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    Books & Reading, Other Thoughts

    Economics as a Form of Community

    September 18, 2008 by Brandy Vencel

    [dropcap]O[/dropcap]n Saturday morning, Si spent at least thirty minutes trying to get our lawnmower running. It was to no avail. That engine was determined to stall out. Did I mention the lawnmower is a front-thrower and weighs more than one man can lift? It’s true. So Si searched the neighborhood for a bit of help with loading the mower into the Suburban, and headed to a nearby repair shop, which happens to be owned by my aunt’s brother.

    Today, the shop called with the bad news {as in our mower needs some major repairs if we still want its service in our yard}. My mom answered the phone {she was helping me with my life as I’m still not fully recovered from surgery, but the four children seem to think I am}, and she and the owner spent some time catching up before she gave him Si’s work phone number. In the course of doing business, community was reinforced.

    It reminds me of how Wendell Berry wrote in Jayber Crow that a community, in order to remain a community, has to do a certain amount of business with itself.

    I found this same concept nestled in the pages of my new read {which entertains me during the fifteen minutes after every single feeding that I spend making sure that Baby O. remains upright in order to keep his meal in his tummy where it belongs}, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.

    At one point in the book, which is a memoir of sorts, Kingsolver’s family takes a road trip, and on the trip they find a little diner that epitomizes the spirit of building community through economic activity:

    Tod Murphy’s background was farming. The greatest challenge he and his farming neighbors faced was finding a market for their good products. Opening this diner seemed to like a red-blooded American kind of project. Thomas Jefferson, Tod points out, presumed on the basis of colonial experience that farming and democracy are intimately connected. Cultivation of land meets the needs of the farmer, the neighbors, and the community, and keeps people independent from domineering centralized powers. “In Jefferson’s time,” he says, “that was the king. In ours, it’s multinational corporations.” Tod didn’t think he needed to rewrite the Declaration of Independence, just a good business plan. He found investors and opened the Farmers Diner, whose slogan is “Think Locally, Act Neighborly.”

    For a dreamer, he’s a practical guy. “Thinking globally is an abstraction. What the world needs now isn’t love sweet love — that’s a slogan.” What the world needs now, he maintains, is more compassionate local actions: “Shopping at the hardware store owned by a family living in town. Buying localy raised tomatoes in the summer, and locally baked bread. Cooking meals at home. Those are all acts of love for a place.”

    We don’t really know my aunt’s brother personally. But from the very first time our mower needed fixing, his shop was where we went. We didn’t call around to find the best price. It just seemed right to us to go to a place owned by a person to whom we were vaguely connected.

    We’ve experienced this ourselves. Back when Si was in business for himself, we had friends that utilized his services just because of the friendship. And because of the friendship, they also learned they were entitled to substantial discounting! It wasn’t so much a scratching of each other’s backs. It was simply relationships in action, being as good to one another as we could.

    A lot of folks see the big box stores come into a town and destroy it, but they don’t really understand how it happens. Business is business, we say. But it isn’t, in some ways. It is so much more than that. Or, at least, it should be. Business is one more tie in a community. When we send our economic activity outside the community, it is to the detriment of the community. It is one lost opportunity to be good to one another.

    Now, I’m not about to start criticizing folks for shopping at Target, but this is definitely something to think about. Kingsolver goes on to explain:

    The Farmers Diner does not present itself as a classroom, a church service, or a political rally. For many regional farmers, it’s a living, and for everybody else it’s a place to eat. Tod feels that the agenda here transcends politics, in the sense of Republican and Democrat. “It’s oligarchy vs. non-oligarchy,” Tod says — David vs. Goliath, in other words. Tom Jefferson against King George. It’s people trying to keep work and homes together, versus conglomerates that scoop up a customer’s money and move it out of town to a corporate bank account far away. Where I grew up, we used to call that “carpetbagging.” Now it seems to be called the American way.

    [snip] “We have the illusion of consumer freedom, but we’ve sacrificed our community life for the pleasure of purchasing lots of cheap stuff…We often have the form of liberty, but not the substance.”

    This seems a bit more important today as I watch the so-called oligarchy begin to perish due to their financial irresponsibility, only to be resurrected by the power of the Federal Reserve’s life-support system. Since every dollar the Fed pumps out diminishes the value of the real money I have in the bank, it seems like buying from small family businesses, even if it cost me a couple dollars more in the short term, might have been the cheapest route over the long term.

    Other Posts Concerning Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:
    Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Quote Selection One
    Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Quote Selection Two
    What to Look For in a Rooster
    Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Final Review

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