Mississippi, and that’s what I’m talking about right now, so don’t change the subject. 

Lately, I’ve been reading The Harvard Classics when I get a chance, and I am currently on Volume 10, which is The Wealth of Nations, the foundational treatise spelling out the classical principles of free trade and commerce. Written between the years 1766 and 1776 by the English philosopher Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations is one of those classics that remind you why you read the classics.

Going back to looking at the basic principles behind free markets spelled out in such a simple manner helps one to put many things into perspective, including current political economic debates and, more excitingly, one’s own standing in the economic food chain.

I have only read some 40 of 500 plus pages, so there’s that. But so far, the concept that is haunting me is what Smith calls the division of labor.

I’ve never been good at division — ask my students when I screw up their averages — so this is probably dangerous territory for me.1

Nonetheless, the principle of the division of labor says that free trade and commerce allow for individuals in society to supply their “necessaries and conveniences” abundantly by working one trade and selling the surplus they do not need for themselves to someone else. In other words, our labor is far more productive when concentrated to a specific task than if we were all running about the jungle having to fend for ourselves in every aspect of life from foraging for food to making our own clothes and houses.

The whole point of living in a society of free and developed trade and commerce — what Smith calls simply a “civilized country” (13) — is not to have just enough to live off of, but rather to have a surplus of wealth. Free trade and commerce is, therefore, not (supposed to be) a zero-sum game. Wealth, whether we’re talking about actual material goods or their representation in money, is created in abundance for everyone, and it’s largely due to the efficiency of the division of labor.

“Every workman,” says Smith, “has a great quantity of his own work to dispose of beyond what he himself has occasion for,” meaning he can sell the surplus and build wealth. For this reason, already by the time of Smith’s writing, he can say that “the accommodation of an European prince does not always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant” (15-17).

In a way, perhaps this is even more true today, where people living in poverty or near it use and consume much of the same stuff as presidents and CEOs — microwaves, the Internet, air conditioning, clothes, donuts, a lot of things.

However, I’m not sure most of us in the current economy are as well off, relatively speaking, as Smith’s hypothetical industrious and frugal peasant. And certainly, a great swath of the American populace does not possess anything like an abundance of wealth.

Why?

Because many do not reap the surplus produce of their labor.

And why is that?

Well, folks, the answer is as old as prostitution itself: rent and stock. Says Smith:

[T]he whole produce of labour does not always belong to the labourer. He must in most cases share it with the owner of the stock which employs him. […] As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce. […] In every society the price of every commodity finally resolves itself into some one or other, or all of those three parts [i.e., labor, stock and rent]. (50-51)

So according to my understanding, the laborer’s surplus produce (which is measured, essentially, by the money/wealth he brings in) is divvied up to the owner of the enterprise and the owner of the land (and these two people may or may not be the same person). This seems fair and equitable, but problems arise quickly.

Smith illustrates, over several pages, why it is that the laborer gets the short end of the stick, but the reason is basically that the laborer has less bargaining power. He often lives paycheck-to-paycheck, so to speak, and has to take whatever he can get, even if it means the great part of his surplus produce goes to the bosses. There are other factors that can also give the landowners and stockholders the edge at the negotiation table, such as laws that favor them, or their ability to conspire to fix wages.

This is a classical understanding of how wages are determined, and while it is very basic and probably doesn’t take into consideration specific present-day complexities, it can at the least present non-financially minded folk, such as myself, with a springboard to start asking questions about the work they do every day.

Specifically, are we getting any surplus wealth from our labor? This, really, is the main question. Again, the whole point of free markets in a civilized society is to create “universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people” (15).

It’s simply a question of how much of their own surplus wealth workers are getting from their labor. Basically, are you getting paid for what you actually do?

You should ideally be getting paid something proportional and reasonable to the wealth you create. It seems like our current system of wages and salaries are increasingly becoming smokescreens to separate you from your real produce.2 Whatever the reason for that, it seems to me to be the great illusion of our times.

