Reading: Back to Economic Basics
from The Treasures of Simple Living

The way we view economics has a large influence on how we shape our alternative. I confess that I find more satisfaction and real profit in reading Thoreau's "Economy" in Walden than I ever did studying the Federal Reserve System or how to hedge convertible securities. I don't think we will ever solve our nation's economic problems or our own until we get back to economic basics, and that means focusing on what money and work really mean and how they are meant to serve other values.

The classic American dream is to have a lot of money. We get sweepstake entries in the mail or buy a lottery ticket and imagine what it would be like for our money problems to be over once and for all. But it's entirely another matter to actually find out what happened to those lucky lottery winners or other recipients of sudden wealth. Their stories are sobering and sometimes even depressing. They have the money but also a lot of unwelcome, unwanted attention which can sour their relationships with their friends, relatives and co-workers. They buy a large house, fancy furniture, a boat, a new car, etc., but rarely does the money appear to open the way for a more meaningful, exciting existence. Often the winners quit their jobs but don't have anything of overriding importance to put in its place. Even though we would like to think we would be the exception, can we be sure that it would turn out that way? I've met any number of people who have attained financial security. They have made good investments or put in twenty years or so and have an excellent pension, and they have enough money to retire at 30, 40 or 50. I'm always curious to see what they will do with this golden opportunity. Almost invariably after a period of retirement they get bored and go back and do something like they were doing before. The pensioner gets another job. The businessman starts making more money. Why? Simply because that is what they know how to do. Or put another way, they don't know what else to do. So they amass more counters in a game they have already won. No active energetic person wants to sit around even if it's in a Florida condominium or a beach house in the Bahamas. We are not prepared for free time. A job has swallowed endless hours and when it releases us we have no clue of how to use this new-found freedom. And the obsession of our society with money doesn't help. It makes it harder to do things that have no connection with money at all. We are misunderstanding money and work and the relationship between them. And most of all we have lost sight of the fact they are meant to serve higher values.

One way to break this impasse is to imagine what we would do if we were suddenly rich. We should look at this fantasy with as much detail as possible. Would I quit my job? Would I buy a fancier home, would I try another career, or travel? Make a list of your desires in the order of their importance. Then really look at them. Would they really change me if they came true? Would I be genuinely happier? How long would the glow and thrill last? How many of these dreams are my own and not those of the world around me? Many things we have longed for turn out to be the setting for life and not the stuff of life itself.

Once you have winnowed out your list and found some real goals worth pursuing, don't wait to be rich. Start now. Take a step even if it's only a tiny one. Travel, for example, can be a lot less expensive than we ever dreamed. A new career can start with our own study on volunteer work. It's always easier to save money if we have a definite concrete goal we are working towards. Don't let real dreams get deflected.

Another way to try to break the misconception we have about money and work is to imagine traveling back in time and seeing them as they must have existed for our ancestors.

In the world of the hunter-gatherer there was a rough equality. The men hunted while the women gathered and probably collected the bulk of the food. Some people were more gifted than others, but everyone grew up knowing the basics. They could build a shelter, make a fire, tell the edible plants from the poisonous ones, catch a fish and so forth. They were all in contact with the earth. They all had direct access to it and its fruits.

Trade was a secondary matter. They didn't live by it. It was a chance to get some extras and these extras were often non-essential. It was a question of beads or shells or sweet-smelling resins. The economy meant simply the household and the attempts to fill its basic needs.

As trading increased, no doubt connected with the rise of farming that allowed men to stay in one spot and accumulate more things, money developed. It was a way to facilitate trading by converting things into one thing that was universally in demand and could always be traded for something else. And money had its roots in the old days when trade was mostly ornamental. Money was shells or silver or gold or pretty stones. They were widely desired, compact, durable and relatively easy to transport. They were simply one of the old trade items that had risen to preeminence. I give you some eggs for a piece of silver and you can trade it for what you want. Money simply represented actual things, for it was something valuable itself and facilitated their interchange.

