Junior Achievement. Relevant Bits of the Letter I Wrote the Principal

I have reviewed the materials and, as expected, the design of the Junior Achievement program is intended to obscure the true character of capitalist relations in quite profound ways and to the detriment of cognitive and moral development of our children. Corporate propaganda is designed by very clever ideologues to build in at an early age tacit acceptance of an ecologically unsustainable and immoral system of economic exploitation and social injustice. …

In “Sweet ‘O’ Donut,” the lesson on unit versus assembly-line production … there is zero discussion about the consequences of the Fordist and Taylorist model of industrial efficiency being taught to the kids. There are easy-to-grasp consequences of rationalizing production in this way in a capitalist economy, many of them detrimental to the interests of workers, which is the destiny of nearly every child in the public school system. Allow me to explain.

The motive behind the rationalization of production is raising the value of production, or what modern economics calls “value added,” generated during each worker hour, which, under capitalism, means a larger share of (unearned) income for the owners of the means of production, but not more wages for the workers, even though the workers add all of the value generated during their part of production. Put another way, the factory workers produce more commodities in a given unit of time in order to enrich the factory owners who do no productive work. This is the source of inequality in capitalist societies.

I will (briefly) work out this process mathematically to show you how it works. According to the 2006 Survey of Manufactures, conducted by the US Census Bureau, we see that industrial workers (i.e. workers in manufacturing) were compensated for their labor at an hourly rate of $18.33 (this amount is what we call variable capital).  We also see that the hourly rate of value added during production was $122.73. Part of this value added goes to pay for the $18.33 paid to the worker per hour. What happens to the rest of it, to the $104.40, what we call surplus value? It goes to the capitalist.

Let me make this point more dramatically, because this is the essence of capitalist exploitation. If we divide $104.40 (the surplus value) by $18.33 (the variable capital, or wages) we find that the worker produced 5.69 times the amount of value he received in wages in 2006. (Note: the raw materials, machines, etc, what we call constant capital, contribute no value to production, as they are consumed in the production process. These costs occur before the added value component. Here we are looking only at the variable capital input, since this is the sole source of profit in a capitalist market.)

The more productive the process can be made, the greater the surplus value for the capitalist. Let’s look at the 1996 numbers. Value added by manufacture per production worker’s hour was $65.14. Workers received before taxes an average of $12.40 per hour. Using the same formula as above, we find that the worker produced 4.25 times the value she received in wages.  We can see by this calculation that the rate of exploitation increased over the decade in question. Why? Because of increasing productivity with no benefit for the direct producers, precisely what “Sweet ‘O’ Donuts” aims to sell to students as a benefit with no negative consequences. The rising rate of exploitation was the source of the rising degree of inequality and concentration of wealth that contributed directly to the economic collapse in 2008.

Beyond economic calamity, the detrimental consequences are many. The worker’s income declines relative to the capitalist’s (more sharply if she is not a member of a collective bargaining unit). The worker is deskilled through task specialization. Her understanding of the production process is diminished. In the example, rather than each worker knowing how to make donuts, each worker only knows how to make one aspect of the Sweet “O” Donuts donuts. Thus their capacity to think and the extent of their knowledge of production is reduced. In the exercise [the student] was meant to learn the value of this by pitting skilled labor against robotized deskilled labor replete with inspection (“quality control”). This was not in his interests as a future worker or in becoming a complete moral person.

As noted, increasing the productivity of workers – which could, in a democratic economic model, be used to increase wages and benefits and shorten the work week – is the source of unemployment under capitalism, as fewer workers are needed for equivalent production output. Aided by machines, the number of workers can be reduced even more, to the point where many of the workers[/students] … could become unemployed.

I don’t see anywhere in the materials any criticism of assembly-line production. A curriculum could be derived for George Ritzer’s The McDonaldization of Society, in which the detrimental effects of Fordism and Taylorism on society are rigorously documented and analyzed in a clear and concise way. He shows that rationalizing production in these ways diminishes social interaction and alienates workers, deskills them, causes repetitive motion injury, heightens work related stress (as clock time comes to dominate the worker’s daily routine), raises the level of structural unemployment, and increases inequality.

In this and other exercises, the capitalist is never mentioned. For example, in the lesson on government, the children are “paid” five dollars for their productive efforts. The money is said to come from the sale of Sweet “O” Donuts products. Yet the owner of the company is never identified. Nor is profit – or more importantly the source of profit – ever mentioned. It is as if all the money generated by the sale of the commodities is distributed equally among the students. On the contrary, under capitalism the value added by labor is realized as profit in the market and banked by the capitalist, as I demonstrated above. The wages are advanced along with the costs of capital, i.e. materials, machines, etc., all of which were, crucially, produced by previous labor while capitalists profited at every stage.

