As best I can tell from internal hints, this was composed in the early ’90s. I’m presenting it here, reformatted but unedited, as an historical artifact.
This book was initially conceived out of a feeling of
resentment that my contributions to the economy, as a household
manager and mother, were left out of the calculations by which the
material wellÂ©being of our society is directed and defined. I
resented being labeled a consumer even more. A consumer is, at
best, perceived as a necessary evil which has evolved, in order to
balance the other half of the objective duoÂ©Â©the producerÂ©Â© as a
passive substitute for the active partner in economic transactions,
the buyer. I resent it because the label doesn’t fit my perception
of myself. Moreover, I suspect that it promotes the prevailing
attitude of disdain, which is not only personally depressing but
may well be affecting the performance of the economy as well.
A lagging economy is disappointing though not necessarily
headed for failure. However, if the concept of selfÂ©fulfilling
predictions has any validity, which I think it does, then
categorizing the household, its residents, and its functions
(particularly reproduction and the education of the next
generation) as consumptive, for whatever reason, may well be a
prescription for disaster. If households, having been defined as
nonÂ©productive, receive less (are worth less) attention than other
forms of enterprise, or none at all, and the children, for whose
nurture and protection most traditional household functions were
designed, having been defined as consumable, to be used or wasted,
are not adequately prepared to be selfÂ©sustaining, not just the
economy, but society is liable to collapse.
Considering children as items of consumption can’t be good for
them. Whether children satisfy parental cravings by submitting to
being treated and trained like pets, or, failing meet expectations,
suffer abuse and abandonment like so many curs, consumable children
are being prepared for predation, not mutually supportive economic
enterprise. Consumable children are actually worse off than were
those whose parents had them to make them work. At least, when
parent expected to benefit from the productivity of their children
and put them to work, they were motivated to teach them how to do
what needed to be done. Consequently, when children were mature
enough to strike out for themselves, they were also prepared to
leave abusive and demanding parents behind to develop their skills
in a more appreciative and supportive environment. Parents may
have resented what they perceived as a wasted investment, but
society as a whole was better off.
The failure of children to live up to parental expectations is
an old complaint. What’s new is the ability to avoid, without### #having to sacrifice sexual satisfaction, the pain and burden of
having children. Not having children no longer depends on both men
and women resisting the natural attraction between the sexes. In
addition, technological innovation has made it possible to imagine
that, if it is properly managed, the surplus which has been created
will enable every individual to be selfÂ©sustaining and independent
for the duration of his/her lifeÂ©span. So, there is no longer any
practical reason to have children, much less to maintain them;
especially not for those individuals who don’t actually have them
(men). Conversely, since those individuals who can (women), now ha
have a choice not to, it seems logical to conclude, if they have
them, it is because they want children. And, of course, if women
want to have children, then they are properly responsible for
maintaining what they claim to ownÂ©Â©i.e. their property. If they
don’t, though the community may be forced to provide some support,
there can be no question but that women have failed to perform as
Given this logic, it is not surprising that the reproductive
rate has decreased, even as the number and prevalence of single
female parents has increased. Women are not stupid. If
reproducing provides no social, psychological or physical benefits,
then, since sustaining just one or two children is likely to
consume the surplus any one woman can produce, leaving her with
nothing for her old age, given a choice, they won’t do it. At
least not once they become aware of the cost.
That the notion of a self-sustaining independent old age is
turning out to be an illusion is another matter. Reality is that
the aged are bound to become physically enfeebled and depend on
support, regardless of how many assets have been stored up. Nor
can this reality be successfully dealt with by exerting ideological
and psychological pressures to promote selective reproduction by
those who both can and can afford to have children. The problem is
not in the numbers, nor in who has them. The problem we are
increasingly facing is that, having failed to invest in educating
the children, we are left with a generation that doesn’t know how
to do what needs to be done. We are faced with the prospect that
when the technological advantages have been used up and the
expertise lost, there will be no choice but to revert to predation.
Then, instead of enjoying an independent and selfÂ©sustaining old
age, the elderly will naturally become prey, as the criminal
statistics already indicate. In the absence of mutually supportive
interÂ© and intraÂ©generational social systems, all organisms rely on
predation to sustain them.
There is, however, one positive aspect to the categorization
of children, along with women and the feeble, as passive consumers.
It challenges the feminist assumption that the exclusion of women
from active participation in the economy is the result of sexist
antagonism. Unless the characterization of children as consumable
and consuming is perceived as derived from an inability to
distinguish between them and the women who bear and rear them, the
exclusion of children obviously isn’t sexist. Nor is it possible
to argue that it is an expression of fundamental antagonism towards
children. The reluctance to have children may just be a matter of
selfÂ©preservation, based on the realization that bearing and# rearing children is a physically wearing, psychologically stressful
and often disappointing experience. Indeed, a very positive
attitude towards other people’s children is entirely consistent
with an aversion to make a personal commitment.
The value of other people’s children seems to be inversely
related to their social cost. Consequently, children tend to be
valued less when education is provided at public expense, even as
what is expected of them tends to increase. The personal
preference not to have children having been compromised by being
forced to pay for the education of other people’s children something one doesn’t want the contribution, albeit involuntary,
creates an expectation of some beneficial return. In other words,
preference and experience are headed in opposite directions and it
is, therefor, not surprising that, when the issue is public
education, expectations are hardly ever satisfied. If people are
ambivalent or even resentful about children, their attitude may
well be a function of the general reluctance to pay for what we
don’t want or presume to be free for the taking.
Â¡#######Â¡The latter is particularly relevant to the relationship
between men and women. However, the reluctance to pay, in this
case, for the work of women is hardly a matter of sexual
discrimination. Natural resources, waste, and, of course, the
labor of slaves and children also have a long tradition of being
presumably free. That is, the recipient of these benefits and
behaviors perceives no obligation to give back the equivalent of
what he has taken. The reason for this failure, in addition to a
general reluctance to change wellÂ©established habits, is probably
a function of the difficulty of recognizing value in resources and
labor because their usefulness is uncertain. Since the buyer of
resources and labor can’t be entirely sure that he wants what he’s
getting, getting what he’s expecting, or will want what he’s got
later, he’s not keen on paying. Paying for products, things which
can be weighed, measured, tested, and even tasted is a much less
Perception too, as well as behavior, is often a matter of
habit. Which perhaps explains why the theoretical framework of
economic behavior, as compiled by European men, not only slights
the role of women and children, but ignores the economic systems of
indigenous African populations and other soÂ©called Third World
regions. Regardless of whether the distribution and allocation of
resources is conducted by men or women, the African economies, in
particular, tend to be dismissed as, at best, “underdeveloped.”
Even though their trade has flourished for thousands of years in a
network of widely distributed markets, the limited perspective of
classical economics virtually ignores them. From which one might
conclude that perhaps the real meaning of “underdeveloped” is that
these regions are perceived as unreceptive to what the West wants
to get rid of, as well as unwilling to allow their resources to be
Perhaps these perception are the result of sexist and racist
attitudes, as feminists and those who believe that the economic
system is primarily a mechanism for one group of people to exercise
power over another, suggest, but I doubt it. Or, more precisely,
I prefer to think that the problem is both simpler and more# #####complex. Which is not to say that I consider male attitudes and perspectives irrelevant. Quite the contrary. Even in Plato’s day,
men tended to see the household as a place where most of the
surplus they brought in from their commerce was consumed without
any obvious benefit to themselves. That is, probably because they
were conducting their enterprise somewhere else, men didn’t âˆš#âˆšseeÆ’#Æ’ the
results, nor how the materials were processed, stored and then
allocated to maximize their use in the house. Therefor, if men
were at all aware of the effort expended by the women and children
on managing the household, not having seen it with their own eyes,
they naturally dismissed it as insignificant. So, when men
undertook to describe economic behavior, they quite naturally
focused on their own experience; what they did and what they saw
others like themselves do. Women and children were dismissed as
consumers because that was what men saw. Indeed, that’s probably
all the nineÂ©toÂ©five males see now.
In any case, I prefer to blame the failure to include not only
women and children and Third World economies, but the evolutionary
transition from barter to monetary transactions and to develop a
more realistic model of economic behavior as a dynamic system,
rather than a linear progression of discrete segments, on the
limited male perspective. Why? Because, if it is a matter of
perspective, then, instead of having to confront prejudice,
entrenched powers, and irrational assumptions, all we have to do to
achieve more reliable predictions, which is, after all, the purpose
of science, is to revise the model by broadening the perspective to
include more information.
