We are shocked when violence erupts in schoolyards or when a six-year-old child kills another in cold blood. But the headlines, which sensationalize such tragedies, reveal only the tip of what appears to be a larger problem that, given our present priorities, will only intensify. Youthful violence is symptomatic of something much bigger evident in diffuse anger, despair, apathy, the erosion of ideals, and rising level of teen suicide (up three-fold since 1960). Nationwide, 17 percent of children are on Ritalin, a central nervous system stimulant. Adults often respond with rejection and hostility, making a bad problem worse. We hire more psychologists and sociologists to study our children and more counselors to advise them about issues such as "anger management." As a result there are libraries of information about childhood, child psychology, child health, child nutrition, child behavior, and dysfunctional families, much of it quite beside the point. Then in desperation we hire more police to lock children up. We are crossing into a new pattern of relations between the generations, and much depends on how well we understand what is happening, why it is happening, and what is to be done about it.
The deeper causes of this situation are not apparent in the daily headlines and news reports. Dysfunctional families, depression, youthful violence, and the rising use of chemicals to sedate children are symptoms of something larger. Without anyone saying as much and without anyone intending to do so, we have unwittingly begun to undermine the prospects of our children and, at some level, I believe that they know it. This essay is a meditation on the larger patterns of our time and their effects on children. My argument is that the normal difficulties of growing up are compounded, directly and indirectly, by the reigning set of assumptions, philosophies, ideologies, and even mythologies by which we organize our affairs and conduct the business of society—what was once called "political economy." The study of political economy began with Adam Smith and continued on through Marx to the present in the work of scholars such as Yale University political scientist Charles Lindblom. Due to academic specialization and diminished public involvement in politics and community life, the field has declined. As a result, we have increasing difficulty in discerning larger social, economic, and political causes of our problems and doing something constructive about them. This essay is an attempt, in effect, to connect the dots describing those larger patterns. The first section below reviews evidence about the intersection of childhood and political economy from many different perspectives. The second section is a more explicit rendering of the political economy of contemporary global capitalism. The third and final section sketches some of the alternative political and economic arrangements necessary to honor our children and protect future generations.
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