Pinewood Derby and the Future of Capitalism

We have been working on Pinewood Derby cars for Cub Scouts.  My own Cub Scout has been bugging me about every 5 minutes for the past month to work on his car.  It is, fortunately, mostly done now.  My son can be very intense.

Tears are a possibility.

A few years ago another son was in the Pinewood Derby.  There is no heritage of Pinewood Derby excellence in my family.  However, that year I think we actually had the fastest car in the Pack.  I say “I think” because the powers that be decided it would be better if they didn’t actually designate a winner; instead every boy got some kind of award.  Since no one in my family ever wins these kind of things , I was a little frustrated, as was my son.  But we were good sports and went along.

I am of two minds about this Everyone is a Winner approach.  On one hand, I want to shield my children as long as possible from the “agony of defeat,” which is relatively inevitable when their father has the car-building skills that I do.  Childhood is something precious that should be protected vigilantly.  They will have plenty of time to learn about the disappointments and ugliness of the adult world.

My other mind wonders that maybe kids need to have defeat along with encouragement, rather than being always told how special they are.  Some people think the sooner they get tough and recognize that the world rewards winners, the sooner they will understand the importance of doing their best and learning to deal with setbacks and disappointment.

I also wonder about the social implications of Everyone is a Winner approach.  The American work ethic has been essential to economic prosperity in the United States and elsewhere.  We work far more hours per year than our counterparts in Europe, for instance.   When kids grow up playing games where everyone wins, are we breeding this essential capitalistic spirit?  (T-ball games where the referees don’t even call outs on the rare occasions that kids are actually able to generate one are another example.)

I read a lot in the press about the current generation of young adults who want interesting, satisfying careers without “putting in their dues.”  Most careers have traditionally required grunt work, which lets young workers show their commitment and work ethic to elder superiors who then reward that ethic with more responsibility.  Sure, everyone would like an intellectually stimulating career from the outset, but the fact remains that most of the essential work that drives our economy is not that interesting—even in the jobs that require college degrees.  Are young people able to work patiently their way up the totem pole and do the hard things that are poorly rewarded in the short run but pay off in the long run? Are they willing to spend some time on the bottom, or do they want to “win” right off the bat, like the always did growing up?

On the other hand, people are much less likely than in decades past to work for the same company, or even in the same career, for long periods of time.  Putting in the grunt work is no guarantee the economy won’t leave you behind as technology changes.  What does accommodating a changing economic climate require?  It seems to me that experience in losing and moving on to the next challenge would be beneficial.

Several years ago I read Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  At the time I thought it was one of the silliest things I’d ever read.  A colleague told me that was usual—economists hate Weber, but sociologists love him.  I’d have to look at that text again to see if I’ve changed my mind, but I have become convinced that there are powerful cultural underpinnings to the capitalistic spirit, and I wonder how our society is doing keeping that spirit alive.  This short essay has been full of clichés (and there have been more that I mercifully deleted), but I think that those clichés might be some of the most important drivers of our economic engine.  I hope they are still alive in the minds of our kids and young adults.

13 thoughts on “Pinewood Derby and the Future of Capitalism

  1. Very excited by the possibility that a work like Weber’s is starting to occupy your mind! That particular book has many problems, but the basic theoretical outlook on culture is an important one to consider (especially for economists and institutionalists in political science)!

  2. BTW, let me toot my Dad’s horn – I (because of his building expertise) won the Pinewood Derby for my pack and nearly won the regionals. My brother did well in both too.

    Here is a tip Sven – use graphite on the axels and make sure to carefully place where you put the extra weight (and ideally, pour it as a liquid, don’t just add screws and such, esp since it will create less drag). Also avoid any and all displays of aesthetics — go for pure aerodynamics.

  3. I lost both the Pinewood Derby and Space Derby as a kid, largely due to my dad (but in all honesty, if I would have won, it would have been because of him too).

    My dad is a Cub Master now and he gives a mix of the “everybody wins” strategy. They keep a bracket and declare a first, second, and third place winner, but additionally they hand out awards for other categories such as “Most Creative Car” or “Most Original”, etc. Essentially it creates an incentive to specialize. For example, I may not be able to make the fastest car, but I might have an artistic eye that knows how to make an eye-catching car. Then in subsequent years they learn about trade-offs: Do I add that extra flare to try and win the creative car, or do I leave it off in the hope that I’ll have the fastest?

