The Summer Camp That Made Me a Commie
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.