That’s a simpler task than trying to change human nature,
especially if human nature isn’t the problem. It is also more
complex because broadening the perspective involves more than
increasing the number of observers and multiplying the points of
view. It also involves taking into account that the direction from
which something is viewed can change its appearance. Like the
Grand Canyon, behavior looks very different depending on whether it
is viewed from the perimeter or the middle, from outside or inside
the household. Moreover, rather than being recognized, the
significance of these different perspectives, classified as either
subjective or objective, has traditionally been obscured by a value
judgement. The subjective perspective, presumably lacking
impartiality, tends to be dismissed, or at least discounted, as
unscientific, while objectivity is presumed to provide a more
accurate representation of reality. Contrary to the implied
premise of the Socratic injunction that is possible to “know
thyself,” it is better to be objective because the perception of
self, or selfÂ©interest, is unreliable.
While I can imagine being entirely objectiveÂ©Â© without
prejudice, perceptual limitations, or selfÂ©serving interestsÂ©Â© I
doubt that I, or anyone else, can actually achieve it. Like the
film in a camera which records reality in black and white or color,
depending on what kind of impression it is prepared to receive,
what we see depends on what we are physically able and mentally
prepared to accept.
Which may explain, for example, why men, unlike other hunting
species, which capture their prey on the run, seem to prefer their quarry at rest. Since human vision is able to differentiate a
fairly broad range of colors and isolate the object of attention
even in the shade, if the prey doesn’t move, it is not only easier
to catch, but the hunter saves himself the trouble of trying to
catch something he doesn’t really want by being able to identify
specific characteristics before it is caught. On the other hand,
from the perspective of prey which rely on “freezing” to protect
them from predators who focus on the changing intensity of light
characteristic of motion, freezing is a disadvantage when the
predator is man. The same may be true for prey who derive
protection from the uniform movement characteristic of herds or
schools in flight. While those predators who see in black and
white will isolate and focus their attention on individuals whose
movement is out of synch, regardless of whether that missÂ©fit is
the result of injury, immaturity or superior form and agility, the
motion of the herd is not protective when humans hunt. Rather, the
whole herd, of buffalo for example, is likely to be driven over a
cliff, or a school of fish will be encircled in a net and killed
In either case, the rationale, that predation, including
hunting by humans, is inherently beneficial to the prey species,
must be suspect. While the taking of immature specimens would seem
to be entirely random and is not likely to provide any information
whatÂ©soÂ©ever about any deviation from the norm in its mature form,
the taking of a superior specimen, which is less likely unless the
predator happens to be better than average as well, would seem to
indicate that the “improvement” of the prey species is inversely
related to the predator’s success. The infirm specimen, because it
is no longer able to keep up with the herd, may indeed fall to the
average predator, but since it is bound to expire soon anyway, one
specimen being caught and eaten, rather than dying and being eaten
later, does nothing to “improve” the herd.
The conviction that the predatory processes of nature strive
to make things better, seems to be a matter of wishful thinkingÂ©Â©an
effort to justify man’s behavior with the rationale that, if
predation is good for the prey, then the more man catches, the
better. Projecting selfÂ©interest onto the objects of his attention
seems to be a particular characteristic of man. Instead of
recognizing that he prefers stasis because things which stay put
are easy to explore and inspect, man assumes that it is in the
nature of mobile organisms to be at rest. This enables him to
assume what he wants to believeÂ©Â©that their movement is a response
to hunger, thirst or some other distress. It also justifies such
notions as that cows, for instance, are better off being confined
and immobilized in a stall, because being watered, fed, and
protected from the random attacks of predators is undoubtedly
preferable to roaming about. Otherwise one would have to admit
that the only difference between animal husbandry and ordinary
predation is largely a matter of time and convenience. That is,
instead of following them around like calves in order to milk them,
men prefer to lock cows up, milk them on a regular schedule, and
slaughter them later when their “productivity” has ceased.
If the cow were able to compare her experience with her
expectations and protect her selfÂ©interest, her subjective reaction #####might be taken into consideration. However, since she is unable to
do so, humans perceive that the imposition of whatever conditions
they consider to be appropriate to the cow (objective) is
justified. In other words, because the cow is unable to recognize
that sooner or later she is bound to expire, those who know better
are justified in deciding when. This is somewhat different from
the relationship between men and women. There, rather than being
lacking, selfÂ©interest is merely presumed to be inherently flawed.
And it is because selfÂ©interest is flawed, that being told what to
do for one’s own good is presumably superior, i.e. better. So,
while the justification for controlling the behavior of other
creatures is that they are unaware and therefor unable to determine
their own good, the justification for controlling the behavior of
other people is based on the assumption that their knowledge of
what is good is incomplete, and, therefor, they must be told what
to do and what not.
To be fair, there does seem to be an element of salutary self-deception, in addition to self-serving justification of the
exercise of power over the behavior of others, in the belief that
objectivity is superior to selfÂ©interest. The assumption that
one’s own behavior is otherÂ©directed, i.e. motivated by concern for
someone else’s wellÂ©being, serves as a hedge against the negative
consequences of failure. The belief that he is providing a service
not only persuades the farmer to accumulate thousands of bushels of
corn (more than he can possibly consume by himself before it is
made useless by insects, rodents or rot), it also enables him to
explain his inability to sell his crop as a matter of people not
knowing what’s good for them. Otherwise, without that belief, the
farmer would have to confront the fact that he guessed wrong and,
to correct the error, perhaps revert to planting and harvesting
just enough to sustain himself. While this would serve the
farmer’s self-interest not to have his work go to waste, widely
followed, it would be a prescription for social disaster. It is in
the social interest for the farmer’s inclination to plant corn to
be reinforced by the selfÂ©deceptive expectation, contrary to his
immediate experience, that by the time the next harvest is brought
in, more people will be hungrier, if not necessarily smarter.
Of course, if the desire to get rid of the surplus is
repeatedly frustrated, the farmer will eventually be forced to do
something else. Or, that is how he is likely to perceive the
relationship between his inclination to farm and the lack of demand
for his corn. Having perceived himself as responding to demand all
along, he naturally perceives his decision to do something else as
responsive, as well. It is the model to which he is accustomed.
So, naturally, it does not occur to him, as it might had he taken
his own interest in a varied diet and changing tastes into account,
that in concentrating his energies on producing a surplus of just
one commodity year after year, he increased the risk of not being
able to get rid of it. Which is not to lay blame on the farmer.
Rather, what is faulty is the assumption that ruling out selfâ„¢interest, or the subjective perspective, guarantees that what we
perceive is really as it is. In actuality, eliminating
subjectivity merely means that the advantages of being able to
collect and communicate the information provided by all the senses, ##not just sight, are canceled and the probability that our
supposedly objective perception is mistaken increases.
The misperception of the economic role of women is just one
example of how objectivity has resulted in misunderstanding. If
the subjective perspective of women had been considered in the
formulation of economic principles, then the managerial function
would perhaps not have gone unnoticed in the household and, by
extension, in the entire population; nor would the deterioration of
the economy, caused by the managerial gap which resulted when women
followed the example of men and abandoned the household, have come
as a surprise. Indeed, had the importance of management as
something more than giving orders been recognized, the loss could
have been avoided and we might not have had to wait until the
success of foreign enterprise brought it to our attention. Nor
would it have been necessary to subscribe to the unrealistic
notion, ignoring the fact that large segments of any population are
not capable of active participation, that the allocation of
resources is an automatic function of the market, rather than the
product of conscious thought. Not only would it have been obvious
that the immature, the ill, and the aged are bound to rely on
someone to act on their behalf, but the issue of how and who is
best able to allocate those goods and services which both the
providers and the recipients âˆš#âˆšdon’tÆ’#Æ’ want, or, at least, prefer not
to haveÂ©Â©medical procedures, incarceration, and hazardous waste, to
mention just a fewÂ©Â©couldn’t have been left out of the economic
Waste, in particular, is hardly considered in economic terms,
except in the context of individuals who fail to produce or perform
as directed. Perhaps it is because waste has come to be identified
with the expenditure or consumption of assets by individuals who
don’t deserve them, that its role as a constant alternative to the
positive processes of the economic cycle just isn’t noticed, nor is
its potential as a measurable indicator of economic decline or
failure appreciated. If it were, waste might be said to turn the
perspective of economic behavior around. While the subjective
point of view sees things from the inside looking out, considering
waste involves shifting the focus of attention from demand to
supply as the impulse for economic behavior. From the point of
view of waste, it seems obvious that, rather than being driven by
dissatisfaction or want, economic behavior responds to the desire
to be rid of a surplus (more than is wanted), without having to
throw it away and lose all the benefit of whatever energy was
invested in its accumulation.
Think of it as supplyÂ©side economics with a difference. The
version which became popular during the Reagan era considered
economic policy as a mechanism of social control. As such, the
supplyÂ©siders proposed that instead of the more traditional
strategy of increasing taxes to control demand, government revenues
should be increased by increasing the supply of goods and services
to be taxed, with the ultimate goal being to increase the power of
government. What I am suggesting is that avoiding waste is at
least as important in creating a surplus as increasing
productivity, i.e. making people work harder for less. Indeed, I
would go further and argue that was is the antithesis of economic behavior. Consequently, any increase in waste, whether it is
spread around to spoil water, air, or soil or collected neatly in
dumps, is a sign of economic decline.