A realistic and therefore more useful classroom exercise would have the Junior Achievement facilitator/volunteer posing as the capitalist sitting at a table with a large pile of the play money giving orders while the students posing as workers receive but a fraction of the income generated by their labor in exchange for making more donuts. It would be explained to them that they have to sell their labor (i.e. rent themselves) to the Junior Achievement facilitator because they do not themselves collectively own the means of production. It would be explained that the capitalist not only lives off their work, but lives in a much bigger house, eats more nutritious food, wears nicer clothes, receives better health care, and has more leisure time because of the work the students/workers are performing. A classroom could do a similar demonstration of slavery in order to drive home the point of the immorality of such systems.

Of course I recognize that, while it is permissible to condemn slavery in contemporary U.S. society, it is not permissible to make the same condemnation about capitalism. At the same, it wasn’t permissible to make that point about slavery back in the days when slavery prevailed. Indeed, back then, a lot of people didn’t see the problem of slavery at all.  They were taught in school that it was an appropriate way to make money.

The exercise I have been detailing could be combined with the assembly-line production lesson to show how capitalists drive other (smaller) capitalists out of business, displace workers through rationalization, and accumulate every larger piles of money, while the students continue working or work not at all, as many will have lost their jobs. Then some of the students assigned to be government workers, which are in the Junior Achievement materials (see “The Role of Government”) portrayed as police officers (whose real world function is to maintain the unjust status quo in property relations, a role that is never explored in the lesson) could pretend to be welfare case workers who will manage the poor and unemployed students – that is, the victims of the actual process of capitalism. I imagine that parents of students of Aldo Leopold would be represented by this exercise. Are not the poor and unemployed members of the community, disproportionately minority and female, important enough to be represented in these exercises? Shouldn’t the link be made between wealth and poverty? After all, we can’t all be wealthy in a capitalist society. In fact, most of us can’t be. The inherent logic of capitalist production precludes it. A simple classroom exercise illustrating this could be derived from Jeffery Reiman’s classic The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison.

Another example of the function of the curriculum to obscure reality is found in the lesson on money, “Money Moves.” The children are instructed to sit in a circle and pass a quarter to each other, each spending it to buy something they need to keep business or other activity going. This is supposed to demonstrate the circulation of money. But this is not what happens in a capitalist economy. Under capitalism, money is invested and commodities are sold for more money than the initial investment. What is being described in the exercise is simple commodity circulation (and even here is a mystifying oversimplification), something that happens in pre-capitalist societies where money is merely a symbolic unit of exchange. In fact, make the transfer of stuff in the example direct without money and you have a barter system. Capitalism is impossible under the model the students are demonstrating here. It manufactures the illusion that nobody is benefiting at anybody else’s expense. It avoids having to explain the source of profit.

Now, if the objection be made that what I have written is over the heads of students, I would counter that it is easy enough to create simple models simulating the real world experience of capitalism (I suggested two). In fact, simply setting up a simulation where the Junior Achievement facilitator ends up with a big pile of money at the end of exercise, while students get far less money and are dispossessed and displaced by efficiency regimes, and then asking students if they think that is fair should suffice to make the point. If not, drawing an analogy to slavery would. Despite how odd it sounds to hear such an analogy, it is true that, while capitalism is a different mode of exploitation, capitalism is still an exploitative system, and in fact operates on the same profit-making principle as did chattel slavery in the antebellum southern United States.

To be sure, teaching an alternative curriculum would be a subversive and democratic act that would likely bring an outcry from the business community who would besiege the school board with complaints, organize astroturf letter writing campaigns to smear the teachers, and marshal the power of the corporate media to make public education look anti-business. This despite the fact that it would be to the benefit of nearly every family associated with Aldo Leopold. Then why is it to be accepted as normal and unproblematic for Junior Achievement’s “Our Community” to be taught in schools? Herein resides the tacit and undeserved legitimacy of the corporate capitalist worldview over against the interests of the majority, namely the working class. As one of the most influential of all social scientists once observed, “The ruling ideas of any age are the ideas of the ruling class.”

Which brings me to my final point: if you feel you can’t allow teachers and students to speak truth to power at [the school in question], then why allow any economic agenda into the classroom? If the other side is too complicated, too troubling, then why permit propagandists to confuse children about the world they live in? When you think about it, given its detachment from the operation of the real world, “Our Community” possesses a religious quality. Junior Achievement is dogma, not enlightenment. It takes capitalism and elevates it to a virtue and then systematically masks the history and reality of the system in order to brainwash children into accepting a system that exploits them and destroys the environment. As such, it is out of place in a public educational setting and, really, not befitting a democratic society.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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