Kids and Capitalism

It was an eye-opening moment. I asked the students if they knew what “capitalism” was. Not a single student knew the answer.

The students were what we gently refer to as “urban youth”, high school students from economically challenged neighborhoods. They were participating in a pilot after-school program at the Mathews Dickey Boys and Girls Club called “Sound Basics”. The goal of the program was to use the students’ fascination with the music industry to teach them the basics of business, about profit and loss statements and balance sheet – we were trying to teach them the skills of capitalism.

In many ways they were the best and the brightest of their crowd. When we came into the room, one was showing a friend how to solve an algebra problem on the whiteboard. Four were attending one of the very challenging St. Louis magnet schools. Another just graduated high school and was about to start college. And none of the kids knew what capitalism was.

My more conservative friends weren’t surprised. They have a general distrust of public education and this nagging feeling that most public school teachers and administrators are secretly closet socialists. Sometimes it seems that Conservatives are intent on blowing up the public education system in our inner city schools, through school choice, changes to teachers’ tenure, charter schools. This is why – Conservatives’ underlying fear that the people teaching our disadvantaged youth don’t believe in our economic system and are instead actively promoting its overthrow.

I know a good number of teachers and none of them are closet socialists, let alone outed socialists. But many of them do have an unease with capitalism, a concern that somehow how capitalism is responsible for much of the misery and pain in our society. They can’t necessarily point to what would be better, but many of them do believe that capitalism is somehow inherently flawed and that what we really should be doing is giving kids the skills they need to change the system, not work within it.

But capitalism isn’t a choice – it is a description of how industrialized economies work. Two hundred years ago most Americans lived on farms or in farming communities, and most of what they consumed they made for themselves or got from their neighbors. Now virtually everything we consume is produced hundreds or even thousands of miles from where we live in large factories (the “capital” in capitalism). A hundred years ago socialists suggested that if the government owned the mines and factories and stores, instead of individuals like the Koch brothers, somehow this would result in a different, fairer system. But as history has shown, the socialists got it wrong – government ownership of the factories produced a lot less wealth and most of the wealth still went to the people at the top that controlled the factories. “Socialism” is really just “state capitalism”.

The socialists missed a key point – benefit accrues to those that control, regardless of “ownership”. Running a factory – choosing the right product, materials, distribution network – is a skill, and the people with this skill benefit from it. Yes, the Koch brothers started with an inheritance, but they are as wealthy as they are because they are very good at running their business – they are very good capitalists.

The children of the wealthy and even the middle class learn about capitalism at home, in ways large and small. The skills and tools of accumulating wealth are easy to pick up if you are surrounded by wealth. But our urban students often don’t get this understanding at home. They lack the role models that would teach them not only the importance of accumulating wealth but also the skills and tools required to accumulate wealth in our capitalist system.

If the people teaching our disadvantaged children secretly wish capitalism would go away, that it is one of the things wrong with our country, it’s hard to imagine they will do a good job teaching kids the skills of capitalism. We risk creating a self-fulfilling prophesy – if we don’t teach our urban youth the skills they need to participate and thrive in the economy we have, in capitalism, then they are unlikely to succeed in our current economic system. We need to get beyond our unease with capitalism and this illusion that somehow we could have a different system without the flaws. We need to actively teach all of our children, and particularly our urban youth, how to be good capitalists.

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