When economic behavior is perceived as motivated by the desire
to avoid waste, then it seems obvious that its success is
intimately connected, if not entirely dependent, on the awareness
of time. To avoid waste is to effect a change in the normal
sequence of events and, thereby, their consequence by anticipating
the future and directing present behavior to either continue or
change the sequence of what happened before. So, although the
experience of time is linearÂ©Â©the past came before the present and
the future follows behind, or, if you prefer, the past lies behind
the present and the future lies up aheadÂ©Â©expectation adds another
dimension by injecting the future into the present. While time is
not strictly a matter of perception (though we can tell its passage
by looking at a clock), as experience and expectation alternate to
either reinforce or deny our perceptions, they create a dynamic
relationship which enables us to escape the linear limitations of
time. Having imagined the future, we can choose to change it by
undoing the effects of the past in the present and proceed on an
The prevalent model of economics, perhaps because it is wedded
to the segmented line to represent progress and a point in time to
determine its status, seems unable to account for the interaction
of past, present and future time. This suggests that what is
needed is a new modelÂ©Â©one which is able to adjust to alternatives
and account for the differences which result from moving both
forward and backward in time, much as the spiral seems to be able
to represent the interactive structure of DNA. The spiral, being
both linear and confining, makes it possible to visualize multiple
interactions, occurring both simultaneously and sequentially, as an
organic system within a specific structural framework. Moreover,
since the inside and outside of a spiral are clearly distinct, the
spiral would seem to be a more appropriate representation of the
multiple aspects of economic behavior than the conventional seeÂ©saw
model. The seeÂ©saw model of economic behavior does have the dubious
advantage of being consistent with the perception that there are
two sides, and only two sides, to everything and that movement
preferably occurs in two directionsÂ©Â©in the case of economics, up
and down. In addition, the seeÂ©saw accurately represents the
preference for stability at the fulcrum, the point where the
movement in opposite directions intersects and goes nowhere, even
as it simplifies observation by representing economic behavior as
occurring in regular and easily measured intervals. Finally, the
seeÂ©saw model is consistent with the perception of economic
behavior as exclusiveÂ©Â©that the number of players is limited and
only those who conform to the rules can playÂ©Â©and, by focusing the
participants attention on trying to stay onÂ©Â©to keep from falling
off and getting hurt and to prevent others from hopping on instead it maintains the illusion of being “the only game in town.”
Reality is quite different. Economic behavior, though not
necessarily random, is never stable or balanced, unless it is
brought to a halt. Moreover, efforts to regulate it are more likely to act as a brake, than to speed it up. Regardless of what
is intended, if economic behavior is divided and equalized (made
regular) in order to take its measure, it is bound to be reduced
because, since slow motion is easier to measure than fast, that is
what accuracy demands. (Which may explain why economists seem so
enthusiastic about recessions. Where the economy turns down is
where they can get the most accurate measurement. On the other
hand, the longer the economy moves in any one direction, the less
uncertain their calculations and the more precipitous and rapid the
next turnÂ©around is expected to be).
In any case, the attitude of children to the seeÂ©saw would
seem to be instructive. Most tend to conclude, after having given
it a try, either that it is an instrument of aggression, which
comes as an unpleasant surprise, since they do not normally expect
to be hurt by an object that stays in one place, and teaches them
not to trust the fellow on the other side, or that it is a bore.
Regardless of how much effort they invest in coÂ©operating with the
fellow on the other side, the seeÂ©saw doesn’t go anywhere. So, as
thousands of neglected and vandalized seeÂ©saws in parks everywhere
attest, most children have learned to ignore them and play some
Choice is essentially disruptive. Whether it means turning to
alternative things or doing things at a different time or place,
the availability of alternatives tends to upset things,
particularly the delicate balance between supply and demand. Even
if the quantity of each is fixed at a particular point in time, the
ideal situation from the seeÂ©saw perspective, demand is likely to
change from one minute to the next, and not simply, as the model
suggests, because demand has been satisfied by supply. For
example, prompted by new information, demand, being an immaterial
product of the mind, may well evaporate without being satisfied, or
just delayed. That’s an experience with which any little kid,
who’s rejected a Life Saver because it’s the “wrong” colorÂ©Â©a bit
of information that has almost no relevance to the essential
characteristics of the candyÂ©Â©is familiar. It is not one
economists are prepared to handle. Nor can they easily account for
the effect calculating, based on the number of Life Savers that are
apparently left, that there’s a good chance a “better” color will
turn up later, when the reject has been consumed by somebody else.
But, that’s not a problem because, unless the kid has money in his
pockets and is willing to buy a Life Saver, there is no demand and
no economic issue.
Alternatives in general, not just unconventional actors like
women and children, tend to be excluded and not just that they are
too complex to fit in the model. Alternatives, it seems,
jeopardize the model’s credibility. For, if it were merely
descriptive, the model should be able to accommodate variables.
That it doesn’t, suggests that the model is something elseÂ©â„¢ (prescriptive)and that it has a purpose–to promote a particular
system of economic behavior. Indeed, the assumption that the
accumulation and concentration of resources as capital is natural
purpose of economic behavior, implies as much. While this
assumption may just be another example of confusing cause and
effect, the perfection towards which the model is directed is ###characterized by the conditions of decreasing variety and choice
which are realized in monopolistic enterprise. But, monopoly being
at least inconsistent with the political commitment to democracy,
alternatives and choices are to be eliminated as “imperfections” on
the way to the more “perfect” balance of supply and demand.
How is the persistence of alternatives and “imperfections,”
in spite of the concerted efforts of government and industry to
achieve “perfection,” to be explained? The answer, I think, is
that the monopolistic tendencies of both public and private
corporate entities have been held in check by the combined action
of the two fundamental principles of our political system: that all
men are created equal and that they are individually entitled to
their own property. When either or both are unequally or
separately enforcedÂ©Â©when, for example, women and children are
denied equal status with menÂ©Â©then monopolistic interests are
almost certain to exploit them as resources, rather than giving
them what they are due. Equality and the economic condition of the
individual are intimately related, not by the fact that inequality
almost inevitably leads to poverty, but because, individuals being
be definition different and essentially unequal, equality depends
on being visibly expressed as property. If the individual cannot
express his equality by exercising control over that which belongs
to himÂ©Â©his person and the things he needs to sustain himselfÂ©Â©then
that control or ownership is not able to be recognized and his
equality has no reality in anyone else’s eyes. It isn’t enough that
an individual be left alone. Equality is a matter of comparison
(this belongs to you and this belongs to me) and if the
individual’s right to own real, though not necessarily tangible,
property isn’t guaranteed, then he only exists as long as someone
lets him be and he isn’t even free.
But, strange as it seems, ownership implies boundaries. Just
as the skin defines the boundary of the individual person, which
the commitment to equality pledges others to respect, if the claim
to control physical assets is to be recognized, it is at least
helpful, and perhaps indispensable that they be identified,
delineated and set aside in some visible structureÂ©Â©i.e. a house.
A house distinguishes what belongs to one individual, or economic
unit, from what belongs to someone else. Though fences and silos,
or even a desk in an office can provide this function, the house is
most probably the basic, allÂ©purpose, universally recognized
structure from which specialized extensions and functional
equivalents have evolved. Indeed, until recently when most
production and even consumption began to be conducted somewhere
else, in response to the extreme specialization and disruptive
effects of industrial production, the house served to contain and
hold the basic economic unit together. Now, more often than not,
it only serves as what it perhaps was when primitive men first took
refuge in cavesÂ©Â©a shelter.
Unfortunately, a shelter does not serve the same psychological
and social function as a house. A shelter is protective, a shield
against the outsideÂ©Â©not an inclusive extension of the individual
in which his person and property act as one. Lacking the same
sense of permanence, privacy and ownership, which are incorporated
and signified by a house, a shelter is hardly a functional equivalent.
Neither is an automobile, or even a motor home or van.
Though the latter might be categorized as a house that moves
around, from a political perspective, owning a vehicle is not at
all the same as owning a house. A man’s privacy, to be secure from
random searches and seizure, isn’t protected by his car, as it is
by his house/castle. Any reasonably wellÂ©founded suspicion
(probable cause) is apt to be considered sufficient to justify an
order to vacate and/or surrender a vehicle on the spot.
