Economy, part 2

Following up on yesterday’s post about “the economy,” and at the risk of being (even more) tedious, here’s one of my very favorite passages from Wendell Berry. It is taken from his 1971 essay “Discipline and Hope.”  It will resonate with many of us.

Mr. Berry:

Though I can see no way to defend the economy, I recognize the need to be concerned about the suffering that would be produced by its failure.  But I ask if it is necessary for it to fail in order for it to change; I am assuming that if it does not change it must sooner or later fail, and that a great deal that is more valuable will fail with it.  As a deity the economy is a sort of egotistical French monarch, for it can apparently see no alternative to itself except chaos, and perhaps that is its chief weakness.  For, of course, chaos is not the only alternative to it.  A better alternative is a better economy.    But we will not conceive the possibility of a better economy, and therefore will not begin to change, until we quit deifying the present one.

A better economy, to my way of thinking, would be one that would place its emphasis not upon the quantity of notions and luxuries, but upon the quality of necessities.  Such an economy would for example, produce an automobile that would last at least as long, and be at least as easy to maintain, as a horse.  It would encourage workmanship to be as durable as its materials; thus a piece of furniture would have the durability not of glue, but of wood.  It would substitute for the pleasure of frivolity a pleasure in the high quality of essential work, in the use of good tools, in a healthful and productive countryside.  It will encourage a migration from the cities back to the farms, to assure a work force that would be sufficient, not only to production of the necessary quantities of food, but to production of food of the best quality and to the maintenance of the land at the highest fertility–work that would require a great deal more personal attention and care and hand labor than the present technological agriculture that is focused so exclusively on production.  Such a change in the economy would not involve large-scale unemployment, but rather large-scale changes and shifts of employment.

“You are tilting at windmills,” I will be told.  “It is a hard world, hostile to the values that you stand for.  You will never enlist enough people to bring about such a change.”  People who talk that way are eager to despair, knowing how easy despair is.  The change I am talking about appeals to me precisely because it need not wait upon “other people.”  Anybody who wants to do so can begin it in himself and in his household as soon as he is ready–by becoming answerable to at least some of his own needs, by acquiring skills and tools, by learning what his real needs are, by refusing the glamorous and the frivolous.  When a person learns to act on his best hopes he enfranchises and validates them as no government or public policy ever will.  And by his action the possibility that other people will do the same is made a likelihood.

But I must concede that there is also a sense in which I am tilting at windmills.  While we have been preoccupied by various ideological menaces, we have been invaded and nearly overrun by windmills.  They are drawing the nourishment from our soil and the lifeblood out of our veins.  Let us tilt against the windmills.  Though we have not conquered them, if we do not keep going at them they will surely conquer us.


What should a sensible economy look like?

In such a system, it seems to me, people would produce as much of their own goods and food as reasonably possible, exchanging their labor for money to buy the other things they need. They would buy only what they need to live a simple, comfortable, happy life, neither denying themselves the things necessary to make life pleasant, nor hoarding or spending frivolously. They would buy from their neighbors wherever possible, in order to both assure the quality of the goods and to support their community. Any surplus (whether of money or goods) would be set aside, saved for a rainy day or for those things that a single year’s surplus won’t buy. When a neighbor was in need, they would lend a hand, comfortable in the knowledge that if they themselves should ever need help their neighbors would cheerfully provide it. Among the virtuous at least, none would be poor or extravagantly wealthy.

Well that may seem like a sensible way to live, but in the world we inhabit it’s crazy talk. If people started behaving that way the entire house of cards that is our economic system would collapse.

What we call the “economy” is a perversion of the word itself, a mockery of it. The system doesn’t depend upon thrift, frugality, prudence or a careful management of limited resources. Rather it is predicated upon the fantasy that resources and wealth are unlimited. Participants in this false economy are “consumers.” As such, they are expected to consume, without regard to need. Quantity trumps quality, of course. In fact, high quality items, tending as they do to durability, are detrimental to the health of this economy. Better are low-quality items that must be replaced frequently. Spending is preferential to savings, and debt is best of all. There is never enough and no such thing as too much. The system depends upon an unending supply of consumers, whose desires are never satisfied. In such a system, widespread contentment would be an economic disaster of the highest magnitude.

But what happens once the basic needs of the citizens have been met and they can’t be induced to buy more than they need? What happens when the beast is hungry and the “consumers” won’t feed it?

