Wednesday, February 09, 2011
What Ronald Reagan's stupid face taught me about capitalism
Chalk it up to boredom, a wish to spend some time away from my parents and asshole friends, or a simple base desire to ineptly hit on and not hook up with a new crop of young teenage girls -- the more things change... -- I chose, voluntarily, to spend a week of my life on the campus of a nondescript Pennsylvania college learning about the power and glory of America's Free Market System.
And what a load of horseshit that was.
Founded in 1979, Pennsylvania Free Enterprise Week was started by a group of educators and businessmen interested in addressing “the compelling and urgent issue of workforce preparedness.” Born in 1984, I was founded as the result of a condom breaking in the back of a Chevette. Yet while coming from dramatically different backgrounds, the mysteries of fate decided that the paths of I and this seven day course in corporate capitalist brainwashing would cross that magical summer of 2000.
I'm getting teary just thinking about it.
In between what I was later told were motivational speeches from the likes of former Pennsylvania Governor and color-coded chart aficionado Tom Ridge and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert – truly, I was a privileged youth – the program consisted of this: creating groups of about a dozen other pimply-faced youth who, in something of a corporate Lord of the Flies, selected a CEO, a CFO, a COO, a CDO, a CPO, etc. etc. ad infinitum, to Lead Us. We then proceeded to sell undefined “widgets” in various made-up markets based on the numbers a computer would spit out. Basically we, the corporate elite, would guess at what a computer algorithm wanted by writing down on a piece of paper how many widgets we desired to sell in a given place on a given day. We would then submit said piece of paper to the mercy of the electronic gods.
This was meant to teach us something about supply and demand. Or so I was told (According to the program's website, I apparently learned to “appreciate our free enterprise system” by witnessing from “a practitioner's perspective what it takes to be successful in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.” I believe the website was also written by a computer algorithm.)
As the future unemployed – nay, unemployable – English major of the group, I, of course, was the P.R. guy: the dude who wrote up bullshit speeches to deliver to our mock shareholders and who drafted the compelling advertising copy about how my fake firm's brand of widgets would make you last longer in bed and whatnot. The Lord's work. And while it was undoubtedly a bullshit job – aren't they all? – it was a bullshit job that I busted my ass for, developing blisters from furiously writing corporate jargon and phoney-baloney speeches with my trusty Dixon-Ticonderagos (#2's, motherfucker).
And my company won, damn it. We won.
I don't know how, and I don't know why, but that god damn Dell computer decided my group of hormonal 15 year olds was the best widget-selling firm of Pennsylvania Free Enterprise Week session two. The. Best. And, this being a lesson in capitalism, we would of course be generously rewarded for it.
Our reward for whatever it is that we did came at an end-of-the-week reception, hosted by a bunch of bald old white dudes with sad old white dude faces, who, we were told -- fingers crossed – could be us someday. Seated at a table in a crowded auditorium, my esteemed colleagues and I snickered as various other groups received awards for “most improved” (assholes) and “best spirit” (pricks), knowing that the real prize awaited us, not those also-ran jerk-offs. Admittedly, we had no idea why this was the case.
Tipsy from my third apple juice, our prize finally came after a long, tedious hour of pretending to care about others' achievements. And what did we get for winning it all? One share of stock in (wait for it) . . . Atari. One. And not 1982 Atari, mind you, but year 2000 Atari, aka worth-less-than-the-transaction-fee Atari. Shit.
Soon, however, bitterness and anger over wasting a week of my young life working harder than I frankly should have for some bullshit game turned into white hot, unadulterated rage: the CEO of our firm, who did nothing more than sign off on the number of widgets we said we wanted to sell -- a very nice young girl who I got along with quite well, the bitch -- got her prize: three solid gold coins with Ronald Reagan's fat face – excuse me, former President Ronald Reagan's fat face – emblazoned on them. Street value? A fuck of a lot more than my share of Atari.
And that's when I really learned what all this work-hard-and-capitalism-will-reward-you! jazz was really all about: ensuring a bunch of overworked schmucks would bust their assess for a few decades – suffering a stroke by 47, confined to a home by 52 -- so some do-nothing CEO could take all the glory. Oh sure, during the work stages you're all a “team” – all in this together, dammit – but come reward time, well, it won't be your little Julie taking tennis lessons from Pete Sampras.
I'm not bitter about the experience, though. As far as life lessons go, I learned a valuable one.
Rhapsodize all you want about the virtues of “free markets," corporate capitalism -- that is, the system that we have, not the one Cato Institute scholars have wet dreams about -- ain't it. Indeed, as you'd think more right-wing libertarians and conservatives would acknowledge, corporations themselves are creations of the state, unnatural entities that couldn't exist without massive government intervention.
Who, after all, grants corporate America limited liability for its actions, while at the same time strictly limiting and regulating workers' ability to organize, boycott and strike? Who ensures drug companies reap billions from their “intellectual property” and moves to strike down anybody who doesn't pay the proper tribute to their corporate masters? And who, by the way, ensures that natural resources like oil fields and farm lands aren't merely collectivized by local communities? It ain't the Koch Brothers and their trusty copy of Wealth of Nations: it's the state. Big government and big business go hand in hand.
So let's be honest: The U.S. is a corporate state with a government that -- like all other governments -- was founded to further the economic exploitation of one class by another; one that adopts the language of freedom and free markets to perpetuate a form of 21st century serfdom. And I thank Ronald Reagan – or at least those coins with his stupid face on them – for showing me how it really works.