In any case, as household functions have been dispersed in the
process of moving production and consumption out, the functions
associated with reproducing and rearing the next generation have
tended to get lost. Not only have they been misclassified as
consumption, but there’s hardly anyone left in the shelters or
elsewhere with any competence to provide adequate nurture, much
less to transmit the fundamental skills humans need to become
contributing members of society. Day care centers are shelters,
not functional equivalents of the house. Even if they are staffed
by specialists, day care centers can only provide for the physical
needs of the children, since it is doubtful that their emotional,
psychological and intellectual needs can be satisfied by the
ministrations of specialists. At least, that seems to be what the
record of specialized education on the elementary level indicatesÂ©â„¢ that specialization cannot compensate for the failure to develop a
base of generalized information during what may well be a very
narrow and wellÂ©defined period of human development. In other
words, it may well be that in trying to reorder the natural
sequence of development and learning in the interest of
specialization, that window of opportunity is lost.
Since even Plato’s prescription for his “Republic” stumbled on
the problem of how best to rear children so as to promote the
development of their asÂ©yetÂ©uncertain talents, it is obviously not
a new problem. We should know more, however, especially now that
the Soviet experiment with social segmentation, specialization and
indoctrination has failed and refocus on what worked, not perfectly
but more often than not, in the past. That is, perhaps it is the
householdÂ©Â©not the hierarchical social group or family, but the
functional unit in which biological and economic relationships are
intertwined to carry out the processes of human existenceÂ©Â©which
provides the most appropriate environment for transmitting the
principles of economic behavior from one generation to the next.
Perhaps it is the household which enables humans to escape the
catchÂ©asÂ©catch can existence of the predator.
I want to make it quite clear that households are not the same
as families. While it is obvious that intact and cohesive
biological units tend to achieve greater material and social
success, “strong” families and economic advancement are not
necessarily related as cause and effect. Indeed, most children who
attend parochial schools, even those from broken homes, tend to
experience similar levels of success, regardless of their familial
socioÂ©economic status and structure. Which suggests that similar
results are a function of similar behavior, not social status and
organization. In other words, one has to ask what it is that
conscientious parents and parochial teachers DO to enable children
to sustain themselves and achieve success. Just as it is necessaryâ€˜ to consider, if we want make them more effective or improve them,
what households do and how they function.
The answer, I think, is in the question. Material success is
the result of an enabling education, not preparation for
subservience and domination; an education which focuses on
instructing children how to âˆš#âˆšdoÆ’#Æ’ things, rather than how to “take”
orders. When the focus of education is on doing, then the social
intent, whether it is to prepare children to care for the aged, to
serve the greater glory of God, or to discover and develop their
particular talents, probably doesn’t make much difference. What
counts is the process of preparation which benefits children first
and society later. Again, it’s a matter of following the proper
sequenceÂ©Â©first investment, then return. On the other hand, if
education is focused on producing good citizens and disciplined
workers, they can’t be expected to know how to do anything but
obey. Expecting them to provide a “credit” to society assumes that
children are to be exploitedÂ©Â©to provide more benefit to society
than society is willing to invest. Which is bound to backfire, if
only because, even if they are able, humans seem to resent being
compelled to do that which they are otherwise inclined to do.
Or, at least, I resent it. I resent being expected to manage
a household without compensation and without recognition, though I
do so quite willingly on my own. This may be perverse, but it is
my subjective reaction and the reason for writing this book. I
will not be compelled and I will not be ignored, and I am concerned
that this reaction is widely shared and accounts for the fact that
some very important work just isn’t getting done. At least, that’s
what it looks like from my perspective, the perspective of a
typical, white, middleÂ©class, middleÂ©aged, traditional wife and
mother considering the economy from inside the household, looking
Since my experiences are my only credentials, the introductory
chapter will describe in some detail how my perspective was formed.
Then, having in a sense defined myself, it seems appropriate to
consider some economic terms, which don’t necessarily mean what
they seem to say, to set the stage for the following essays.
I spent my earliest years in a barter economy. In 1940, my mother, having decided at the age of thirty-two to get married and have a child, closed down her dress-making business, released her nine employees and, keeping her inventory of fabric, moved from Munich to Aachen, Germany, her new husbandâ€™s home. By the time I was born, my father had already been drafted into the German army and, when the bombing of Aachen became a nightly affair, my mother, not being willing to die, hied herself to the Austrian Alps and secured lodging for us in an outbuilding on an Alpine farm for the duration of the war.
The farmers had no use for money and too much sense to accept currency in such unsettled times, but they had accumulated a large store ofjewelry, fabrics, linens and furs under their high beds. So, in taking us in, they no doubt considered that my motherâ€™s skill as a dress-maker represented an opportunity to transform their store of yard goods into fashionable clothes. My mother, however, preferred to collect berries and mushrooms and dandelion greens, or to help with the haying and even the slaughter of an occasional pig, rather than sewing for them. She wasnâ€™t at all inclined to prostitute her skills by plying the needle in the service of people having so little culture and class.
I had no such scruples. I delighted in sharing the farmersâ€™ mid-day meals, to which I was welcome even before I was capable of performing any significant chores. When I was about three years of age I was assigned some tasks. No matter how frightened I was of the hen and her chicks, which it was my job to release every morning from the coop under our two rooms, there wasnâ€™t any question about whether or not I would do it, but I resented the farmerâ€™s son because he spat out the water I brought to the fields where they were haying. Heâ€™d complain that it had gotten warm on the trip from the trough to the field and demand that I fetch him some more without dawdling. Thatâ€™s how I learned not to waste time.
After the war, the Austrian government ordered the expulsion of all Germans and we were forced to return to a bombed-out Munich, where living conditions there were much more difficult than on the primitive Alpine farm. Although my mother still had some thirteen trunks and pieces of luggage full of belongings, which she managed to transport from Austria to Germany on a freight train full of refugees, some of her most valuable assets had to be left behind, hidden in the back of a bake-oven on the farm. But they didnâ€™t have much practical value anyway because there was nothing to barter or buy. Shelter, too, was scarce, but we were fortunate enough to be taken in by two friends of my motherâ€™s. Their rented house, although officially condemned because one wall had to be propped up with logs, had actually fared quite well and, with two floors plus a basement, was more than large enough for three women and a child. Even when my father returned after several years as a prisoner of war in France, it was ample.
My maternal grandparents had survived the war in a little town in the German Alps, where my grandfather was employed by the postal service to deliver mail, passengers and whatever else his rural customers might need. Those customers, in turn, rewarded his dedication and cheerful nature with gifts of eggs, bacon, and other agricultural surplus. These gifts were not bribes, mind you, but it is, of course, in the nature of gifts to set up obligations and, especially in times of scarce resources, it makes good sense to insure that the interests of â€œgoodâ€ customers are remembered as priorities are established. So, the bacon and eggs guaranteed that if trips were curtailed by a shortage of fuel, those generous farmers would still get their goods and services delivered.
Some of their produce naturally found its way to our larder in the city, while the eggs were stored in lime-water in the basement, to be traded, together with treasures that came in CARE packages from relatives in America, to round out a meager but life-sustaining diet. After my father returned from three years internment as a prisoner of war in France, he was hired by the Americans to repair typewriters–a job for which heâ€™d had no training. One of the major benefits of that position, in addition to a hot dinner in the base cafeteria, where I sometimes visited and feasted on left-over peas and carrots, was access to cigarettes. Cigarettes were generally more useful than currency because, when there was no food to buy, at least the cigarettes could be smoked and the symptoms of hunger staved off for a while. My motherâ€™s store of yard goods also came in handy to trade for food because in a cold climate clothing is almost as important as food, especially when thereâ€™s no fuel and the combustible parts of shelters (floors, window frames, and doors) have to be burned up to boil water and cook. Eventually, even her wedding dress was bartered away, but not for food. Rather, she exchanged it for a guarantee that when the quota for immigration to America was to be opened, her application, prepositioned in a secretaryâ€™s desk, would be mailed just as soon as the announcement was made and would be one of the first to be received. The wedding dress bought us immigration numbers 64 and 65.
My motherâ€™s determination to emigrate was a personal matter. After my fatherâ€™s repatriation from France, she discovered that she didnâ€™t really like being a German wife. The position not only had little to recommend it to a woman who had run her own business, but she was not at all inclined to defer to a husband whom, it seemed, she would have to support. So, since he wasnâ€™t inclined to give her a divorce, she decided to emigrate and traded the remainder of her earthly possessions, except for a silver-coated porcelain tea pot, for my fatherâ€™s permission to depart.
That was how, after a sea-sick two weeks on the S.S. Stockholm and a few days in New York, where I was introduced to bubble gum, my mother, the tea pot, and I arrived in California in l949. Since we had spent the ten dollars she had baked into a cake, in order to smuggle it out of Germany, we arrived in Los Angeles without a cent in our pockets and seven hundred dollars in debt. My grandmotherâ€™s brother in California, who had advanced the cost of our passage and expected to be repaid, agreed to rent us the cottage behind his house in East Los Angeles for sixty-five dollars a month. That was a lot of money in 1949. My mother found a job and my experience with barter came to an end, to a certain extent.
