At 15, I didn't know a whole lot about life. In many ways I was a typical teenager, which is to say: stupid. And to be honest, I was pretty much fine with that. Unless it involved the physical act of love, I really wasn't all that interested in learning about anything. I certainly didn't have any firm ideological convictions outside of a general, since-proven-correct sense that everything is kind of terrible. But that changed after I spent a week of my young dumb life at a summer camp for losers learning about the power and glory of free enterprise that explored both the philosophical arguments for capitalism as well as the practical reality of it.
By the end of the week I was a communist.
Why did I attend? Who knows? Maybe it was boredom or a desire to spend some time away from my parents and asshole friends. Perhaps it was a simple, base desire to ineptly hit on and try in vain to hook up with girls who were from other schools and thus not yet in on the secret that I was most definitely not cool. Whatever the case, during the hot and steamy mid-Atlantic summer of 2000 I packed up my things and headed off to a small Pennsylvania college to be indoctrinated by local business leaders.
Before you ask: Yes, of course my life is full of regret. But like World War I, the camp was inarguably something to do. But, again—and this is important—it also raised the possibility of mingling with members of the opposite sex who, given that this was Camp Capitalism, could very well determine it in their own rational self-interest to engage in a minimal amount of physical contact with me. I brought a copy of The Fountainhead just in case.
The camp was called Pennsylvania Free Enterprise Week, founded by business interests in 1979 to address the “compelling and urgent issue of workforce preparedness.” I could look forward to hearing from people like then-governor and future terror-threat color announcer Tom Ridge about how big business is what makes America great and how the propertied elites should be left to rape and pillage the working class as they see fit—and applauded for their initiative (not his exact phrasing).
After settling in to our dorm rooms, the campers—a diverse array of white middle-class nerds from eastern Pennsylvania—were broken into teams and ordered to establish the rigid hierarchy necessary for any exploitive power structure to flourish. With a local businesswoman as our mentor, we dutifully chose among ourselves a CEO, a CFO, and all the other assorted middle-management ways to say “asshole.” Our purpose? To compete in a fun and educational simulation of the business world where we’d sell undefined “widgets” to made-up clients.
Each morning our team would receive a printout listing our fake assets and the fake demand for our fake products, upon which we were supposed to base decisions about allocating our resources. We would then submit our decisions to the adults, who would in turn leave our fate to the devices of a Dell home computer. That the results would be determined by an inscrutable mix of dumb luck and algorithms was a deft, realistic touch.
As the future unemployable English major of the group, I naturally fell into the role of the bullshitter, aka the ad guy. It was my job to draft compelling copy about how my firm's brand of widgets would help you attain spiritual fulfillment and last longer in bed, which I presented along with our firm's future plans before a group of faux shareholders. Since my charisma is not quantifiable by mere machine, this portion of the contest was judged by the human automatons in charge of everything. And the sort of damning thing is they liked me. A lot, actually. Turns out I could really sell a widget.
And then my group won.
I don't know the how or why of it, but the dude with the Dell said my group of not-sex-havers was the greatest widget-selling firm of Pennsylvania Free Enterprise Week session two. Best of all, this being a lesson in capitalism we would of course be generously rewarded for our efforts. To think, I said to myself with a smug little smirk, I could have been off somewhere having fun with my jerk friends at the beach or something. But now I was successful. I was a dick.
Our reward for whatever it is that we did came at an end-of-the-week reception on a stormy night where we were treated with all the sparkling apple cider we could drink. As we filed into the room, however, the lights suddenly went out. A woman then screamed as a nearby bolt of lightning suddenly lit up the tired, malevolent faces of our old white-guy hosts, eyes sunken in their sad old white-guy faces. Outside, the sound of thunder rumbled in anger followed by a desperate plea whispered in the wind that all heard, but none acknowledged: “Run from this place.”
Run we did not. Drunk on victory and carbonated apple juice, my team sat at our table in the crowed auditorium, making self-satisfied snickers as the less fortunate others collected their mediocre prizes for their pedestrian efforts. Hey, nice certificate, bro! Admittedly, we had no idea why exactly we were better than anyone else, we just accepted that we were better by virtue of our success in a game rigged by the higher-ups. We were young, but learning quickly.
It took a tedious hour of half-hearted clapping for the achievements of others before it was finally time to collect our prize. We fidgeted in our seats as the word came over the speaker: In honor of our tremendous achievements, each of us were receiving—God, this was going to be good—a single share of stock in Atari, makers of the must-have video game console of 1977. You cheap motherfuckers, I thought to myself, a polite smile on my face.
But hey, it was something, right? And ultimately, it's about status—there were a bunch of people in that room that didn't get shit and probably didn't know my share of stock was worth less than the transaction fee required to sell it. And fuckin' A, Pong's a classic.
My admirably rapid progression through the stages of grief soon, however, turned to white-hot rage. The CEO of our firm—a sweet, entirely pleasant girl whose grandiose title entailed little more than formally signing off on the number of widgets we all as a group agreed to sell—got a separate prize. A better prize. She, my now-former friend, got three solid gold coins with Ronald Reagan's fat smiling face on them. Street value? More than a transaction fee, that’s for sure.
I then had an epiphany, my anger melting into understanding as I realized the program had in fact achieved its goal of making young people “appreciate our free enterprise system.” Indeed, I appreciated the fuck out of it now. I appreciated that, in practice, this system is but another form of legitimized theft, and that the financial rewards generally go not to the workers, but to those best able to claim credit for their work—think someone like Steve Jobs persuading the world he handcrafted each and every iPod that left the sweatshop.
It takes some people an entire bitter lifetime before they grasp that material success has less to do with doing their gosh-darn best than it does with the cosmic accident of birth and being in the right place to take the right amount of credit at the right time. Lucky for me, I wasn't yet 16 when I learned the reality of “free enterprise.” Now I know that when someone who asks to be called “boss” starts talking about teamwork, it's not impolite to inquire whether those long hours you'll be sharing will result in equal pay for equal work, or whether you'll be stuck cleaning toilets for extra cash on the weekend while they're busy dropping their little Julie off for tennis lessons.
I wasn't old enough to remember Ronald Reagan's presidency, but like a lot of leftists, I credit his face with teaching me how capitalism really works. And let me tell you, as grossly unjust as it was—The Fountainhead, by the way, got me nothing—I learned it only gets worse after summer camp.
Charles Davis is a writer. He previously lived on the beach in Nicaragua but now lives in a studio in Los Angeles. He's made mistakes. Twitter: @charlesdavis84