Obviously, this is in the interest of your boss and not in the interest of you, and in a society of free markets, you should be able to quit and go somewhere in which you do enjoy some portion of your surplus wealth. But that’s the catch: It’s not free, because there are too many hands and special interest policies between you and your surplus wealth. If you are earning just enough to live off of month to month, which is the case for almost everyone I know, then you are either not getting paid enough (that is, in proportion to your surplus produce) or not enough people want your produce (that is, there is no demand for what you’re selling).

That’s why, in my opinion, so many people exude anger in today’s political discourse and tend to vote for candidates who promise to execute extreme measures.

Everyone is tired of feeling cheated, which is understandable. How many people work from year to year and have little to show for it but the fact that they’ve managed to stay alive? If you think of your ten closest friends, it’s likely that none of them is really able to build wealth and live comfortably without fear of losing his or her livelihood due to some sudden changing circumstance. They don’t have any money to save or invest. Life insurance, health insurance and retirement plans represent chump change savings and rarely result in a significant return for the individual, all in a lifetime’s work. And regarding taxes and government … well, I just won’t even go there, except to mention death taxes. DEATH TAXES.

What I think we should keep in mind though is that the enemy is not the process of free markets, per se, but rather the extent to which that process is subverted by certain groups that want to exploit the surplus wealth created by your average worker. These exploitations of surplus wealth are ingrained in many parts of today’s economic system. They are so common that we often don’t think about them, and they thrive under many disguises. Perhaps in future posts, I will go into further details about these wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Matt
April 27, 2016, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

  1. Just kidding. That never happens. Ever. 

  2. There are many consumer protection laws that are meant to empower the consumer to know what they are buying. I think similar laws should be passed to protect wage and salary earners. Much like the nutrition facts on food products, our pay stubs should come with a printed percentage figure of how much of our surplus wealth our wage represents. I’m still trying to come up with a catchy name for the bill. Email me if you think of one. 

I have a confession to make.

Back when I was a rather young and ignorant intern at WLBT in Jackson, the only things I was trusted with besides eating donuts was writing the simple, one-line teasers before the commercials and an occasional filler-story summarizing a national news piece from the “wire” (love saying that). Well, there was that one or two times they trusted me in the control room to “produce” the noon news, i.e., make sure all the segments ended on time and that the commercials got their fair share of air time. The commercials did not get all their time when I was in control. I’m not sure how much money was lost due to my ineptness in all things broadcasting. I blamed a lot of it on Bert Case for talking so darn slow all the time. However, I must have been doing something wrong, because my supervisor could handle the clock just fine, accounting for Bert Time, which is about three minutes slower than regular voice time.1

Well, needless to say, I’m not sure they should’ve trusted me even with teasers. You think it would be simple, right? You look at the “grid” (the show script, basically), read the story coming up after each segment of commercials, then write a teaser for the up-coming story right before the commercial segments. Not a lot to it, really.

They probably didn’t need me there just to do that, but I gotta say, it was really fun. For one whole summer, every morning, I got to sit amongst fame in the “morning meeting” and be star-struck by TV personalities I grew up watching my whole life: Bert Case, Stephanie Bell Flynt, Wilson Stribling, Roslyn Anderson, Rob Jay, Paul Williams, Barbie Bassett, and occasionally, Walt Greyson. Bert Case was at just about every meeting, and although I never was brave enough to speak to him much, and although it’s doubtful if he knew anything about what I did at the place, he nonetheless read the teasers I wrote on live air! I wrote it, and Bert Case said it. How cool is that!

He was truly dedicated to his profession. He was present and ready every morning, and would share memories with everyone of the glory days of old, especially his rows with dogs and Kirk Fordice. TV reporters follow a tough schedule and work harder than mules, in my opinion. Bert and everyone else I saw at WLBT, on camera or not, were for me sources of inspiration, not because of their fame, but because I grew to respect the tremendous amount of work required for just one 30-minute broadcast.