Getting ahead in a monetary economy wasnâ€™t too difficult. Though she discovered that speaking and understanding what people said wasnâ€™t at all like reading English in a book, my motherâ€™s skills were soon recognized and she advanced in short order from basting linings into jackets to designing ready-to-wear. The four hours she spent commuting on the bus each day continued to be a strain, even though the relatives supervised me after school and I was kept busy making preparations for the dinner she would cook when she got home. Once-a-week, my uncle drove us to a supermarket; I made occasional purchases at the corner grocery where the prices were, of course, higher.
But thatâ€™s not what I remember most distinctly from a time when I had just learned a new language and been promoted to my proper grade (third) in school. What I remember most is that the local merchants had a tendency to cheat. Prices at the cash register were always a few pennies higher than on the shelves. It was as if they considered their customers too dumb to notice, or dared them to make an objection. Years later, when resentment erupted into conflagration in Watts and East Los Angeles, I understood it, because I had shared it. But until then I hadnâ€™t made the connection to the only other homeowners in the neighborhood I was aware of, besides my uncle and aunt– the black family who lived next door and whose children had a much bigger yard to play in. Until then, the only reason I remembered them was because, for my first twenty-four years, they were the only neighbors, other than the farmers in the Alps, who lived in their own house.
Living in my unclesâ€™s back yard had a number of drawbacks. He and his wife probably felt entitled, because of the CARE packages they had sent after the war, but they charged us more rent for that cottage than they ever collected from anyone else, before or after, and their after-school supervision was restricted to seeing that I didnâ€™t go anywhere. So, after a year in parochial school, I was sent to camp and enrolled in The Brown School for Girls in the San Gabriel mountains. There I experienced, for the first time ever, the joys of having my own room and, once again, the solitude of the great outdoors. The Brown School also introduced me, though it seems ironic, to the recreational and cultural opportunities usually ascribed to life in the traditional American family.
In addition to academics and non-sectarian religious instruction, there was tennis and swimming and freÂquent excursions to Knottsâ€™ Berry Farm or the beach. We even practiced the social graces at occasional dances held in conjunction with the various Brown Military Academies. So, in very short order, I turned into an American.
Not so my mother. In the summer of 1952 we returned to Germany, just for a vacation, but also in response to the feeling of homesickness that all emigrants seem to experiÂence. However, the Wirtschaftswunder was just beginning and it was already obvious that the conditions of pre-war Germany, the cooks and maids and social life for which my mother yearned, were not about to be restored. Moreover, the two women, with whom we had shared the house after the war, had come to the same concluÂsion and were contemplating a move to South America, where, according to the reports of ex-patriates who had gone there to enjoy the assets they salvaged from Hitlerâ€™s grasp and the war, the availability of cheap labor provided an opportunity to recreate the way of life that had been destroyed by the war. So, my mother was encouraged to participate in a joint venture and in the spring of l954, she wound up her enterprise in California, packed up our belongings and booked a slow freighter to Chile. I turned thirteen somewhere near the Equator.
The poverty we observed in port after port as the freighter meandered for six weeks along the coast of Central and South America was incredible and while the trouble we had getting ourselves and our belongings through Chilean customs seemed designed to give the impression that they were doing us a tremendous favor in letting us in, Valparaiso and Santiago werenâ€™t much better. The official skepticism, it turned out, was prompted by the fact that barter was still a major mode of economic enterprise.
It soon became obvious that in renting a villa and setting up a boarding house and dressmaking business, my mother and her two friends were bucking the popular trend. Chile wasnâ€™t prepared for people to make a living from local enterprise. Not only was there a black market for everything, but money was something to be spirited out of the country and invested over-seas. And while I learned how to speak Spanish, to deal with the tradesmen, and to fill in whenever the maid or cook absconded or was dismissed, I also learned, first hand, what cheap labor means. In addition to being an alternative to having me work for free, an alternative made necessary by the fact that our social status demanded that I go to school, cheap labor meant inconvenience, inefficiency and insecurity. Because, in spite of the fact that, except when it was actually in use, every drawer, cupboard, chest, closet and room was kept locked, something or other was constantly getting â€œlost.â€ Even the pantry and refrigerator had to be kept under lock and key to prevent the surreptitious consumption of what few left-overs there were. I learned that when people canâ€™t earn enough to sustain them, they naturally take what they need by stealth.
My motherâ€™s perspective was somewhat different. As far as she was concerned, instead of supporting one husband, she was stuck with supporting two friends. So, after nine months, when her assets were about gone, she finally decided to take advantage of the round-trip tickets she had fortuitously purchased. Though she had had every intention of staying in Chile, I had been ready to return to California since the moment we left. This time, however, because a strike in the copper mines had brought west coast shipping to a halt, we headed for New York.
In addition to being the only immediate choice, New York seemed to offer a number of advantages. Not only would we reach it sooner, since the voyage through the Panama Canal would take only two weeks instead of six, but, as the capital of the clothing industry, New York seemed to offer a wider selection of employment opportunities. And finally, we had all along been encouraged to settle there by a Jewish doctor and his wife.
These pre-war acquaintances of my motherâ€™s not only located an apartment for us as soon as they learned we were coming, but arranged for me to attend a Catholic boarding school in the Bronx at no cost. The good doctor probably offered to pay the tuition, but, since he had been treating the nuns gratis for years, they wouldnâ€™t accept payment. So, I benefitted, it turned out, because the nuns were glad for an opportunity to repay an obligation, which the good doctor had had no intention of creating. His charity towards these cloistered women was an expression of gratitude for having been able, at the age of sixty, to not only find a safe haven from the persecution of Jews in Hitlerâ€™s Germany, but to be certified and enabled to resume his surgical practice. That is, I was the beneficiary of a complex nexus of obligations to which my mother had become connected by the simple refusal to comply with Nazi directives and sever her commercial and personal relationships with Jews. Before they were forced to flee, she had continued to outfit all her customers, including the doctorâ€™s wife, and all their bills were paid. So, it wasnâ€™t a matter of being owed anything.
I am not sure I fully appreciated the convent school at the time. The living conditions were rather spartan. Our rooms were unheated at night and many a morning we awoke to fresh snow on the floor under the windows–left open, no doubt, to make sure we remained in our beds and didnâ€™t disturb the nunsâ€™ rest. Maintaining silence at mealtimes assured that there was little opportunity to complain about the quality or quantity of the food, while the forest green uniforms, unrelieved by such distractions as jewelry or cosmetics, was helpful in keeping us focused on what was really important–our education.
The quality of the education was, like the food, not the best, but it was generally reputed to be better than what the public schools offered. And, since it didnâ€™t cost me anything, it would have been rude to raise any objection. However, once I was in college, I couldnâ€™t resist making the point that it would have been helpful if weâ€™d at least had an opportunity to write more than two hundred word essays.
The college I had chosen, Seton Hill, was a small Catholic womenâ€™s college in the hills of western Pennsylvania. It not only offered an opportunity to escape from New York City and to major in political science, for less money than any other, but, quite unexpectedly, a sense of liberation, after having grown accustomed to the regimentation of the convent school. I was awarded a full tuition scholarship. So, by working as a part-time receptionist at the college and waiting on tables in the Catskills during the summer, I was able to cover most of my college expenses and even save some of the five hundred dollars a year contributed by my mother.
When I graduated in 1963 with a degree in Political Science and a range of fluency in four foreign languages (in addition to Latin, of course), I decided to move to Washington D.C. And look for a position in government service. I had originally intended to pursue a career in the Foreign Service but gave that up because I lacked interest in both tennis and the cocktail parties, which, according to the reports of the junior officers to whom I had been introduced, were the primary prerequisites for the job. In any case, I soon discovered that since I didnâ€™t know short-hand and my typing speed was too slow, as far as the civil service was concerned I wasnâ€™t really qualified for much of anything. So, after four years of college, I accepted a job, much like the one I found for the summer between my junior and senior year in high school, with the Library of Congress. My proficiency in foreign languages meant that instead of opening envelopes and checking subscriptions for a childrenâ€™s weekly magazine, I was now qualified for editing and filing cards in the National Union Catalogue after checking that the submissions from libraries around the country were consistent with the Library of Congress format.
I was a good worker, but a poor employee. When my supervisor objected that my co-worker and I were routinely punching in a couple of minutes late, I agreed that this was a nuisance, especially since I didnâ€™t enjoy waiting a half hour in the damp and cold to be picked up. However, since the transfer of our section from Capitol Hill to the Navy Yard meant that using public transit now involved taking three buses and a ride of ninety minutes in order to cover a distance which took only fifteen minutes in the car, I offered her a choice: she could insist and I would comply with the requirement that I arrive on time, but then she should expect that I would have to spend, like the others, the first half hour of the work day in the rest room and getting coffee, take more breaks and longer lunches, and, inevitably, reduce my work product by about thirty percent, to the same level as my colleagues achieved.
