Economic Lessons from the Playground

I HAVE a 3-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son, so I spend a lot of time these days at the playground.

Which is fine. I like playgrounds. I like any place where it's
possible to make monkey noises without anyone thinking less of you.

The one challenging thing about the playground, though, is that you
have to do a lot of resource management. Because there's always some
moment when my daughter and another child decide, more or less
simultaneously, that they want to ride the last open swing.

Which means I have to launch into The Speech, the one that begins,
"OK, honey: there's just one swing left and this nice little girl wants
to play on it now. So we're going to have to share. I know it's hard to
share, but we can do something else fun for a few minutes, and then
we'll get a turn.''

Does this work?


The rest of the time, you wind up in Tantrumville.

But that's part of growing up. It doesn't mean you stop giving The
Speech. Because we all want our children to learn how to share. We all
know that there are a limited number of swings in the world at large,
and our children are eventually going to have to learn how to defer
their own desires for the sake of the common good.

In fact, most parents are mortified when their children refuse to
share on the playground, when they hoard toys, when they decide it is
their right to smash a sand castle they played no part in building.

These basic rules of the playground are sometimes given a more
sophisticated, adult name: socialism. Which makes all us good parents
de facto socialists.

Welcome, comrades!

I mention all this, of course, because opponents of President Obama
have attempted recently to turn "socialism'' into a slur. Displaying
the zeal exhibited by naughty children the world over, they have
equated socialism with fascism, Stalinism, and even Nazism.

For the record, they are wrong. Socialism is a theory of economic
organization that calls for equal access to resources for all
individuals, along with a method of compensation based on the amount of
labor expended. Translated into playgroundese: Everyone should have a turn on the swings, and if you built the sand castle, you get to play with it.

Socialists also argue that capitalism concentrates power among elites who exploit this power for gain.

And here it probably makes sense to mention last year's Wall Street
meltdown, which led to our current recession. It was caused by - you
guessed it - a concentration of power among elites who exploited this
power for gain. It's that old story about the one group of children on
the playground who grab all the toys in sight, break them, and leave
the rest of us to fend for ourselves.

If the president were a true socialist, he wouldn't be handing out
billions of our tax dollars to the greedy chief executives who helped
cause this mess.

But the real question here is this: Why are Americans afraid to
express their morality in the political arena in the same way they do
as parents?

Do we honestly believe that the principles of fairness and equity we
so ardently seek to instill in our children will someday have to be
unlearned if they are to avoid being branded by some "patriotic''
loudmouth as un-American?

Can you imagine trying to justify to your child the cruel economic
inequalities we routinely accept as part of "the American way''? That
multimillionaires deserve tax breaks? That providing health insurance
to our poorest citizens is some form of civic indulgence? That some
children still go hungry in this country, while others live in mansions?

These facts are not ironic, folks, they are evidence of an ongoing
moral tragedy, the one in which a nation of parents chooses to ignore
the simple lessons of kindness they once taught to their children.

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