[7 April 2008]
Capitalism, according to the Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, is “An economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately or corporately owned and development is proportionate to the accumulation and reinvestment of profits gained in a free market.”
Isn’t that quaint? It sounds penned by the uptight Economics prof Phillip Barbay in Back to School, factually accurate but naively incomplete. To capture the genuine splendor of Capitalism at work, we’d do better to have it defined by Thornton Mellon from the same film, whose estimate for building a factory displays an appreciation for the “realities” of the free market system:
“First of all you’re going to have to grease the local politicians for the sudden zoning problems that always come up. Then there’s the kickbacks to the carpenters, and if you plan on using any cement in this building I’m sure the teamsters would like to have a little chat with ya, and that’ll cost ya.”
Capitalism is Darwinian economics, the strong survive and the weak sit out, and it’s the strong that define the system: Predatory lenders traded short-term revenue for long-term economic collapse by arranging mortgages for people who couldn’t afford to pay for them; Exxon Mobil earned $40.7 billion in profits in 2007 as the US economy began treading the slippery slope of recession; Merrill Lynch CEO Stan O’Neal steered the company into an $8 billion dollar loss and arranged a $161 million severance package for himself before his departure. That sounds more like Thorton Mellon’s Capitalism, the ka-ching-like sound of ambition colliding with opportunism. To quote another silver screen Capitalist, Wall Street‘s Gordon Gekko, “greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works.”
Capitalism is synonymous with the United States, closer to a religion than an economic policy, and membership in “the church” is activated when you’re issued your social security number. US paper currency is ugly and monochromatic not because green ink is cheaper, but to keep people from being distracted: Money isn’t fashion, it’s function, and it’s meant to be spent. Other nations can make their scrip multi-colored and gorgeous, but in America, it shouldn’t be in your wallet long enough that you would take it out and admire it like a photograph.
This contemplation of capitalism began when my daughter became co-proprietor of her first lemonade stand last week. She and her friend began peddling tiny paper cups of instant Country Time lemonade for 25 cents a glass. As I watched them charm 20-odd patrons out of $14.00 (“keep the change” were oft-heard parting words from kind neighbors and passersby), I remarked to my wife that this was our five-year-old’s introduction to American capitalism. Forget the lessons of Thornton Mellon and Gordon Gekko, the glow of greed in the eyes of those girls as they counted and recounted the money accumulating in their lunch-box-turned-cash-box indicated that the seeds of capitalism are planted long before movie characters get to define the concept in passionate soliloquies. (Naturally, the girls wanted to repeat the process the next day, and the next, as if, forgive the mixed metaphor, a lemonade stand was a cash cow that could be milked at will.)
I remember my own first lemonade stand decades ago, but it wasn’t a primer on Capitalism so much as an introduction to predatory marketing strategies. A friend and I opened shop on the north corner of Pike Avenue simply to spite the boy who had set up his own stand on the south corner of the same intersection. I don’t recall the catalyst for this competition (some questionable ruling in a hide-and-seek game perhaps), but our dueling soft-drink ventures taught us nothing about Capitalism because we were preoccupied learning the value of that famous adage about “location, location, location”: Traffic on Pike Avenue wasn’t sufficient to support one drink merchant, let alone two. I learned about Capitalism at school, with a game called “Kill the One with the Ball”.
Children born in the 1960s grew up in an American epoch that defined adolescent “play” with significantly fewer restrictions than children encounter today. In those days, child safety wasn’t a cottage industry so much as an under-developed branch of Common Sense: Jungle Gyms assembled with exposed nuts and bolts allowed us to dangle precariously over an asphalt cushion; fully-exposed eight-year-old craniums reenacted improbable Evel Knievel stunts on banana-seat bicycles; Car-seat safety meant being held in your lap-seat-buckled mom’s arms rather than being left to crawl freely about the cabin. As such, recess monitors at my elementary school permitted any game that didn’t involve swords, crossbows or explosives, including the barbaric search-and-destroy game “Kill the One with the Ball”.
The name exaggerates the actual methodology, but the name’s six words tell you everything you need to know about the game: One player started with a ball, while every other player taunted, tormented and tackled that person until they released possession of the ball (often with a panicked toss into the air as the thunder of sneakered feet encroached); whoever got the ball next became the new object of the mob’s harassment, and the former ball holder resumed their place in the swarm of kids clamoring after the ball.
That’s it. No strategy (excepting a hastily improvised escape route), no skill, just survival, like football played by a dozen one-person teams, like Rugby sans scoreboard or pro wrestling with an inflatable prop. The game was exhilarating like running with the bulls at Pamplona would be exhilarating, and despite the known pointlessness of the game, I played with unbridled enthusiasm, ripped-up pants-knees be damned.
There are a variety of civilizations whose economic limitations required their youth to be creative with the barest of essentials, resulting in the global popularity of soccer/football (which requires nothing more than a ball and a competitive desire) and hacky sack/footbag (which has roots in ancient China, Thailand, and Native America and requires only a beanbag and a cooperative spirit), but it seems comically appropriate that American youth took those same elements—a ball and free time—and created a game that celebrates the value of force used to acquire valueless possessions, one that applauds being in the lead of a race that will have no winner.
The game was essentially a variation of “King of the Hill”, its evolution likely spawned by the dearth of hills in the average elementary school’s paved play area. But it improves upon “King of the Hill” because that game shares a flaw with all combined-force revolutions: The most effective way to dethrone the king is to combine forces and rush the hill from more than one angle, which requires that the ambitions of each attacker to play a secondary role to the cooperative spirit. However, once the tyrant has been toppled, the throne has room for only one king (the game’s name contains no plurals), so cooperation disintegrates into a frantic scramble for control of the high ground, with the former King immediately assembling an alliance to dethrone the mastermind of his coup. “King of the Hill” is thoroughly Orwellian, a constant realignment of axises and alliances to create a new status quo that is essentially identical to the old status quo. Meet the new king, same as the old king.
Hungry Hungry Hippos
“Kill the One with the Ball” defies such alliances and offers little reward for cooperation, the army of one supplanting a coalition of the willing. It is not like the board game Risk, where negotiation and diplomacy are integral to success; it’s more like Hungry Hungry Hippos, where the object of the game is unadulterated greed. There is no value to the ball, no points to be accrued or time of possession to extend, there was simply the blind pursuit and possession of the object. The reason to want the ball is because everyone wants the ball. That’s the whole point of the game.
Doesn’t that sound like Capitalism to you?
I suspect that “Kill the One with the Ball” fell out of favor in America’s schoolyards as the constraints of student safety were drawn tighter, teachers began recognizing that the game is impossible to monitor since even the enthusiasts can appear to be participating involuntarily. But just as a music class causes ripples of understanding to expand into seemingly unrelated areas of a student’s intellectual curiosity, Kill the One with the Ball taught lessons beyond the tensile strength of corduroy when it comes into contact with blacktop, from encouraging a Whitman-esque self-reliance on our own efforts to be a success to demonstrating how supply-and-demand economics defines product value. (One ball, 20 players? Ball is valuable; 20 balls, one player? Ball has no value.)
With the demise of that game, where will today’s kids learn about Capitalism? Perhaps 25 cents a shot at an impromptu sidewalk lemonade stand, or perhaps in a classroom with some uptight Economics professor like Phillip Barbay. Whatever the case, it’s probably not going to be learned at the bottom a pig-pile on the elementary school playground pavement. Too bad, because I know from experience that that’s exactly where the answer to “How do you play Capitalism?” can be found.