April 18, 2020 Reading Time: 5 minutes

The title comes from the two movies reviewed below, Idiocracy (2006) and Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story (2015). In normal times, neither would merit mention, much less review, at such a late date. But unless you are just coming off six months on a trapline in Alaska, you know that these are abnormal times.

I couldn’t decide which movie better fits our current situation but then it dawned on me that they are mutually reinforcing, not exclusive.

Idiocracy stars Luke Wilson, Maya Rudolph, and Terry Crews. In 2005, soldier Wilson and prostitute Rudolph agree to be cryogenically frozen for a year but through a series of mishaps end up sleeping for 500 years. They awaken to a dystopia where selective pressures have rendered humans dumb and dumber. Americans live surrounded by mountains of trash, watching trash on television, including shows like “Oww My Balls” that make Johnny Knoxville’s Jackass franchise look like high culture. 

POTUS Crews and his fellow Americans speak in a pidgin of grunts and rural, urban, and Valley Girl slang that sounds eerily familiar. Unlike our presidents to date, though, he fires a machine gun, Al Pacino-style, for rhetorical emphasis.

I don’t want to ruin the ending, unsurprising as it is, with spoilers but would like to draw attention to a scene where Wilson tries to explain to Crews’ cabinet that the reason that crops stopped growing was because they were irrigating with Brawndo, a ubiquitous sports drink tagged “The Thirst Mutilator,” instead of water. Everyone was sure that Wilson, though clearly the most intelligent man on earth, was wrong because everyone knows that water is only used in toilets. Moreover, Brawndo is superior to water for irrigation because “plants crave it” because it has “electrolytes.” Nobody knows what electrolytes are but they all know Brawndo has them and that plants crave it.

Somebody with some technical skills ought to dub coronavirus-speak over that scene as it would surely go “viral.” Why do we have to stay inside, even though it is safer outside, and shutter businesses? “To flatten the curve and raise the line.” What does that mean? “Coronavirus craves isolation and economic desolation!” How do you know that? “Flatten the curve, raise the line!” At any cost? Wouldn’t less extreme measures work at least as well at lower cost? “Coronavirus craves isolation and economic desolation!” You get the idea.

Interestingly, after Wilson orders the switch to water, half of Americans lose their jobs because they worked for Brawndo, the stock price of which immediately dropped to “zero” after Wilson’s water-only irrigation pronouncement. That was “good” unemployment, though, because it ended “bad” employment, the creation of an effective herbicide containing “electrolytes.” The unemployment governments are causing today is bad unemployment because it ended good employment for no good reason. There, I said it in terms even a denizen of Idiocracy America could understand.

Where Idiocracy is a semi-funny futuristic dystopian fiction, The Experimenter is a super quirky historical docudrama focusing on the actual experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s.

Milgram sought to understand why people followed orders during the Holocaust. So he had an actor in a lab coat direct a test subject to administer electrical shocks of increasing voltage to another actor in an adjacent room. The shocks were fake but the screams were real. To everyone’s horror, Milgram discovered that 65 percent of test subjects were willing to administer lethal voltages to another human being, only because an authority figure, in this case a “scientist,” claimed it was necessary.

Test subjects were paid in advance and told during pre-experiment briefings that they could leave at any time, for any reason, with no penalty. In debriefings, some said they were shaken by the experience, which would never pass an IRB today, but none felt coerced in continuing by anything other than the “scientist.”

Milgram played around with variables but time and again about two-thirds of his test subjects, white or black, man or woman, gentile or Jew obeyed the authority figure. He believed that people with an “agentic personality” were susceptible to manipulation because they saw themselves as simply “doing their job” or “playing a role” and hence not morally responsible for their actions.

Again, somebody with some video editing skills could have a field day with that scene by dubbing over something like:

Subject: Why must I press the shock button?

“Scientist”: We must flatten the curve and raise the line.

Zap followed by whimpers.

Subject: The patient sounds like this is hurting him.

“Scientist”: Some must suffer today so that some old people can die of the flu, next year.

Next higher voltage switch, zap, followed by a scream for mercy.

Subject: I don’t know how much more the patient can take.

“Scientist”: What part of flatten the curve and raise the line don’t you understand?

Subject: I don’t understand how torturing this person helps anything.

“Scientist”: How dare you! I am Doctor Fow Chi, M.D., D.O., S.T.A.T.I.S.T., Ph.D. I, and I alone know what is best.

Voltage up, zap, blood curdling scream.

Subject: I still don’t understand.

“Scientist”: And oh by the way you are not zapping just one guy but almost every business owner in America.

Subject: I won’t!

“Scientist”: You will, because I am wearing a white lab coat!

Subject: Do you have a degree in economics? Economic policy? Economic history even?

“Scientist”: Of course not! All irrelevant to flattening the curve and raising the line.

Subject: I don’t know …

“Scientist”: Here is a bunch of money and laws that say you do not have to pay your bills.

Voltage up. Zap. A low moan, then silence.

“Scientist”: Excellent job. You have flattened the economy. The money I just gave you is now worthless and the companies you owed money to are bankrupt anyway. Have a nice life, what is left of it anyway. Now go on social media and brag about what you have done!

Another famous experiment discussed in the movie, conducted by Solomon Asch, showed that one third of his test subjects knowingly chose the wrong answer to a simple question about line lengths when previous respondents, actors instructed to choose the wrong answer, erred. Those test subjects valued conformity over obvious truth. The good news is that when only one other person in the respondent group picked the correct answer, conformists dropped to a mere five percent. 

The correct policy response to COVID-19 is more difficult to discern than judging the length of lines and a lot more is at stake, but there are people, more and more each day, who are no longer blindly conforming to the “shift the curve and raise the line” mantra. They are asking questions, tough ones, and thinking for themselves, which is still technically legal in most states.

While a few courageous governors have refused to order lockdowns or massive business closures, most Americans remain locked in what appears to be a giant Milgram experiment testing how far they are willing to go down an increasingly irrational path, egged on by authority figures whose unconstitutional dictates need not be followed. We will not have to wait half a millennium for an America like that depicted in Idiocracy unless we have the courage to say, “enough!” 

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright is the (co)author or (co)editor of over two dozen major books, book series, and edited collections, including AIER’s The Best of Thomas Paine (2021) and Financial Exclusion (2019). He has also (co)authored numerous articles for important journals, including the American Economic ReviewBusiness History ReviewIndependent ReviewJournal of Private EnterpriseReview of Finance, and Southern Economic Review. Robert has taught business, economics, and policy courses at Augustana University, NYU’s Stern School of Business, Temple University, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere since taking his Ph.D. in History from SUNY Buffalo in 1997. Robert E. Wright was formerly a Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research.

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