I’ll never forget, for instance, the time my supervisor was running production, and a horse that a guest was showing on Midday Mississippi took a gigantic crap right on stage. My supervisor had enough deftness and calm to tell the cameraman to pan away from the dumpage, call the cleaning crew and resume the show. All in time for the ever-sacred commercials!2

Anyway, like I said, I was fairly ignorant. I was only 18, so cut me some slack. You’d think teasers would be easy to write. But I was able to screw that up too, and Bert would pay the price.

One morning, I misunderstood a story on the grid about a Jackson State basketball player who failed to get drafted into the NBA. Specifically, the story said, “He didn’t hear his name called.” Well … and promise not to laugh at me, OK? … I thought his name was called and that he just didn’t hear it.

I don’t know! Stop laughing. Maybe he was in the bathroom and just didn’t hear his name called. Just stop laughing. I screwed up. Whatever.

When Bert Case read my teaser to all of Jackson — “A Jackson State basketball star has been drafted to the NBA. More when we return.” — my supervisor tapped her finger and looked at me repeating the word “accuracy” over and over. I didn’t know what the heck she was talking about at first nor what everyone else’s problem was. I looked at the story again. I had to think about it really hard for a couple of seconds, but it suddenly dawned on me that I was an idiot who couldn’t understand plain English. I didn’t admit to that, though. I just mumbled, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t read it carefully.” The truth was, I read it carefully — I sweated in fear over every dang teaser I wrote that summer — but I was too dumb to understand what I read. Better for everyone to think I was simply lazy and careless.

I don’t know if Bert knew it was me, but I sweated it for a long, long time. Now that it’s all in the past, I just look back on those days with fondness, happy to be able to tell the story of how I accidentally humiliated Bert Case on live television. My little 15 minutes of fame, I guess.

Rest in Peace, Bert. Sorry about that thing.

May my Mississippi State instructor for this internship also rest in peace. Lora Defore had a great influence on me during the short time I got to know her. She battled health problems with much stoicism, and she was always supportive even though I was clearly not cut out for broadcast journalism. Good memories …

Matt
January 29, 2016, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

  1. Technically, I might be exaggerating. Midway through my internship, we got this new computer program used to put the shows together. It was called AP ENPS, and the miracle was that it could be programmed to predict how long it would take for which anchor to read which parts of the script. Bert was the slowest, but it was probably only by, like, a minute and a half. 

  2. Looking over my report I turned in for college credit after the internship, I see that I wrote of my supervisor what was probably the most dramatic understatement of the century: “She let me do things she probably could have done better herself to let me experience it.” Probably. Haha. 

There’s an inside joke about the big Methodist church on the corner of Henderson and Siwell, just a couple of minutes from my family’s house in Byram, Mississippi. A friend of mine, with her usual sarcastic New Jersey sense of humor, called it Six Flags over Jesus when we passed by it one day. The name stuck despite its irreverence.

Lakeshore Church is a nice church. I’ve been inside it at least once and know a good handful of people who attend there regularly or have been involved there in some way or another. For the record, I always discouraged the nickname Six Flags over Jesus, but I don’t think the inside joke is going to go away anytime soon. Not after what happened a few weekends ago.

For two nights in a row, Friday and Saturday, December 11 and 12, Lakeshore put on a spectacular show in their parking lot called “Live Drive Through Nativity: Starting at the Garden of Eden and continuing through the Birth, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ,” featuring a drive-thru path dotted with groups of actors playing various scenes from the Bible. At least, that is what we were able to put together from peering at the lot as we drove by, although the high event-related traffic prevented us and all Byram-dwellers (Byramians? Byramites?) who live off Henderson Road from driving by very quickly, or at all for that matter. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to attend either night, but as my brother and another friend sat in the slowly creeping traffic, we attempted to interpret the events taking place.

“I can’t tell if that’s Jesus and his disciples or just some people hanging out in the parking lot.”

“Is this just the Nativity, or are they doing the whole Bible?”

“Is that the Last Supper scene or an information kiosk?”

These were common statements and observations of the night.