But two events were to come about and radically change both money itself and the whole idea of work. The first was the introduction of paper certificates to represent gold or silver or whatever the real money was. This was a convenience, but an almost irresistible temptation as well. The banker, whether it was the central government or a private bank, wanted to get something for nothing, and so he started printing a few extra papers and spending them. People accepted them as real money at first and he got away with it. But soon they caught on. Sometimes they wanted their real money back and at other times, when they couldn't get it, they had to settle for seeing the value of their paper money decrease, for more paper was now available to purchase the same amount of things, so the things became higher priced or the paper was worth less, depending on how you want to look at it.

When this process of inflation is carried to excess we get the situation that existed in post-World War I Germany where the value of money changed every day and you needed a suitcase to carry it to the grocery store. It is the makers of this new nonmoney that benefit, for they spend it as if it were worth the same as the old money, and it is the people on fixed incomes that suffer most for their income falls in terms of what it can buy.

The second big change in the economy was the fact of specialization. Suppose one day in a moment of inspiration one of our hunter-gatherers invents a superior fish hook that has a barb instead of being smooth. When his friends see all the fish he is catching, they start clamoring for some of their own, and soon our inventive friend finds himself making fish hooks instead of fishing. It is only fair that his friends share their catch with him and there is more to share. It's progress, but there is a danger. Let's imagine the fish hook maker passes his trade on to his son and the son grows up making fish hooks in exchange for all his basic needs. Then the day comes when someone down the river invents a radically new kind of hook that is much better. Our fish hook maker has suddenly discovered something new: unemployment, for unlike his father he can't go back to nature and the old ways, for he has lost those skills.

In the days when money was real we could be on the lookout for false coins and clipped edges. Now when money has lost its roots we become easy prey to a horde of manipulators and speculators who have discovered that the easiest way to make money is not doing something productive, like building a house with their own hands or growing some wheat, but to manipulate money. They insert themselves between the farmer's wheat and our mouths, or the house and the person who will dwell in it. We have become so accustomed to this we are not only not supposed to complain but we are to applaud and imagine they have created the wealth they gather. But they are really not creating. Their money is coming out of all our pockets. The real estate tycoon thinks it is a good stroke of business to buy for his own account a house that comes on the market, spends a few hundred or thousand dollars on cosmetics, and sells it for $15,000 or $20,000 more. But that money comes out of my pocket each month for 20 or 30 years as I pay the mortgage.

This brings us back to work and specialization. The further I am removed from the Earth and the ability to satisfy my basic needs directly, the more I can be manipulated. If my home, my food and everything else depends on my pay check I have lost a great deal of my bargaining power right then and there. If I had a way to survive I could simply not work for the overbearing boss, the unfair wage, in dangerous conditions, etc., nor would I totally be in the money economy buffeted by the manipulators, speculators and plain miscalculations of investment bankers, stock market and commodity gamblers, and so forth.

We have distorted the real meaning of private property. In essence it means we all have an inalienable right of the earth and its fruits. And this is not a right to "own" the earth but use it gently and ordinately to satisfy our legitimate basic needs. We are born with this right as children of the earth. But we have perverted it into a greedy capitalism or an oppressive state socialism. It is a destructive fiction to believe we can own the earth. All over the planet we see men owning more than they can personally work on or consume when countless others go hungry. When private property takes this form it is a distorted quest for meaning where there is never a point when we can say, "I have enough."

We need to work both physically and mentally. But work has lost its moorings like money has and is distorted. We are overspecialized doing too much of one kind and not enough of another, and we become unbalanced. A doctor becomes a worker on an assembly line of bodies, his real identity as a healer of people becomes lost and he succumbs to the same poor health habits as his patients. A construction worker or businessman drives himself to the point of exhaustion while the rest of his interests begin to die from lack of attention. We are not simply cogs in an economic engine cranking out the gross national product. It is important for us to work in all areas of our life, to feel our hands in the earth, the heft of a good tool as we make something, the challenge of a fine book, and just plain time to be with the people we love, to enjoy nature, to ponder what it is all about.

Economics will never make sense when it is left t as a matter for specialists who are supposed to be fine-tuning our money supply. Economics is rooted in the earth and our efforts to turn its fruits into useful things. It is eating and building a shelter and staying warm. It is a contact with the earth we cannot relegate to others to do entirely for us. When economics is torn lose from its true setting it becomes prey to distorted dreams of wealth and power instead of providing the simple life that would allow us to try to be fully human.

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