February 14, 2018 Reading Time: 4 minutes

A proposed principle: don’t ascribe to culture and morality what is better explained by economics. The principle is difficult to apply because the economic forces at work in any given situation are sometimes invisible from the outside. It is easy to see the results, but much harder to see the rational calculations behind what drives people to make the choices they make.

So, for example, you can search Quora for an answer to the question about why rap artists, pimps, and drug dealers are so obsessed with wearing signs of wealth, like gold chains, furs, gold grills on teeth, and carrying serpent-head canes and the like. The most liked answers are all the same: it’s about displaying signs of virility and status. To be super flashy with your clothes and jewelry is part of the culture of these industries, a way to show off your successes to others.

This has long been assumed to be true, especially as the tendency is traditionally attached to African-American urban culture. Consider “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” a song with lyrics and music by Irving Berlin from 1927. The purpose of the song (in its original version) was to poke fun at the signs of prosperity in Harlem, and, in particular, the way black people of the period spent their money on clothes to party in, showing every sign of wealth.

The song presumed that this was a racially based behavior, reflecting not real achievement but rather merely profligate spending.

If you’re blue, and you don’t know where to go to
Why don’t you go where Harlem flits?
Puttin’ on the Ritz
Spangled gowns upon the bevy of high browns
From down the levy, all misfits
Puttin’ on the Ritz

That’s where each and every lulu-belle goes
Every Thursday evening with her swell beaus
Rubbin’ elbows

Come with me and we’ll attend their jubilee
And see them spend their last two bits
Puttin’ on the Ritz

It’s a fun song but there is real bite here, especially the last line. The implication is that these people (catch the line about the “high browns?) can’t save money, don’t understand thrift, are only interested in superficial displays, and, therefore, will never really amount to anything. It was the conventional line in a time of cruel zoning and segregation designed to exclude and keep down non-whites in social and economic status.

Today when people look at gold-chain culture of rap stars and dealers, the assumption remains the same. And there is a grain of truth to the idea that, by now, this is a microculture attached to a certain demographic; the real question is: what are the economic forces that gave rise to this culture?

What if there is another reason for wearing wealth that speaks to a different economic calculation? Rap and hip-hop originated from a gangster culture of marginalized groups that do what is necessary to survive. People in these professions are dealing with a high degree of legal risk (or singing about people involved with such risk). The laws against prostitution, drugs, and so on, mean that the people who do these things are facing constant risks for entanglement with the law, police, and courts.

They’ve also learned to distrust official institutions like banks and third-party intermediaries. They couldn’t get accounts, couldn’t get credit, and probably didn’t want them in any case. This song was written in 1927, and it turns out that only 6 years later the distrust of banks proved well founded when FDR closed the banks and devalued the currency. Holding your wealth in gold and other high-end products was wise.

But there is more to the story. In the tradition of American policing and corrections, the police have no trouble freezing your bank assets, taking your car, and even surrounding and confiscating your home. When you are arrested, however, what you have on your person is given back to you later. It remains your property and you are given a voucher for it in standard police practice. But this is contingent on it actually being on your back or in your hand at the time of arrest.

I recall this from the time I was arrested after failing to appear to pay a traffic ticket. The police were extremely reluctant to let me get back anything inside my car. Even my car was impounded. But what I was carrying at the time came with me, and then went into a box at the jail that I easily recovered after bail was posted.

Police will take and keep large amounts of cash but they won’t take and keep jewelry, furs, grills, and the like. It’s a peculiar feature of American arrest logistics but one that is well known in communities in which illicit activity thrives. It makes sense, then, to carry as much of your high-value assets on your person as possible, so as to mitigate against their confiscation at the time of arrest.

National Public Radio interviewed the famous pawn-shop owner Rick Harrison. He provided more detail as it relates to posting bail.

“When you get arrested for pandering, they take your cash — because the cash was obtained illegally — but they don’t take away your jewelry,” Harrison explains. “And a pimp knows that if he buys jewelry in a pawn shop, if [he] brings it back to a pawn shop and gets a loan against it, [they’ll] always get half of what you paid for it — as opposed to buying it in a jewelry store, when [they] don’t know what [they’re] going to get. So, when they get arrested, they will always have someone bring their jewelry down to me. I will loan them half of what they paid for it — and that’s their bail money.”

You can see, then, that this behavior, now long established, has roots not in race or even class but rather in the way law forces certain economic decisions on whole communities, by necessity. It is a matter of pursuing your self-interest, something everyone does. The habit then catches on and becomes part of the culture of the group, and is even exported abroad to different nations where the music and ethos are adopted.

Thus is there a reason to the rhyme of why dealers, rappers, and pimps wear their wealth. It all comes down to the legal gulf that separates their professions and art from civic practices. If you want to keep what you have earned, and take every precaution against having it pillaged by the police, it’s best to carry it with you.

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker served as Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research from 2017 to 2021.

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