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The Boston Globe

Economic Lessons from the Playground

Steve Almond

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.


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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.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Steve Almond, a guest columnist, is the author of five books, most recently the essay collection “(Not that You Asked).’’

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