Tuesday, August 11, 2009


I did hit myself; I'm not sure why, because business is seldom really a friend of capitalism. But leave it to a Chamber of Commerce to test-market it:
To combat what it views as rapid government growth and attacks on business, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is launching a multiyear campaign to remind Americans of the virtues of a free market and free trade. But don't expect the campaign, which could cost as much as $100 million, to praise "capitalism" or "risk taking." Or to criticize "protectionism."

It's not that the Chamber, which represents 3 million organizations, has gone squishy on its core values. The group just wants its message to resonate with the public. And reactions to these terms by focus groups in Jacksonville, Fla., and Philadelphia suggest it would be best to omit them. " 'Capitalism' was universally problematic," says Chamber spokeswoman Tita Freeman. Adds Rich Thau, president of New York-based Presentation Testing, which ran the focus groups: "There were those who associated 'capitalism' with greed and with the powerful dominating the vulnerable." But those negatives, he says, didn't apply at all to "free enterprise." (For now, the Chamber's multimedia offensive, which starts officially in October, is called the Campaign for Free Enterprise.)

As for "risk-taking," which has been promoted in the Chamber's press materials, "it was at the bottom of the pile," says Freeman. "We found the average American doesn't like the idea of businesses taking risks. They think of a casino and someone throwing the dice." And "protectionism," which the Chamber opposes? In an earlier round of tests, people approvingly linked the word with a general sense of being "protected," says Thomas Donohue, the Chamber's president and CEO.
I am newly minted as a director for a center for economic education. Making people more literate about economics -- and my desire is to make ADULTS more literate, as much as we concentrate on children -- would in my mind getting attitudes about protection, risk-taking and capitalism to be more complex, more nuanced. Why aren't they? I have found myself going back to basics: What is the economic attitude of a primitive? If someone had no education at all, what would be their attitudes towards truck, barter, and exchange? Would they, for example, consider all trade to be zero-sum? I'm pretty sure that answer is yes; that suggests a place where you focus your education efforts. I am working on a longer article about this point right now and looking for other attitudes of primitives.

Mr. Donohue and the Chamber put money into economic education of children, and yet they face these attitudes that makes them try to modify their message. I don't know what they expect of their investments in econ ed to return, but if you have to hide your free trade principles you have to think you didn't get all you hoped for.

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