We’ll Never Recover Fully Until All Americans Understand Capitalism

The veil has been lifted, and it’s time. There is much to applaud in President Biden’s plan to get the country back up and running. The amount of “investment” (yes, also just known as “spending,” depending on which side of the aisle you sit) is the hot sticking point, but, if the president gets what he wants, trillions are about to flood into the U.S. economy to get the engine roaring again.

While I am thrilled that he is in office, as opposed to the former guy, the conversation around the recovery is still distinctly from a pre-COVID point-of-view. We are trying to get “back” to something that is gone.

The pre-COVID mindset says this: we should talk about the economy as businesses and workers, producers and consumers, the board room and the union; we should argue about the minimum wage, try to reach a compromise about $15 or $12; we should complain about homelessness and how inconvenient and unseemly it is; we should spend months debating the finer points of taxation law, unemployment payments, and the jobs report. Graphs. Charts. More graphs. More charts. We should debate, then go on summer recess to the Hamptons. I’m not an economist, but I am a citizen watching my nation fight for its life. All would be (somewhat) valid conversations had the last 14 months never happened.

But they did. They opened our eyes to the devastating pain millions of small businesses shuttering across the country. They made clear what a house-of-cards the U.S. economy really is, and the ease with which we are willing to wait months — leisurely, arrogantly — to send recovery checks to struggling families. They revealed startling and disturbing facts about how our system works, like the one that broke my heart in two last year when I learned it: should our schools not re-open, 22 million kids would not have food for the day. We cannot unsee what we have seen with our own eyes. And we cannot unlearn what the pandemic has taught us. If The Great Pause woke us up, we cannot go back to sleep. It wasn’t working.

By contrast, the post-COVID mindset says this: everyone must thrive in our system. Everyone. We must teach all Americans how capitalism really works. We all know “The Big Lie.” Here is the Big Assumption: Americans understand capitalism. The vast majority do not. I am the child of the working class. I can assure you this: we are the greatest capitalist society in the history of the mankind, but the average American doesn’t know much more about our system than how to file their taxes, how to open a checking account, and how to bitch about it all on Facebook.

We have a moral responsibility to show our own people how the system functions. To give them an instruction manual. And we now have an economic imperative. We cannot recover fully without a bold new way to think about our economy and brave new action from millions of Americans who want to chart a new course in this post-COVID world.

We must invest in the education of capitalism. We must teach our population about economics, finance, tech, and business. Let’s stop arguing over whether the government should pay for 14 years of education or 12. What is being taught is more important than for how long students are in school. We must teach students how to make money, not only so they can actively participate in the country’s success but so they can pay back their ridiculous student loans without us all arguing about forgiving them.

I was an English major in college. I loved studying language, literature, and theater. I never imagined I would ever type the words, “we must teach economics.” But as a 43-year-old man, the son of a bus driver, the grandson of an Italian immigrant, I have spent 25 years since high school falling on my face trying to make money. I have had to learn the ins-and-outs of capitalism through very painful trial-and-error. Lessons about money — and how to make it — are not handed down through the generations. At least not for those of us not “from money.” How can you teach your children something you yourself don’t know, haven’t experienced, and don’t understand?

Let’s stop dividing our students into right-brained and left-brained. Teach everyone how the economy works. We must share the secrets of success that are hoarded at the top, in business schools and among the elite. Teach venture capital. Teach law. Teach real estate. Teach tax. Teach investing. Teach accounting. We must empower those in the working class and middle class to break free of the bullshit beliefs that they have about money — beliefs like “money is the root of all evil” and “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” — so that they can truly prosper in a modern America that is fast, automated, and wildly imbalanced.

This means unmasking the mysterious credit-reporting system and re-writing the algorithm so that it empowers people instead of shames them and holds them back. It means investment in business and finance coaching and boot camps for the masses; easier and de-stigmatized access to mental health professionals and life coaches; and standard and compulsory classes and trainings in finance and tech. It means free wifi everywhere and laptops for everyone, instead of the government-issued dinosaur desktops at the nation’s libraries. To hell with becoming an Amazon driver. Or begging for $15/hour. We must empower people to start their own business. To open a store. And how to scale it. To create their dreams now. With funding for small businesses that is not only meant to save businesses but to start new ones, take risks, and break out of the old paradigms.

The post-COVID mindset also begs us to teach our own citizens how democracy works. We must teach civics in a robust way, in our schools, in our communities, in our social circles. When only 36% of Americans can pass a U.S. citizenship test, we have a problem on our hands that no amount of spending can fix. We can grab our popcorn and watch the Republican Party implode, but we have to face the fact that Donald Trump was the symptom not the problem. The problem is that if most Americans don’t understand how democracy itself is meant to properly function, they will shrug their shoulders at horrors like the January 6 Capitol Riot.

Masks are off. The “Building Back Better” is underway. The opportunity ahead of us is great. So is the risk. If Americans do not understand how capitalism works, they cannot succeed in it. And they will call for socialism. The divide will get greater and we will have a country constantly teetering on economic collapse. The same is true for democracy. If Americans do not understand how it works, they cannot enjoy its benefits. And they will allow — even crave — authoritarian rule, as well as the return of Donald Trump and his brand of modern despotism. If we do not teach our citizens the benefits of their own systems — and ensure that everyone participating is actually benefitting — they will tear them down instead of making them better. As we move forward in our national conversation, let us all press our government, our media, and each other to find solutions from our new post-COVID perspective.

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