Now look. I’m all for Christmas. I really am proud of Lakeshore for putting forth the effort and executing a spectacle of such biblical proportions, apparently attracting something a little like tourism to my small hometown. I’m all for keeping Christ in Christmas, remembering the Reason for the Season, etc. Big, big Christmas fan. I’m with you fellas. Really. Ain’t gotta convince me. Christmas is my favorite time of the year.

Furthermore, I am certainly in favor of our all-American right to a drive-thru Gospel experience. It is truly in line with the great American spirit of ingenuity. It’s just the kind of thing that makes America, especially the South, great, along with gargantuan crosses, churches, peach water towers and jumbotrons. In this City on a Hill where there is a drive-thru for everything from burgers to banking, we have not left our piety out of account.

Sure, some people may criticize these kinds of things. They may accuse Lakeshore for being too lavish or for displaying a theme-park, entertainment-oriented form of piety. I think all these sorts of complaints are somewhat puritanical and portray a general lack holiday spirit.

No, my complaint, however tedious and materialistic, is the following:

The Drive Through Nativity held up traffic. Big time. We were in a traffic jam on Henderson for 30 minutes.

I never thought I’d live to see a real traffic jam in this part of the Home of the Swinging Bridge, much less right upon pulling out of my dead-end subdivision.

I’m not the only one who is complaining. I think the “Live Drive Through Christmas” perdured without riot, arson and general anarchy only because Byramites felt obliged to respect the sacred. Nonetheless, there were many calls to the Byram police complaining about the way traffic was handled, according to the dispatcher a friend who was with us that night spoke to.

When I first got into town, I have to admit I didn’t quite understand the kerfuffle over the Lakeshore Nativity scene, which is what I erroneously thought it to be.

“No,” said my brother. “You don’t understand. You literally drive through an obstacle course that starts at the parking lot entrance off Siwell, weaves all the way through that gigantic parking lot, and exits out onto Henderson. YOU CANNOT GET ANYWHERE! IT TOOK ME AN EXTRA HOUR TO GET HOME FROM WORK. OH, THE HUMANITY!!!”

Road rage is a powerful force, capable even of making a small Southern town launch a war on Christmas. In a free republic of ordered liberty, rights must face checks and balances. The right to a drive-thru Gospel has also to be balanced with the right to expect a cetain kind of traffic when you have chosen to live in a town of 11,489 people.

My suggestion: Lakeshore could stick with the story of the Nativity, leave the other parts for Easter and what have you, and dedicate the extra parking space to visitors. My brother R. Blake Watson, MBA, suggests reaching out to the other church and their gigantic parking lot across the road with some kind of shuttling system, although crossing Siwell to transport visitors might be somewhat annoying.

Something has to be done for next year though, lest Byramites be enraged again and Six Flags over Jesus become the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Matt
December 29, 2015, Byram, Miss.

This is a question that comes up often between my friends and me. In fact, it has come up twice with two different friends just this past week.

We were all at the dinner table at one point, and I believe the winning ticket in the hypothetical scenario was along the lines of 400 million dollars. One of those friends all the way at the other end of the table said that if he won the lottery, he would put the money in some sort of trust or annuity that would pay him in installments over many years so that he wouldn’t squander it all.

I nearly choked on my tiramisu before blurting out in a perhaps rude and definitely bewildered voice, “Did you just say you would put it in a trust where you can only get a little bit one year at a time?! I would never do that! I want my money now.”

You hear this all the time, right? If you win the lottery, you got to be careful not to spend it all. Even this Forbes article says don’t quit your job or buy a new house right away.

Now remember, we’re talking 400 to 500 million dollars. If I bought a modest mansion in Georgia and one or two new cars, I’d still be spending less than a million, hardly putting a dent in my new stash. I’m a frugal person and would be wary of completely changing my lifestyle over night, but come on. A 500 million-dollar winning should at least give you new lodgings and new transportation automatically.

“Oh, but if you start spending, you’ll never want to stop, and in just six months, your whole 500 million is gone.” It’s not uncommon to hear this sort of thing.

What!?