To her credit, my supervisor solved this â€œproblemâ€ by assigning me special tasks back at the Library of Congress. Then, since I came and went to work without supervision, it was easy to explain the random pattern of my comings and goings at the Navy Yard annex. And, when I finally qualified for a position translating Russian journal articles, after having my application for a position in the Legislative Reference division denied three times because some â€œyoung man with excellent credentialsâ€ had just happened along, I turned it down and stayed on in my quasi-independent slot. At that point, I had not only realized that the operative term in the phrase â€œyoung man with excellent credentialsâ€ was â€œmanâ€ and represented a decided reluctance to promote a just married woman who was unwilling to promise not to leave to bear children, but, having discovered that I was indeed pregnant, I felt that it would not be fair to jeopardize some other womanâ€™s chance for promotion by reinforcing the stereotype with my own behavior. So, when my first child, a daughter, was born, I left paid employment, never to return.
I became a household manager, but not by default. Rather, it was a conscious choice. Since it seemed highly unlikely that, unlike my mother in another time and place, I would ever earn enough to employ a housekeeper and child-care providers and since it seemed even less likely, given the level of academic salaries, that even with two incomes we would earn enough to buy the kind of private schooling I had gotten for free, I decided to supervise and supplement the public school education of my children (it wasnâ€™t long before there were three) by staying at home and making a contribution as a school volunteer. Besides, since I had never experienced the life of a nuclear family in a â€œtraditionalâ€ household and had, in fact, only a casual acquaintance with two or three, creating such an entity seemed a challenge in itself.
When our daughter was six months old, my husband took a new position and we moved to rural New Hampshire, to an area on the verge of becoming suburban and bought our/my first house. It was, at 8500 dollars (about the same as my husbandâ€™s annual salary at the time), the cheapest we could find and it needed a lot of work. It did have indoor plumbing, unlike the Alpine cottage I fondly remembered, but there was no water in the house because one well was not connected and the other had gone dry. The septic tank was installed backwards and the upstairs bedrooms had no heat. If I felt I was back where I started, I was undauntÂed. After all, in the Alps I had survived an outhouse on the second floor and the terror of maybe falling through the hole.
After two years of work and several additions, including our second child, we sold the house for twice what we paid and bought another in even worse condition than the first. That one had survived for over two hundred years with minimal changes, but a series of recent fires had the ironic result that nothing but the oil furnace in the basement worked. But, by then, while my husband had become proficient in rough carpentry and I had learned to patch plaster, hang sheet rock, strip woodwork, glaze windows and paint, we were able to hire plumbers, electricians and cabinetmakers in order to complete the renovations more expeditiously. That, of course, meant that, in addition to supervising and cleaning up after them to maintain the household in a semblance of livability, I learned to keep track of expenses and pay the bills.
When, a year later, we sold that house and moved to upstate New York, our net profit was equal to my husbanÂdâ€™s annual salary from teaching. After five years we had saved enough to return to live year-round in New Hampshire and undertake the speculative conversion of a barn into a house while my husband left teaching to devote his spare time to writing fiction. At that point, neither of us was technically employed, but neither were we out of work. Rather, having drifted into free enterprise, the next logical step was to borrow the money from the bank to finance the conversion. To our surprise, all the banker seemed to want from us was the assurance that we had finally progressed to the efficiency of using electric saws. In addition, the construction loan was conditioned on maintaining both liability and workmenâ€™s compensation insurance for the duration of the project.
Borrowing the money had a number of benefits. Instead of spending a year or two on the project, we were able to close in the strucÂture during the relatively brief period when it is possible to work out of doors in comfort in New England and, most important from my perspective, the work could progress without disrupting the primary household functions. Building a modern house is a potentially hazardous enterprise. If children are to be protecÂted, either their exploratory behavior has to be curtailed, or the process has to be delayed. That is, either the children have to be shut away, or each task has to be carried out in isolation so that a safe environment can be maintained. By keeping the household separate from the construction, it was much easier to restrict the access to tools and materials to when their use could be properly supervised. At the same time, the children did have the opportunity of becoming familiar with the appropriate function and use of a wide range of tools. In turn, this familiarity or accumulation of information seemed to generate an interest in developing projects and following each with another one of their own. They learned to do things and in doing learned how to create and do more.
Yet, I must admit that for a very long time, in fact until just recently, acquiring new tools was a sore subject with me. I resented that my husband seemed to need a new tool for every job. As far as I was concerned, the mounting expense was hardly justified by their limited specialized use, nor by the fond memories they evoked of his grandfatherâ€™s lumber yard and hardware store. He, on the other hand, was driven to disÂtraction by my using an old knife as a multipurpose tool to turn a screw, scrape paint, or grout tile. Even the â€œrealâ€ tools I used gave him grief. More often than not, they came apart in his hands and had to be replaced–with a sturdier versions, of course, which he perceived as more conducive to the efficient use of his musculature. I only knew that I didnâ€™t like his tools. Not only did the promised increase in efficiency never materialize, but, until I learned to insist on having tools that were just my size, my hands and wrists would be so sore after a day of use, and for several days afterwards, that I wasnâ€™t able to do any work at all. Thatâ€™s how I learned what â€œthe right tool for the jobâ€ means. â€œRightnessâ€ isnâ€™t just defined by the job; it also depends on the functional â€œfitâ€ between the implement and the individual who uses it. If the repetitive use of a particular tool results in wear and tear on the user, then the expected efficiency which results from increasing precision and the rhythmic application of force canâ€™t be realized.
The ten years we spent renovating and building houses along a mile-long stretch of a winding New Hampshire road was actually part of a larger process. When we began, the dairy farms in the area were in decline, but not yet entirely gone and the countryside, as well as the towns, were littered with structures that were on the verge of falling down. By the time we were finished, urban renewal, rather than removal, had started to bring new life to the city centers of the area, whether in the name of historic preservation, tourism, or education, and the rural fringes had become suburban enclaves of people on the move.
Now there are no more abandoned farmhouses in that part of New England. Even the barns that didnâ€™t burn down have either been converted to other uses or, more recently, serve the resurgent interest in riding horses and ponies among the new breed of â€œrecreationalâ€ farmers, whose three-acre lots arenâ€™t quite large enough for stables in addition to multiple car garages.
The influx of people did not, however, visibly increase the population of the area. Indeed, most of the time, only the smoke from the chimneys and the shifting location of cars in the yards give any indication that there is life in those houses. If they are not entirely empty during most of the day, thereâ€™s not much going on, because hardly anyone can earn enough from private enterprise in the relative isolation characteristic of suburban locations, to pay the taxes, much less the interest and principle on these structures. The handful of houses, for example, which we renovated and constructed, each for less than thirty thousand dollars, are now all assessed for purposes of taxation at over two hundred thousand dollars. That means that the annual bill for education, road maintenance, police, and fire protection is twice as much as the interest and principle on what it cost to build them twenty years ago. Those who havenâ€™t sold out in the interim have to pay out at least eight thousand dollars annually just to keep their property, while more recent settlers, even if they were able to borrow money at ten percent during the nineteen eighties, have to pay out more than thirty thousand dollars. As a result, people like my husband, who doesnâ€™t earn much more than that as a tenured college professor, obviously can no longer afford to buy a house and live there.
While comparable structures in colonial villages and towns were obviously the basis of productive enterprise, which not only sustained their owners but maintained their capital value, the suburban location of these houses is not suited to either agriculture or commerce. Since these properties are both too small and too spread out to function efficiently and sustain themselves, it is not surprising that there is no production going on. In addition, of course, thereâ€™s the fact that the majority of the population seem to prefer to work somewhere other than in their own houses. Which is why, most of the time, thereâ€™s little going on in those houses and nobodyâ€™s doing anything but sleeping.
* * *
It seem ironic that it is this very preference to work somewhere else and get paid for what one does, which also accounts, in large measure, for the fact that everything costs more money. Hardly anyone can afford to stay home and earn nothing, because hardly anyone seems willing, any longer, to work for free–a situation of which I first became aware as a school volunteer. In my effort to monitor my childrenâ€™s education, as well as the school budgets, I found myself part of a shrinking cadre, whose demise was in large part responsible for the apparent shrinkage in the budget. Because there were fewer volunteers in the schools every year, working for free, it seemed that there was always more to do with less money. Though, of course, there never actually was less money than the year before.
What was actually happening was that there was an increased insistence on being paid, in part, I eventually decided, when I witnessed a repetition of the process applied to firefighters and rescue workers, in response to bureaucratic demands for professionalization and training. That is, the regimentation of volunteers was helping to drive them away. Since the ability to do what one wants, which is what makes voluntary effort attractive, naturally conflicts with the institutional desire to have people do what they were told, preferably for free, the volunteers just as naturally responded that, if they were going to be told what to do (even if itâ€™s just a matter of getting training and filling out paperwork to document their achievements), then theyâ€™d just as soon get paid. Which, of course, eventually resulted in an army of paid volunteers–epitomized by our all-volunteer armed forces.
