• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming and home schooling. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 17/Grade 12, 15/Grade 10, and 13/Grade 9.

    Contact me at becky.farmschool@gmail.com

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    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
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    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

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    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

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    Booker T. Washington

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    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

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    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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Letting the sun in through the cellophane

Men and boys are learning all kinds of trades but how to make men of themselves. They learn to make houses; but they are not so well housed, they are not so contented in their houses, as the woodchucks in their holes. What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on? — If you cannot tolerate the planet that it is on? Grade the ground first. If a man believes and expects great things of himself, it makes no odds where you put him, or what you show him … he will be surrounded by grandeur. He is in the condition of a healthy and hungry man, who says to himself, — How sweet this crust is!
— Henry David Thoreau

When talk began of the trillion-dollar stimulus package and zeroes began to swim before my eyes, along with visions of my impoverished grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I began to wonder about the idea of a consumer economy.  I’m no economist and not a professional historian so I honestly don’t know some of the answers: what exactly is a consumer economy? is it better than the alternatives? what are the alternatives? is there such thing as a producer economy? did we once have one and was it replaced?  And then, with some doubt, do we want to continue with a consumer economy by propping it up with a stimulus package? Do we want to continue down this same road?

If we do decide that the sort of economy to have is a consumer economy, then we probably do need to get people shopping for more stuff.  Then again, that striving for ever more stuff in the wake of the astonishing prosperity of the postwar years, has led us toward suburbs and urban sprawl, instant mashed potatoes, Jell-o salad, Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Diners Club, and Ron Popeil’s Ronco empire of things we never knew we needed.

Yesterday in The New York Times economist Thomas Friedman asked “a radical question”:

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese …

We can’t do this anymore.

Read the rest here; it’s not very long but offers plenty to think about.

It makes me feel less loopy, as a home educating farm wife on the prairie who steered clear from any economics courses, reads more than she remembers, and has to keep looking up exactly how many zeroes are in a trillion, to know I’m not the only one asking away and wondering and that some of the others who are asking and wondering do in fact know what they’re talking about.  The connection between Mother Nature and the economy occurred to me the other day as I was getting together a list of resources for the kids on the present situation and the Great Depression, and, to a lesser extent, the Panic of 1893.  Their recent questions — including “when does a recession turn into a depression” — made me realize we need to do more than just discuss the news they read and hear about. And there’s no separating Mother Nature and her Dust Bowl from the Great Depression.

As I’ve been thinking about this for the past month or so, I also remembered reading in the 1986 E.B. White biography by Scott Elledge that in 1933 Andy White had written a three-piece satirical essay on the Depression, though I couldn’t recall any of the particulars.  I looked it up in the book and found the series was called “Alice Through the Cellophane”.  Here’s what Mr. Elledge wrote,

In [the series White] took issue with various theories advanced for remedying the Depression. To the economists who held that prosperity could be regained only by restoring the consumers’ buying power, he said that “man’s buying power is one of the least noble of his powers and should not be the arch that supports his peace and well-being.”  Efforts to stimulate production  too, he believed, were misguided.  Pointing to the excess of unnecessary goods already being manufactured, and to their consumption by people whose demand for them had been artificially stimulated, he advocated buying nothing — or at least no more than absolutely needed.  He proposed, on the contrary, to decrease production, and to do that by means of a paradoxical scheme: by paying the highest executives the lowest wages and the lowest-ranking employees the highest salaries.  Such a pay scale would provide no incentive to climb the ladder, and those finding themselves by mischance at its top would have no desire to stay there and produce more goods.

White concluded the essay by calling up the memory of Henry David Thoreau, who “had rejected the complexity of life,” and by  urging his fellow men to imitate Thoreau.  His final words were:

“The hope I see for the world, even today, is to simplify life . . . . Nature (whose course we are about to prevent her from taking) is, I grant, complicated; but it is only on the surface that her variety is baffling.  At the core it is a simple ideal.  You feel it when lying stretched on warm rocks, letting the sun in. It is just possible that in our zeal to manufacture sunlamps at a profit, we have lost forever the privilege of sitting in the sun.”

(I’d like to request, please, that The New Yorker consider making E.B. White’s three-part series, “Alice through the Cellophane”, 1933, available online for free to all readers as a public service. Many thanks.)

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7 Responses

  1. “man’s buying power is one of the least noble of his powers and should not be the arch that supports his peace and well-being.”

    Amen.

    I don’t know enough about economics to argue one system over another, but I do know the present one is just grossly disgusting. We are not big consumers, though we leave a much bigger footprint than I would like. When I think of the trash we produce from our limited purchases and then start imagining the average American’s and multiplying that by those huge numbers I get anxious. It doesn’t work. It can’t.

  2. I, too, have wondered if this is more than just another “crisis of capitalism” and not some final reckoning. Is buying another house buying my way out of the recession? Or buying the means to live with less stuff? Hmmm. Not sure. Though I’m pretty sure none of those Wall Street economists were suggesting I buy chickens and pigs.

  3. Becky, you mentioned finding resources to answer your kids’ questions. We have a similarly curious bunny at home with a clueless mom. Any books to share?

  4. L, it’s brought home to us every time Tom brings home “garbage” from grocery store which is perfectly good chicken and cat food. Oy.

    JoVE, I’d be more willing to listen to the Wall Street economists if they WERE telling people to buy chickens and pigs rather than more Wal-Mart plastic. If I were going to buy stock, I’d buy it in those companies that make stuff to help people “organize” all their other stuff.

    Suji, I meant to mention that I’d post that list when I’m done putting it together. There’s not much in there for very young bunnies, but just a bit…

  5. IMO, one of the troubles with the current economy is that people (and by that I suppose I mean the average American) were encouraged to live beyond their means for far too long. It doesn’t take much to encourage people to live beyond their means – when we lived in CA I thought I’d died and gone to heaven, even while I felt slightly horrified at the credit culture I was in. But telling people to partake of the economy to keep it afloat doesn’t really take into consideration how it all happened in the first place, or help everyone understand how to economize sensibly for their own future. It’s just more of the same old, in many ways: Buy Stuff.

    Of course, I still think they should have let the car companies flounder. Trillions of dollars of debt seems just plain silly.

  6. The problem is too many people think they “own” things they don’t really “own” and before they’ve paid up for the things they think they own they want to own some more. And that’s the lesson being imparted to our kids too: not only will they be paying for the mistakes of the generation(s) before them, they’re also soaking in the culture and will be repeating those very mistakes. Shudder.

  7. Sheila, yes. For a while people haven’t grown up with the lesson that you don’t buy what you can’t afford. That’s why I stuck Diner’s Club in my list of postwar wonders. Makes one long for the days of the layaway plan. And if anything, at least in the US one needs to learn to economize for the coming Depression.

    Suji, and even in the pre-owning stages, when they’re just shopping, they’re thinking big. The shame of it all is that parents think they are doing their children a favor, indulging them with “all the things we never had when we were kids”, and of course you’re not helping them at all but hurting them immeasurably.

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