I have trouble imagining what kind of cretin could possibly spend (not gamble) 500 million dollars in six months or even six years. If you have that much of a spending problem, you deserve to lose all your money.

Now that my initial shock has decreased a bit, I’ll concede that my friend had some good points. A cursory Google search on what to do if you win the lottery brings up that interesting and well-informed Forbes article mentioned earlier. In that article, Janet Novack does say that going the trust/annuity route may save you in taxes depending on the laws in your state, but most likely not. The main reason to do an annuity would be to protect yourself from yourself, but I think this reason would be stupid. I trust myself, and I would think most people would feel the same way.

That being said, I’m not an expert on finances, so I would definitely put together as trusty of a professional team as I could, as a matter of course.

But it’s hard for me to believe you’d save more by an annuity. You should set strict limits, no doubt, and establish your own allowance, but still. It seems to me that one of the axioms of our capitalist society is the fact that it takes money to make money.

That’s the problem most of us have. We never have money, so we can’t make any. Sure, we can work for a modest income, but this is little more than slavery. We live and work in a servile state wherein our labor contributes to other people’s assets and not our own. The owner of the company you work at might not know a darn thing about your trade. But he has money to open a business, and you don’t. And that’s the way things go.

With 500 million dollars, it should go without saying that you’re never going to work again a day in your life. You’re just a sucker if you stay at your job or take up any sort of traditional employment. Your only work at this point should be spent on managing your newfound wealth.

Let’s do some math. Let’s say you’re 30 years old and you just won the 500 million-dollar lottery. I have no idea how much is taken out in taxes, but let’s just say 60 percent to be really conservative. That leaves you 200 million dollars. Just to wrap slave minds like ours around how much money this is, 200 million dollars means 5 million dollars until you’re 70. If you live till 90, you could spend 3.3 million a year before you ran out.

The math alone proves that even if you never invested your money or went on any exciting new capitalist ventures or did anything worthwhile in your life, you would make multi-millions a year, coming nowhere near the meager 50,000 you were making at whatever crummy job you had before you won the lottery. But if you think you still need your job in order to be a responsible adult and pay toward your children’s future, if you think 5 million dollars a year is simply 50,000 dollars too short, then by all means, throw your life away wasting eight hours a day at work.

Wait, hold the presses! My brother is complaining in my ear right now that I am not accounting for inflation. So let’s redo this with inflation. It might make all the difference.

If we assume a 3.4 percent increase in inflation each year for 40 years, then at the end of those 40 years, 200 million would be equivalent to about 52.5 million, according to this online calculator. 52.5 million divided by 40 would be 1.3 million a year. So that gives you some idea as to the effect of inflation.

Now what about salary raises for inflation if you did not quit your job? If in 2015, you’re making 50,000 dollars, in 40 years, assuming you get a 3.4 percent raise each year to account for inflation, that would tack on an extra 4.3 million dollars total, a small fraction of the 200 million dollars in your hand. And that’s if you work until 70. And we haven’t even taken out income tax yet.

So in my opinion, it doesn’t make a difference when you account for inflation. Not when we’re talking in the hundreds of millions. Which would you prefer: 200 million and never working again, or 204 million and working eight hours a day until you’re 70? Obviously, the former.

But that’s all conservatively and gloomily assuming that nothing happens in those 40 years, that you’re just sitting on the couch watching movies all day.

Obviously, you don’t want to do that. You want to do something with your life. You will probably want to make even more money. And that’s exactly what you should do. However, anyone who tells you that you need to remain employed is out of their minds.

Working a steady job is the proven worst way of trying to get rich. The reason rich people are rich is because either they started from nothing and risked everything they had in investments or in making their own business, or they started out with money (inheritance, etc.) and therefore had enough to invest and/or start or sponsor a business. It doesn’t matter how you get there, whether you worked for it or won the lottery. Once you’re in, you’re in. Now you are the boss, and you control your own destiny.

To be honest, you should probably quit your job and start a business even if you don’t win the lottery. But that’s another post for another day.

Matt
June 27, 2015, Byram, Miss.