I was sorely tempted to resume paid employment. Instead, though I gave up volunteering in the schools on a regular basis, the role of the volunteer, like that of the increasingly anachronistic housewife/homemaker/household manager, continued to represent a challenge. Besides, I considered the relative independence of voluntary effort to be socially valuable and resisting the bureaucratic impulse to control it seemed particularly worthwhile. So, I became a multiple volunteer on all kinds of municipal, social service, and educational committees. I also volunteered my services for political office. However, the voters chose not to elect me, probably because they quite rightly perceived that my independent streak not only kept me from promising what they wanted to hear, but would keep me from doing what they wanted to see.
Now, after fifteen years of volunteer effort, I am, to say the least, ambivalent. My ambivalence has nothing and everything to do with the fact that I didnâ€™t get paid. While I was pleased to repay the debt I owed as a result of other peopleâ€™s generosity towards me, and it was my choice not to accept any remuneration or derive any personal benefit from my efforts, i.e. Not to get paid, that posture turned out to be rather difficult to maintain.
In fact, it seems to be generally assumed that the purpose of actively participating in the Chamber of Commerce, for example, as well as less obviously materialistic social, political, and educational associations is to promote a personal agenda. Consequently, claiming not to have any but an objective social interest tends to be viewed with suspicion, which, of course, undermines oneâ€™s effectiveness. Itâ€™s a no-win situation. However much disinterest or unselfishness is praised, hardly anyone seems to believe that it exists.
I felt that it was important to keep my involvement â€œpureâ€ and, with two exceptions, neither received any benefit, nor expended any public resources on my own initiative. The two exceptions–a box lunch provided by the representatives of the Georgia Pacific Corporation on a trek through the Santa Fe swamp, which merely reinforced the original suspicion that mining the swamp for peat was a bad idea and seemingly convinced Georgia Pacific to sell this environmentally sensitive area to the State, and the long distance telephone charges I incurred as the Guardian ad Litem for a ward of the State–serve to prove my point. The box lunch merely replaced the energy I and my associates on a local water management advisory committee expended in wading for several hours through the knee-deep waters of the Santa Fe swamp. On the other hand, had I paid the long distance phone charges I expended on inquiries into the institutional placement and alternative care for an abandoned child, that would have been a donation to the State over and above what I had committed myself to make.
Keeping volunteer labor voluntary, i.e. Uncoerced, is even more difficult than keeping self-interest out. Once the volunteer is no longer perceived as motivated by self-interest, then the disinterested, charitable impulse is, for some reason, assumed to be limitless and subject to boundless demands. That is, if the volunteerâ€™s unselfishness is credible, then it is liable to abuse. Not only does the demand for free labor seem limitless, but, given the logic of â€œif he/she has nothing better to do than volunteer, then we had better put him/her to work,â€ this abuse of the charitable impulse seems virtuous. It doesnâ€™t take long for the volunteer to be transformed into someone whoâ€™s expected to do what heâ€™s told.
Unfortunately, in addition to being directed and controlled, whether in the name of improving efficiency, increasing quality, or promoting professional goals, voluntary or free labor also tends to be wasted. Indeed, often it is the effort to avoid waste which produces it. While it may be true that, as the Bible says, â€œthey also serve who only stand and wait,â€ waiting, whether by firefighters, ambulance drivers, or obstetricians, is generally perceived as a waste–of money, talent, or time–and, regardless of whether or not it is worth doing, everyone is supposed to be doing something. The result is a lot of dubious training, upgrading, certification, standardization and professionalization of volunteers and an ever increasing number of people being paid to direct volunteers to do things they donâ€™t want to do. Meanwhile, even as the volunteers become resistant to being told what to do and insist on being paid in exchange for complying with these demands and having their time monopolized, what those who are now giving directions used to do, isnâ€™t getting done. So, more people have to be hired and, in spite of improved management and information systems, productivity goes down.
This process seems to be particularly characteristic of the so-called social services. Though it may not be immediately obvious because the recipients of the benefits either prefer not to have them or positively donâ€™t want them at all. Whereas the recipient of a product or physical service (a haircut) may be dubious about its actual usefulness or worth before he gets it, his purchase is based on a presumption of benefit. Not so the recipient of social services. He may well perceive what others prescribe for his benefit, as, at best, a lesser negative. So, for example, while having a leg amputated at the knee is preferable to having the gangrene spread and result in death, the surgery to remove the leg is not necessarily perceived as a benefit, and certainly not something for which the recipient is eager to pay. Then when we consider the services provided to the robber by the police or the prison guard– services which the provider is not eager to provide, the â€œbeneficiaryâ€ definitely doesnâ€™t want, and those who pay donâ€™t want to either–it is not surprising that the social services are naturally fraught with problems of accountability and quality control.
Injecting volunteers, who, as taxpayers, presumably have an interest in the efficient provision of services, as well as some practical expertise, has little or no beneficial impact. Indeed, in my experience, the availability of volunteers aggravates the problem. Ultimately, the services they provide are counterproductive, if not destructive. Volunteer efforts to establish standards and monitor the performance of paid providers are easily co-opted and transformed into either lobbyists (for additional resources without which the standards canâ€™t be met), apologists (for the inherent difficulty of making people do things they donâ€™t want), or scapegoats (for failing to enforce the standards over which they have no control). On the other hand, efforts to augment social services in the tradition of private charities tend to be resented as merely depressing the salaries of those who are paid. Any benefit derived from keeping the cost of providing social services under control by using volunteers is almost certain to be negated by the poor performance of the paid providers, who, in response, not only claim that they canâ€™t be expected to do a good job because they donâ€™t get paid enough, but assert that if volunteers can do better for nothing, then they are welcome to try.
Actually, I suspect that the level of payment is largely irrelevant in determining the quality of social service. Much more significant is the fact that when the providers of compensatory social services are truly effective, their customers or clients donâ€™t come back. Success means that they will be out of a job. Consequently, thereâ€™s not only little incentive to doing a good job, but lots of motivation for making the process ever more complex. Increasing complexity increases the probability of failure and, therefore, a continued need for the service. In addition, increasing the complexity of the system guarantees that, regardless of the success or failure in delivering services, the effort required by the system to maintain itself will significantly increase, thereby reducing the possibility that the need for it will disappear. Unless, of course, reviewing, revising, adjusting, and analyzing data should suddenly be considered unimportant. So far thereâ€™s no indication that will happen any time soon.
In any case, the problems associated with the provision of social services are not likely to be solved by un-paid volunteers. While it is often suggested that traditional private individual and institutional providers were more efficient and successful, there is no real evidence to demonstrate it. We do know for certain that, like parochial education, charity used to be cheaper because those who did the service werenâ€™t paid. But charitable providers have no more incentive, than those who are paid, to work themselves out of a job. Less perhaps because that would deprive them of the satisfaction they get from telling people what to do, and that, I suspect, is even more addicting than money. So is the inclination to extract payment in the form of gratitude.
Unless it arises spontaneously in response to a sense of well-being, gratitude is demeaning, especially when it is imposed as a debt, because, being unquantifiable, a debt of gratitude is almost impossible to satisfy. One can never be absolutely certain that one has been grateful enough. So, not only is anything worth doing, worth being paid, but monetary debts are better than being a recipient of charity. While it is obviously â€œbetter to give than to receive,â€ being a voluntary participant in a mutually beneficial exchange, in which individual dignity and integrity are maintained, is best.
Charity not only demeans the recipient; it tends to corrode the donor as well. For, even when charity is motivated by a sense of well-being and the self-interested inclination to repay a social obligation, once that obligation has been satisfied, the behavior, having become habitual and satisfying in itself, tends to persist and generate a sense of entitlement. If not, if the tendency to expect some return from the recipients is successfully resisted, then thereâ€™s a good chance that the volunteer will succumb either to the feeling of power which exercising influence over the behavior of others generates, or to the self-satisfaction of persistent self-denial. That is, charitable endeavors tend to result in either of two equally destructive consequences: a power trip, or a martyr complex.
The role of the volunteer, as I have pursued it, has, nevertheless, been instructive. It has provided me with opportunities to observe and experience a wide range of social institutions and systems. More important, as a â€œprofessionalâ€ volunteer, I have, in effect, been experimenting with and experiencing economic alternatives anachronistically. Volunteer labor resembles barter–the direct exchange of goods and services without the mediation of money–as well as slavery, which relies on brute force rather than the economistâ€™s bribery to get men to do what they presumably donâ€™t want. But, that is also what makes it different. While the volunteer obviously competes with those who expect to be paid for their effort on someone elseâ€™s behalf and may even facilitate their exploitation, the volunteer is the very model of the independent actor who participates in society of his own free will.