In much of the world today consumer demand is decreasing. People are choosing saving over spending–both the aging population entering retirement and, refreshingly, the so-called millennial generation. But of course this is not acceptable to the wizards in control of the world’s central economies and they’re rather desperately trying to figure out how to keep the consumers consuming.

What’s happening now in Japan may portend the future for the rest of the developed world. As Japanese consumer spending slowed down, their Central Bank began implementing measures designed to discourage savings, incent spending and create price inflation. Having lowered interest rates all the way to zero without achieving their mission, in January Japan adopted negative interest rates. Now, instead of earning interest on money deposited into banks, savers are effectively paying for the privilege. But unfortunately for the Japanese economic gurus the move hasn’t created inflation. It has, however, boosted consumer spending on one item–home safes.

Maybe the Lords of Finance will find a way to force people into the cycle of spending and debt upon which our false economy depends. Or maybe the day is approaching when true economy will replace that thing we now call the Economy.


I have a large pile of old documents, letters and photographs we found in the old home and other old dilapidated buildings on the farm. I tucked them all away in a closet, not having the time to properly catalog or review them. Lately I’ve been slowly looking through them.

Here’s an example–a letter from a tobacco warehouser to my great-great grandfather.


I’ve been sharing photos of some of these artifacts on a local history Facebook page. It’s good to be able to share them. Some of the things I’ve shared include the local paper from June 1, 1935, announcing the release of George Weyerhauser:


A county tax bill/receipt from 1891:


Something from an interesting concoction called “Chelf’s C.C. Compound”


My great uncle’s report card from 1916:



An optimistic flyer from the Danville Chamber of Commerce in 1917:



Political buttons (I think I may have brought home one of these) (note: I don’t know why this photo is upside down and I can’t figure out how to fix it. It’s not upside down until it posts here):



A receipt from 1881:


A receipt from 1891. Note: Terms–cash. County Produce Taken in Exchange for Goods.


A hand-painted metal plate photograph (I’m not sure what it’s called) of my g-g grandfather Peyton Clay Keesee:


Two photographs of my great-grandmother Mattie Sue Slate:



My great-grandfather Frank Guerrant:


I’m glad now that we spent all those days years ago carefully sorting through the centuries of accumulated stuff on this place. We probably inadvertently threw away some treasures. But we saved plenty as well.

Whither the Working Class?

The demand for labor is shrinking. Globalization has already gutted the blue collar job market and now automation is rapidly finishing it off. What does the future hold for the working class, the historical backbone of our society?

Not everyone is suited for a college education and a life shuffling paper or designing smart phone apps. All of us have talents and for many of us those talents involve physical labor. There have always been ways for honest, hardworking people to make honorable livings and to support themselves and their families. But there is little opportunity for the working class these days. Those who can make the jump to the white collar world (as I did) will prosper, but those left behind will, it seems, fall even further behind.

So what are we to do with the working class, in the absence of any meaningful work to do? A life on welfare, at the expense of their dignity? These are people for whom work is a virtue. In this culture the worst thing you can say about someone is that they are lazy. And these are people who are fiercely independent. They want to earn their keep. They don’t want a life of dependency. Everyone of any merit is “hardworking” and everyone wants that word in their eulogy.

And so the working class is frustrated and, increasingly, angry. They’ve seen no real increase in wages in a decade, even as the upper classes continue to amass incredible amounts of wealth. They believe that the political establishment doesn’t care about them, or is even actively working against them. This belief is the source of much of the political unrest we’re seeing in the U.S. now, as working class people grasp for heroes, seemingly willing to accept terribly flawed options.

A couple of days ago I saw a bumper sticker that read: “Annoy a liberal. Work hard. Be happy.” Why should people believe that “working hard” would annoy a “liberal”? That deserves some serious reflection.

This sentiment is common: the government doesn’t care about people who want to work–it only cares about people with money, and people who won’t work. I’ve heard variations of that many times. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. Working people believe it’s true and they’re angry about it. And my guess is that sentiment is not restricted to a few ignorant rednecks in southside Virginia. My guess is that it is prevalent throughout rural and blue collar America.

But what if the emerging globalized technologically-advanced economy renders the working class irrelevant and leaves them with nothing to do? Who will buy the cheap consumer goods the automated factories are producing? Maybe the system is destined to consume itself.