    1. Yes, I like this mixed strategy as well. I’m all for helping the boys feel good. But since people do have an idea of what the fastest cars are, it doesn’t make sense to pretend that the differences in speed don’t exist.

      1. Like you said about having an idea of who has the fastest car, dismissing an objective winner really communicates a strange message. “Work hard so you can be the outright winner, but no one will say who that winner is.”

        In subjective cases – like most creative car – it’s a lot easier to tell everyone, “You all had creative cars” because each scout can look at his own and say it’s creative, but then look at his neighbor’s and see that he invested some creativity as well. But when a scout hears, “You all had fast cars” he can look at his neighbor and say “No, I beat him!”

  4. Yes, I wonder how much the egalitarian impulse can do. No matter how much we tell people they are above average, most folks aren’t so dumb as to not recognize who are the “most equal”! And kids pick up on this quickly.

  5. I had a different experience with Pinewood Derby as a kid. We ran a single elimination bracket, so there was one winner and N-1 (ultimate) losers. And after you lost to the kid whose father had spent more time on his car, you got to watch everyone else race. Since winning was correlated with how much time and money your Dad spent on your car and my father (rightly) insisted I do my own work, I learned that Pinewood Derby was a waste of my time and never participated again.

    If I were organizing a PD, I’d time everybody and keep track of the times. I’d post the times (including historical times) as we go and let the kids race who they want and as often as they want. This gives lots of opportunities for racing, multiple ways to win (beating someones previous time and head-to-head victories), and, therefore, incentive to invest your effort. And to your broader point, this is a lot more like effort and reward are structured in the business world.

  6. I wonder how much pinewood derby results are luck and how much really is the car? The lane of the track probably makes a big difference. If you’re lucky enough to get straight nails for the axles….
    Can you do an analysis like you did for the bobsled on pinewood derby?

  7. You should pick up “The Hacker Ethic.” One point in that book is that Americans culture no longer accommodates the hobbiest. It’s not OK anymore to just ride a bike for fun, or golf twice a year. If we do something, we have to go all-out. Pinewood Derbies are a case-in-point.

    Perhaps this lack of fulfillment in doing something just for fun leads youth to seek fulfillment in their employment (much like the late 20th-century Japanese culture). This would push them away from tedious labor even if its the only thing available.

  8. Sven, there are markets in everything, including pinewood derby parts. You can purchase sets of “speed axels” and “ultra light matched wheels” online at places like this: I learned this from a father whose cars always won. note that I say it was the father’s cars that always won. If i were running a PD I would have a stock and a pro division with no age limit in the pro division.

    1. Yes, but the car might be disqualified (depending on the local interpretation of the rules on whether you can use parts from external sources).

      Also, at least in my Pack, the small group norms would kick in and there would be a lot of shame for caring so much about winning that I would order special parts or deviate from the norm somehow. If the Pack were larger and I wasn’t connected socially in other ways to the other families, there might be an bigger incentive to use special “tricks.”

      BTW, I think that how the wheels are set is the key (which is why the special axels, instead of wheels, would be effective). I’ve also heard that lengthening the wheel base increases stability of the car, and anyone who has watched a race knows that stability is key. I think aerodynamics are far over-rated.

  9. When everyone is special, no one is. A paraphrase from The Incredibles, as below.

    Helen: Dash… this is the third time this year you’ve been sent to the office. We need to find a better outlet. A more… constructive outlet.
    Dash: Maybe I could, if you’d let me go out for sports.
    Helen: Honey, you know why we can’t do that.
    Dash: But I promise I’ll slow up. I’ll only be the best by a tiny bit.
    Dash: Dashiell Robert Parr, you are an incredibly competitive boy, and a bit of a show-off. The last thing you need is temptation.
    Dash: You always say ‘Do your best’, but you don’t really mean it. Why can’t I do the best that I can do?
    Helen: Right now, honey, the world just wants us to fit in, and to fit in, we gotta be like everyone else.
    Dash: But Dad always said our powers were nothing to be ashamed of, our powers made us special.
    Helen: Everyone’s special, Dash.
    Dash: [muttering] Which is another way of saying no one is.

  10. There is a lot goes into making a fast Pinewood Derby car. You are correct… and extended wheelbase is very important. A good set of polished axles are key. Polished wheel bores are important. Low profile cars are generally faster so aerodynamics does play a small role in building a fast car. Center of gravity is also very important. Placing the weight toward the back of the car is key. The balance point of the car should be about one inch in fron of the rear axle. Proper alignment is extremely important. You can find a lot of good free tips and techniques at

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