The Economic Education of a Neo-Liberal

Curator's Note

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.



There are two elements of Reagan’s discussion of socialized medicine that I find fascinating. The first is the opening rhetorical gambit that attempts to remove the debate about health care from any humanitarian or “emotional” context and to reframe it in terms of a “rational” free enterprise system.  My second point is about “rationality” as well, I suppose.  In free enterprise economic education films, I always look forward to the moment when the argument devolves into anti-government hysteria.  In this scenario, once the government establishes a doctor’s roster of patients then they will decide where the doctor can practice, and it’s just a short step from there to determining his pay.  Finally, and as a result of this trajectory of government interference, your child won’t be able decide where to go to school or what career to pursue.  Reagan’s discussion seems to assume a general audience, but it is actually targeted to wives and mothers;  conservative economic education films frequently and masterfully invoke such a disintegration of the family.


Actually, this was a vinyl record (see jacket used as graphic) which was mailed out to AMA members (doctors, etc.).  One can almost imagine it as a script for talking points to patients, wives, mothers, etc.  Which is something I think is often missed about these very broad, propagandistic media objects.  Their audience is often 'opinion leaders' who may or may not believe the stories at face value as much as they understand them to be useful narratives to circulate.  It is striking how quickly the story moves from 'rational' free enterprise to empathy leading us down a road to an all out authoritarian state.  This 'rational' business was something which took me a while to understand when talking to my documentary subject, the great Industrial filmmaker, Henry Strauss.  He often explains how he was opposed to 'rational' arguments in favor of emotional ones.  This confused me at first.  I finally understood that he was critiquing these economic arguments which framed themselves as 'rational' while they often argued against basic human rights, and empathy. It is unfortunate that Henry's Power of a Pot Roast is not online, as of yet.  It is a pretty wonderful refutation of Reagan's anti-'gub'ment' paranoia.  Made the same year, it shows how a man who was laid-off from his job at the plant is still able to participate in the economy because of his unemployment check, while explaining how during the Great Depression we learned the value of investing in workers when the economy slowed down .  Still relevant today. 

What is particularly striking about Reagan's rhetoric is that it is part of a continual recycling of a false choice argument used by pro-business advocates during times when the state seeks to protect individuals.  Either support free enterprise against state intrusions into the private sphere (e.g., regulations, protections, social welfare initiatives) or face a creeping socialism that will result in the state eventually telling you how to run your lives.

This kind of rhetoric was well apparent before WWII and before the rise of a widespread Red Scare mentality.  It presupposes that Americans see personal liberty and a government that acts to support social goods as normally at odds.  In that sense, pro-business rhetoric (especially today) works to convince Americans to see any attempts at government activism as a part of zero-sum equation: the more goverment does things, the more your personal liberties are at risk.  Hence, the rise of the tea parties today, which is but another indicator of how corporate interests can successfully shift attention away from systemic problems of a too-often enmeshed goverment/capitalist appartus toward a call to "defend our rights against socialists." It's all been done before. And it is still around. Why? Because, for a significant sector of the public, it resonates.

Reagan's fear of government "ownership" of business (where did that number come from? Of course it's not cited) didn't extend to the tax dollars being spent on military-related industry, or the hidden subsidies of agribusiness, oil and others that were beginning in that same time period. That of course isn't surprising. Companies like his corporate sponsor GE were even then taking large contracts from the Federal and state governments. That relationship has only expanded in the past 30 years since his presidency.

Kevin Phillips' Wealth and Democracy exhaustively documents the relationship between government spending and the initial and continuing rise of wealth in the private sector. He also notes how that wealth, particularly before income tax was enacted, enabled enormous political power to be concentrated in the hands of a financial elite.  Reagan's front man role for those oligarchic interests was the return and continuing triumph of the same forces braked but not broken by first Theodore then later Franklin Roosevelt. 

The fact that the financial interests that control today's media environment continue to shape and promote the "free market" mythology extolled by Reagan makes it even easier to reenforce that myth. As Goldman Sachs has demonstrated, a "free" market, like a "free" press, is great if you own it.

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