U.S. Intellectual History Blog

When life gives you lemons you do NOT need to make lemonade

I want to address a topic that only the guy to the left apparently understands. At a time when the American economy has produced unacceptable unemployment, when workers who have jobs are underpaid and have no medical benefits, when the hard won ability to bargain collectively has come undone intellectually as well as politically, it is time to offer the future leaders of this nation a choice: on May 1, 2011, our children can reflect on the trials and tribulations of those who labor for a living, or they can sell lemonade. In the future, perhaps this question will become a litmus test similar to positions staked by past generations on suffrage, slavery, and war.

Though, I hope not.

Okay, perhaps my cynicism has made me a bit delusional, but I noticed that there is a national movement to celebrate Lemonade Day every year in May–not on Memorial Day, mind you, but on May 1, which I believe continues to be International Workers’ Day for many countries around the world. So why draft yet another celebration day for an already cluttered American calendar? And why put on (or very close to) May 1?

Lemonade Day celebrates entrepreneurship, which in the political lexicon of our contemporary moment could credibly be considered the ideological opposite of a day that celebrates labor. On the website created to promote Lemonade Day, the organizers explain that they want communities–meaning families, businesses and schools–to help create the next generation of entrepreneurs. Accordingly, “Kids plan for success by setting goals, creating budgets, securing investors, selecting a site, purchasing supplies, serving customers, making a profit, repaying investors and giving back to the community. This fun, free and exciting program encourages participants to ‘save a little, spend a little, share a little,’ instilling valuable principles that will help prepare them for life.” And after all, we know that managerial values form organically and are unimpeachable. Parents and schools can simply feed kids these “principles” without a shred of ambiguity and conflict. And God blesses America, too.

The creative genius behind this movement is Michael Holthouse, a Houston-based businessman who made a fortune in the telecommunication business and now operates or contributes to a series of non-profits that seek to rescue at-risk kids by offering them the holy grail the American life–the business plan. In a powerpoint presentation promoting Holthouse’s approach, he frames the imperative for our time as a choice between a future of gang-bangers or happy little girls with a lemonade stand that basks in sunny racial harmony. But clearly Holthouse does not imagine he is merely a social reformer–he is no Rauschenbusch–rather he pushes the American Dream, that ubiquitous ideal open to all but clearly only achieved by the kind of success enjoyed by Holthouse.

In a era during in which the idea of labor seems exiled to some Manichean universe, despite the ravages of unemployment, and murals of workers painted by a patriotic American (and daughter of a war veteran, to boot) are being taken down in Maine, the rise of lemonade stands on May 1, 2011 might appear as one of those signposts in a new age of fracture.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I wonder how the kids will react when, in free market fashion—with little coordination/regulation, 15 of them set up stands on the same block. As result, a dozen will have to close their stands mid-day due to the lack of business. The three remaining kiddos, however, will later be discovered to have benefited from parental behind-the-scenes jiggering (e.g. parents acting as promoters and extra money for advertising). So much for the clarity of entrepreneurship and the rewards of risk-taking. – TL

  2. Not to worry. Between HOA regulations, city permits, and health department requirements, I’m sure the regulatory apparatus of Big Government can nip these entrepreneurial dreams right in the bud.

  3. A major US event took place on this day (the Haymarket Massacre– Chicago, May 1 1886), but so few Americans even know what this refers to! Thanks for this post!

  4. Oh Mr. Cynical — sounds like lemonade isn’t your cup of tea; nor is entrepreneurship. That’s ok, but let’s make sure we aren’t overlooking a few things:

    1) Lemonade Day isn’t just about sitting in your front yard peddling lemonade. If that were the case, why would this program be so successful? Why would it grow exponentially in just 4 years to now include 150,000 kids in 31 cities? This is about empowering youth to be self-sustaining adults — the wsj covered one of those stories [Meadow]: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704662604576202473412495838.html

    2) Re: “Parents and schools can simply feed kids these ‘principles’ without a shred of ambiguity and conflict.”
    HELLLLOOOOO, that’s the problem. Feeding kids these principles in textbooks and tests ISN’T working. I AGREE! Kids have to DO. And when they come across obstacles and conflict – they decide to continue on – or not. They have to learn supply and demand and site selection; choosing to do it on your block or at a popular park is just like opening a coffee shop next door to a Starbuck’s. You better have a better advertising plan or product that anyone else.

    And I’ll end on this, granted Mr. Holthouse’s pictures and presos may seem a bit dramatic to you, but it’s because we witness firsthand how this program changes lives – how a girl who has lived in abject poverty her entire life with both parents in jail, failing school, finds the self-esteem needed to change the entire course of her life in just hours. True story.

    As for the American Dream being achievable only to “those like Mr. Holthouse” … I’ll play naive optimism to your cynicism and I challenge you Mr. Haberski – to take the simple lessons found in Lemonade Day and apply them to your life.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts – positive or negative on our little program with big dreams.

    OH! The date issue [sorry] … it’s always the first Sunday in May but some cities choose to do it on a different date. Colder places like Maine, for example, are in June. But if you’ve never been to Houston [where the program began] in June, let me tell you, it’s hotter than Hades!

    Thanks, again!

  5. Interesting that Mandy doesn’t actually provide any statistics about the program’s impact, just its size (remember: the plural of anecdote is not data…true story!). Nor does she address the very apt comparison that Ray makes: why should we celebrate entrepreneurship rather than work itself. Finally, point #2 above is a great application of the TINA principle. Ray raises the possibility that perhaps the ideas promoted by Lemonade Day shouldn’t be taught uncritically; Mandy’s response is that action is important, too!

    Criticism is not necessarily cynicism. And, personally, I think a refusal to respond to criticism in a “response” is a lot more cynical than Ray’s post.

  6. Ben, at just 5 years old, we have don’t have statistics yet on the long-term impact of Lemonade Day on youth. Here are some #’s for your data:
    In Houston, TX last year 37,000 participating youth raised $4.2 million and donated $1 million to charities of their choice.

    There is no way to address the “celebration” on May 1 comment. It was not a day created as a celebration, but, rather a program to teach children how to be entrepreneurs.

    As far as cynicism, I was only referring to Ray’s own comments in his opening paragraph. I’m all for criticism … after all, I could have just ignored this post and never joined in the discussion.


  7. Fair enough, Mandy. And I do appreciate your dropping by and joining in.

    One of the things lurking behind this discussion (at least for me) is a concern that the growing income and wealth inequality in this country has been accompanied by a sharp reduction in social mobility. Even The Economist has expressed concerns about this.

    When the problem is that the system is structured to produce many fewer “winners” than in the past, teaching kids how to win misses the point…and may in fact raise false hopes.

  8. Thanks to all who have responded to and read the post. I will emphasize the main point I sought to make: the business model is not a set of principles but a strategy for making profit. I would simply ask that the American Dream be imagined as something beyond the profit motive. This blog takes stock of the ideas that comprise broad movements, and it seems to me that conflating a business model into something approaching a moral standard does a disservice to the grander vision LD seeks to promote.

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