The Economic Education of a Neo-Liberal
by Heide Solbrig — Bentley University
April 19, 2010 – 00:43
The term "economic education" usually refers to films, management programs, flyers, pamphlets, and training systems produced in the post-war period by corporations trying to sell the American public on free market capitalism. The U.S. public had become sympathetic to both unions and the welfare state during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, and “Keynsian,” consumption-driven economics had become a presumed standard for post-war economic policy.1 Economic education’s early films – such as It’s Everybody’s Business (1954)– were implicitly and explicitly anti-union or red-baiting, featuring animated sequences, lectures, or pedagogical narratives about, for example, the “god-given benefits of laissez-faire capitalism.” Although characterized by naïve storylines, industrial economic education films used sophisticated closed media systems, and were screened as part of live managerial performances, direct salesmanship and interpersonal training, as well as theatrically.
GE’s vice president of employee relations, the infamous union-buster Lemuel Boulware, was deeply committed to developing economic education programs along these lines. Boulware’s programs responded to liberal and progressive union films of the era, such as The Great Swindle (1948) or later Henry Strauss’ defense of unemployment insurance, Power of a Pot Roast (1963). Boulware also served as mentor to Ronald Reagan, and is credited with the latter’s conversion to conservatism circa 1954 to 1962. Reagan’s years as corporate booster included both CBS’s GE Theater and speeches to line workers. Thomas Evans credits Reagan’s later economic policies to training material gleaned from the GE education programs.2
It is telling that in a new era of red-baiting and economic scare tactics that Reagan’s 1963 anti-healthcare diatribe has found new popularity on YouTube. The distribution of Reagan-optics via YouTube well suits contemporary corporate education’s move from captive employee to educational broadcast for targeted publics; The tradition of Economic Education re-emerges in the new context of “viral” media trends; the last few years have seen new forms of economic education media, corporate and counter-hegemonic, which both reinforce and dispute neoliberal stories of capitalism. A review of counter-hegemonic economic narratives, from Jon Stewart’s attack on Jim Kramer to the WGA strikers’ analysis of residuals or the many animations of sub-prime derivatives found on YouTube, highlights while contradicting the last 60 years of economic storytelling which seeks to influence our beliefs as well as our behavior around markets.