By controlling one element of the process–payment–the essential characteristics of economic behavior are made more apparent. For example, while the relationship between volunteer labor and paid employment is similar to the relationship between barter and the exchange of things for money, when money is removed from the equation, these behaviors are revealed as actually very different. Barter is a direct exchange, the expression of a bilateral relationship, as is slavery. But the volunteer is not just working without being paid, like the slave; the volunteer is part of a trilateral relationship–directed not be self-interest, nor the self-interest of the recipient of his service, but by an ulterior agent and purpose. Consequently, what the volunteer does, or the service he renders, may well be perceived by the recipient as non-beneficial, if not abusive.
Volunteer labor, it turns out, has no similarity to slavery at all. It is being a charity case that is almost as bad, if not worse than being a slave. For, while the slave was expected to do something for nothing, except the privilege of being allowed to live, welfare recipients are expected to do nothing, but submit passively to being maintained. That is, regardless of whether the donors are handing out private charity or public welfare, the survival of the recipients depends on giving up the most fundamental characteristic of men, the ability to act on their own. Which is something that calling these donations â€œentitlementsâ€ has been unable to change.
Nevertheless, volunteering is perceived not just as individually satisfying but as socially beneficial. Why? If, as is generally assumed, the proper function of society is to counteract manâ€™s inclination towards indolence, why is behavior which relies on a certain percentage of the population being kept inactive, considered good? The answer, I think, is that the assumption about manâ€™s natural inclination towards indolence has no basis in fact. Man isnâ€™t naturally inclined to be idle, but to act, and, more importantly, to act autonomously. The assumption, contrary to fact, is an example of wishful thinking.
It is an effort to resolve the contradiction that while man does not want to be â€œtold what to do,â€ he seems to derive almost as much satisfaction from ordering and directing the behavior of others, as from acting on his own; perhaps even more. By accusing his fellows of being lazy and failing to act, and even preventing them from acting on their own, man invents a logical justification for making others â€œdo what they are told.â€ The real issue is power–manâ€™s ability to direct the behavior of other people. Therein lies the volunteerâ€™s social value. For, in addition to maintaining a pool of unpaid labor to counteract the â€œexcessiveâ€ demand for wages, volunteers reaffirm the efficacy of status, which substitutes psychological satisfaction for material rewards, as a motivator of economic behavior. Volunteers reinforce the belief that some people deserve to be maintained not because of what they contribute or do for others, but because they have persuaded or intimidated others to work for them.
Volunteer labor serves as a sort of rearguard action or distraction from the fact that the increasing use of money or material payment of any kind represents progress towards a more egalitarian society. Because, even though the assessment of costs and benefits is bound to be affected by and vary according to individual perceptions, equality is much easier to calculate, and achieving equity is, therefore, more certain when transactions are recorded in terms of money, rather than gratitude or social status.
Which is probably why I was actually no better as a volunteer than as a paid employee. I lacked the proper submissive attitude. Moreover, it wasnâ€™t long before I realized that, if I was going to achieve anything, I would have to put almost as much effort into resisting being co-opted by the bureaucracy, if not more. For, most of the formal mechanisms for input and voluntary participation–the boards, committees, advisory groups, task forces and associations, many of which I joined–turned out to be both redundant and largely useless; yet another quasi-bureaucratic layer to which the official representatives of the citizenry, having been co-opted and rendered incapable of making independent decisions by the alliance of â€œspecial interestsâ€ with the bureaucracy, resort in frustration. So, in order to influence the decision making process, I discovered that it is necessary to split the alliance between the â€œspecial interestsâ€ and the bureaucracy. Which, of course, involves an antagonistic stance, even though the weapon–factual information–isnâ€™t what one would expect to be perceived as a threat. That it is, is a consequence of the fact that the â€œobjectiveâ€ information, which bureaucrats ostensibly provide, rarely is. More often than not, if it isnâ€™t tailored to suit some â€œspecial interest,â€ it is biased by the bureaucratâ€™s perception of how the public interest is best served.
While it has become routine to blame â€œspecial interestsâ€ for the inefficiency and abuse of power which seems to have become endemic in the public sector, the â€œspecial interestsâ€ are largely a bureaucratic invention. Which is not to say that they are not real, only that the â€œspecial interestsâ€ didnâ€™t materialize of their own volition as pressure groups, antagonistic to the general welfare. Most of the â€œspecial interestsâ€ are nothing more than yesterdayâ€™s critics of bureaucratic inefficiency and inaction whom, like the politicians, the bureaucracy has co-opted and converted into lobbyists for greater authority and more money–the invariable â€œsolutionâ€ to bureaucratic lapses. Which, by the way, is truly unbiased. It doesnâ€™t make any difference whether the critics are owl-huggers or miners, joggers or oil refiners, in order for the bureaucracy to be responsive to their interests, it needs more power and more dollars.
It almost seems as if in committing ourselves to the proposition that those who dedicate themselves to public service should not be dismissed, except for malfeasance, we have left the bureaucracy with almost no incentive to do a good job. Rather than freeing the bureaucracy from political pressure, developing expertise, and promoting institutional loyalty, permanence seems to have created the perception that, being paid just to be in attendance (ala â€œthey . . . serve who only sit and waitâ€), entitles public servants to additional compensation in the form of deference and appreciation, or some other special recognition (to balance the â€œspecial interestâ€ in something more than the bureaucratic presence), for any service they actually deliver.
So, if a particular neighborhood, for example, has a special problem with street crime and asks for more police on the beat, then, of course, it must be prepared to support an increase in the budget for salaries in exchange. Which isnâ€™t very different from the traditional collection of special payments. Only now that individual subsidies have been outlawed as extortion and bribery, the payment for special services has to be spread across the board. But, unfortunately, that dilutes their effect and, after every inspector and chief, dispatcher and spokesman gets a cut, even those who remember what the increases were intended to do, no longer care. Not surprisingly, the improvement in services never arrives.
Of course, thatâ€™s not a problem for those who perceive that the sole purpose of government is punitive–to exercise restraint and keep people from doing what the authorities (those who count) donâ€™t want. From the perspective of â€œeach man for himself,â€ and no expectation of anything positive from the bureaucracy, if the agents of authority are lax, so much the better. Nor is cost a problem if all government does is lock up those who are inclined to be disruptive, while the needy–the young, the infirm, and the aged–are kept out of the way to be looked after in the traditional manner, by the voluntary (free) labor, primarily of women. But, however reasonable that theory sounds, the last ten years have shown that it doesnâ€™t work very well in practice.
Which shouldnâ€™t be surprising, considering that the next generation, the children, canâ€™t just be left out or relegated to the margin along with the worn out and useless. Nor can we expect a society which, for whatever reason, resigns itself to maintaining a significant segment of its population in a permanently dependent condition (whether in jails and prisons, labor collectives, or homeless shelters makes little difference), expect to sustain itself from generation to generation.
Moreover, if there is one historical certainty, it is that every society which has relied on force and intimidation, rather than the voluntary exchange of goods and services, to allocate the resources required to sustain its population, has expired. The reason, I would argue, is simple. Intimidation and exploitation create resentment and resentful people tend not to produce or reproduce successfully. So, while a society committed to â€œeach man for himselfâ€ may flourish in the short term by depleting the surplus of good will generated in the past, it canâ€™t last.
This does not, however, answer the question why the individual, who is bound to expire anyway, should have any interest in whether or not that society will persist. Especially if his inclination to dominate or control the behavior of others has been satisfied, what other incentive is there, either physical and psychological, to resist the â€œapres moi le delugeâ€ mentality and to make an investment in the future? Why should the individual even care that a society in which individual relationships are based on the use of force, intimidation, and exploitation is bound to fail? He wonâ€™t be there to see it.
Thatâ€™s true. But, it is also true that it is possible to anticipate that failure and, by relying on the wisdom of past experience to change behavior, avoid it. Which would mean exchanging the immediate satisfaction of domination for the opportunity to influence the behavior of many more people and long after the individual himself has expired; exchanging the authority of coercion for the authority of persuasion and expertise.
I donâ€™t think that the flowering of social equality and the age of information is a random coincidence. Rather, I think that they are intimately related. And it concerns me that, perhaps because their joint arrival was unexpected or because we were distracted by their stupendous effects, their source in the household, where nature and nurture combine to produce the independent and sociable individuals on whom the transmission of social organization and culture from one generation to the next depends, is being neglected. While it probably doesnâ€™t make much difference whether these essential household functions are centralized or dispersed into what I refer to as â€œfunctional equivalents,â€ if they are not carried out, then it is unlikely that the evolution of the reliance on predatory exploitation by humans into trade and exchange can be maintained.
The household, I am convinced, is not only central to economic success, but to the success of society. Which is why I invite you to take a closer look before, at least in its traditional form, the household disappears entirely.