Steve Martin Taught SNL Viewers Free Trade Back In the 1970s

Steve Martin Taught SNL Viewers Free Trade Back In the 1970s
Devon Ravine/Northwest Florida Daily News via AP
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Few hosts of Saturday Night Live have been funnier than Steve Martin. But one of the SNL skits he was in – “The Homanids” – didn’t just get laughs. It also made an important point about how the world should pursue increased productivity, greater wealth, and a better quality of life – and how not to.

The skit was set a million years ago, in the savannahs of Africa where our ancestors roamed. Martin played a caveman way ahead of his time – articulate, creative and visionary – but frustrated by the denseness of the tribal leader Okna, played by Bill Murray, and his strategy of constantly chasing bison and futilely hoping to catch up with the speedy animal.

Instead of simply running after bison, Martin suggested surrounding them, so whichever way the animal ran it would run into a member of the tribe positioned to hurl a rock. Seeing that Okna and the other tribe members were unable to grasp the point, Martin laid out several stones representing members of the tribe in a circle, and placed a larger rock to represent the bison in the middle. Martin than demonstrated that no matter which way the bison ran, they would be able to capture and kill it.

Okna still had a hard time grasping the point, saying: “But we are not rocks!” But another member of the tribe, played by Garrett Morris, got what Martin was talking about, and explained it in a way that other members of the tribe, including Okna, could understand.

Okna approved of the idea, saying that while he was swift and strong, Martin was smart, and together they could work well. Martin was delighted at the prospect, and began to talk about how they could improve their lives – by shifting from a nomadic lifestyle and putting down roots, creating leisure time and inventing a system of symbols to describe events and communicate ideas, leading to a true civilization.

Okna seemed to like the idea, but suggested that first they all get some sleep, so the next day they could use the new strategy to trap many bison. After the rest of the tribe fell asleep, Okna got up, lifted a heavy boulder, and smashed Okna fatally on the head. Talking to the audience, Okna then modifying his constant mantra: “I am swift and strong – and now I am smart.”

The skit was considered one of the funniest of a funny season. But it also offered a message relevant to the global economy. Human ingenuity and innovation cannot be captured. It cannot be purchased or taken over. Rather than try to subsume those who have unique skills to try to annex their strengths, it makes more sense to work with them to create greater wealth.

This lesson could well be applied to the modern economy. Does it really make sense to think that employing people in Mexico or China is bad for the U.S. economy, when it actually makes it stronger by drawing in a wider range of talents at different levels of compensation? If GM can produce more efficiently by extending supply chains across North America, or even to Asia, shouldn’t they? Does it make sense to discourage foreign investment, when that is really just shutting the door on both financial and human capital?

The alternative is to follow Okna’s strategy: Use our power to stifle those who have other forms of ingenuity, rather than try to tap into it. The fact is, human beings are the most valuable resource. By partnering with other peoples and drawing in the strengths of other cultures, we only make ourselves stronger. By trying to shut out people or goods from other places, we deny ourselves the richness of their potential, just like Okna did when he smashed the Steve Martin character with a rock.

The Martin character’s final words said it all: “Someday, we will have descendants much more advanced than ourselves.” One of the things that has made us more advanced than our prehistoric ancestors is a willingness to divide labor among a world full of people, rather than horde what we have for ourselves. Just like it would have made a lot more sense for Okna to combine his strengths with Martin’s, it makes a lot more sense to tap into all of the human strengths the world has to offer.

Allan Golombek is a Senior Director at the White House Writers Group. 

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