Demographics dictate the future. And today a full 25% of humanity is between the age of 10 and 24. The vast majority of these young people are coming of age in the developing world, and they’re finding few opportunities. A million young people turn 18 in India every month. The number of Indians between 18 and 34 is roughly equal to the entire combined populations of the U.K., Canada and the U.S. This sort of demographic shift is occurring throughout the developed world, leading to massive waves of immigration and triggering more unrest. Youth unemployment is 25% in Europe and 17% in the U.S., despite not having the lopsided youth-dominated demographics of the developing world. (Read more about that HERE.)

Houston, we have a problem.

Somehow a system must emerge which provides meaningful employment for working class people. The solution won’t come easily, but it will begin, I believe, with attention to sustainability and rejection of growth-at-all-costs economics.

Just some rambling thoughts this morning. We live in interesting times.

Good Friday Gardening

It is traditional in the South to plant your garden on Good Friday.

I hadn’t expected to be able to do any planting yesterday, but it turned out to be a warm dry day so I was happy to spend much of it putting seeds in the ground.


I don’t like to have an entire garden of English peas come in all at once, so I planted half of it two weeks ago and the rest yesterday. We plant the Alaska variety. They’re delicious, mature quickly and don’t need any trellising. After making the rows I flatten them with the rototiller and plant double rows in each bed, about one foot apart. That way when the vines start growing they can grab onto each other.

I also got started on our potato garden. Ideally I would have planted them last week, but yesterday was a fine day for doing it. We’re growing nothing this year but Yukon Golds, our favorite.



And look what else nature has begun offering.


Good Friday usually happens in mid-April, but because Easter is a movable feast (based on the lunar calendar) it can come around as early as March 21, meaning this year it was nearly as early as it can be. While I can appreciate the symbolism of it, it wouldn’t be wise to plant beans and tomatoes this early, tradition notwithstanding. Out of curiosity I asked my mother if my grandfather would have planted his garden yesterday, even if Good Friday came this early in the year. Without hesitation she said yes.

Nevertheless, we’ll wait a little while longer.



Ahead of the Rain

Yesterday was a 15 hour planting marathon here. I put in all of our transplants, finishing up by headlamp.


Cherry blossoms at sunrise

If they grow, and if the deer don’t eat them first, we should have lots of lettuce, Chinese cabbage, bok choy, kale, collards, broccoli and Swiss chard (to go along with our direct-seeded crops).



I’m a little rusty after a quiet winter, so all the bending and squatting has me feeling a little stiff and creaky this morning as I wait for the coffee to kick in.

So why didn’t I just break it into a two-day job? After all, here in the South today is the traditional day for planting gardens.

The answer is that it was important to get it done ahead of last night’s forecast rain. For planting, the soil can’t be muddy. And it’s important to give the transplants a nice drink of water after they’re in the ground.

But it didn’t rain. Drats.

It looks like I will probably spend a lot of today laying drip irrigation lines.



Our Domestic Wild Landscape

I came across this from John Fowles, describing what travelers in the mid-18th century would think of the English countryside, and found it interesting:

It was without attraction to an age whose notion of natural beauty–in those few capable of forming such notions–was strictly confined to the French or Italian formal garden at home and the denuded but ordered (through art) landscapes of Southern Europe abroad.

To the educated English traveler then there was nothing romantic or picturesque at all in domestic wild landscapes, and less than nothing in the cramped vernacular buildings of such townlets. All this was so much desert, beneath the consideration of any who pretended to taste. The period had no sympathy with unregulated or primordial nature. It was aggressive wilderness, an ugly and all-invasive reminder of the Fall, of man’s eternal exile from the Garden of Eden; and particularly aggressive, to a nation of profit-haunted puritans, on the threshold of an age of commerce, in its flagrant uselessness. The time had equally no sense (except among a few bookworms and scholars) of the antique outside of the context of Greece and Rome; even its natural sciences, such as botany, though by now long-founded, remained essentially hostile to wild nature, seeing it only as something to be tamed, utilized, exploited. The narrow streets and alleys, the Tudor houses and crammed cottage closes of such towns conveyed nothing but an antediluvian barbarism.

It’s still dark as I’m typing this. Through the window behind me I can see the full moon sinking slowly toward the horizon behind the barn, casting moonshadows over a landscape that might offend some folks, even today in our own age of commerce, “in its flagrant uselessness.”

I am grateful this morning for the good sense to disagree with than assessment (which, thankfully, would be less common today than 250 years ago).

For our own little “domestic wild landscape,” I am grateful.