The Wellspring of the Economy

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 well©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 duo©©the producer©© 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 self©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

non©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 self©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 self©sustaining and independent

for the duration of his/her life©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 own©©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

they ought.

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 self©sustaining old

age, the elderly will naturally become prey, as the criminal

statistics already indicate. In the absence of mutually supportive

inter© and intra©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

self©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.

¡#######¡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 well©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

risky proposition.

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 so©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 √#√seeÆ’#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 nine©to©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 self©interest, is unreliable.

While I can imagine being entirely objective©© without

prejudice, perceptual limitations, or self©serving interests©© 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 miss©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

what©so©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 thinking©©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 self©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 believe©©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 self©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, self©interest is merely presumed to be inherently flawed.

And it is because self©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 self©interest. The assumption that

one’s own behavior is other©directed, i.e. motivated by concern for

someone else’s well©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 self©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 √#√don’tÆ’#Æ’ want, or, at least, prefer not

to have©©medical procedures, incarceration, and hazardous waste, to

mention just a few©©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 supply©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

supply©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 linear©©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 ahead©©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

alternate course.

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 model©©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 see©saw

model. The see©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 directions©©in the case of economics, up

and down. In addition, the see©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

see©saw model is consistent with the perception of economic

behavior as exclusive©©that the number of players is limited and

only those who conform to the rules can play©©and, by focusing the

participants attention on trying to stay on©©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 turn©around is expected to be).

In any case, the attitude of children to the see©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 co©operating with the

fellow on the other side, the see©saw doesn’t go anywhere. So, as

thousands of neglected and vandalized see©saws in parks everywhere

attest, most children have learned to ignore them and play some

other game.

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 see©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” color©©a bit

of information that has almost no relevance to the essential

characteristics of the candy©©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 else©™ (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 enforced©©when, for example, women and children are

denied equal status with men©©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 him©©his person and the things he needs to sustain himself©©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 structure©©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, all©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 caves©©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 outside©©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 well©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 indicates©™ that specialization cannot compensate for the failure to develop a

base of generalized information during what may well be a very

narrow and well©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 as©yet©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

household©©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 existence©©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

catch©as©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

socio©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 necessary‘ 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 √#√doÆ’#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

sequence©©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 exploited©©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, middle©class, middle©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 husband’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 mother’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 wasn’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 farmers’ 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 wasn’t any question about whether or not I would do it, but I resented the farmer’s son because he spat out the water I brought to the fields where they were haying. He’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. That’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 didn’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 mother’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 “good” 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 he’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 mother’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 there’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 secretary’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 mother’s determination to emigrate was a personal matter. After my father’s repatriation from France, she discovered that she didn’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 wasn’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 father’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 grandmother’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 wasn’t too difficult. Though she discovered that speaking and understanding what people said wasn’t at all like reading English in a book, my mother’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 that’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 hadn’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 uncles’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 didn’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 fre­quent excursions to Knotts’ 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 experi­ence. 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 conclu­sion 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 Hitler’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 weren’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 wasn’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 “lost.” 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 can’t earn enough to sustain them, they naturally take what they need by stealth.

My mother’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 mother’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 wouldn’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 Hitler’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 doctor’s wife, and all their bills were paid. So, it wasn’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 didn’t disturb the nuns’ 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 didn’t cost me anything, it would have been rude to raise any objection. However, once I was in college, I couldn’t resist making the point that it would have been helpful if we’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 women’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 didn’t know short-hand and my typing speed was too slow, as far as the civil service was concerned I wasn’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 children’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 didn’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 “problem” 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 “young man with excellent credentials” 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 “young man with excellent credentials” was “man” 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 woman’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 wasn’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 “traditional” 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 husband’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 undaunt­ed. 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 husban­d’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 workmen’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 struc­ture 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 protec­ted, 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 grandfather’s lumber yard and hardware store. He, on the other hand, was driven to dis­traction by my using an old knife as a multipurpose tool to turn a screw, scrape paint, or grout tile. Even the “real” 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 didn’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 wasn’t able to do any work at all. That’s how I learned what “the right tool for the job” means. “Rightness” isn’t just defined by the job; it also depends on the functional “fit” 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 can’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 didn’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 “recreational” farmers, whose three-acre lots aren’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, there’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 haven’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 doesn’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, there’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, there’s little going on in those houses and nobody’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 children’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 it’s just a matter of getting training and filling out paperwork to document their achievements), then they’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 didn’t get paid. While I was pleased to repay the debt I owed as a result of other people’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 one’s effectiveness. It’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 “pure” 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 volunteer’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 “if he/she has nothing better to do than volunteer, then we had better put him/her to work,” this abuse of the charitable impulse seems virtuous. It doesn’t take long for the volunteer to be transformed into someone who’s expected to do what he’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, “they also serve who only stand and wait,” 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 don’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, isn’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 don’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 “beneficiary” definitely doesn’t want, and those who pay don’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 can’t be met), apologists (for the inherent difficulty of making people do things they don’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 can’t be expected to do a good job because they don’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 don’t come back. Success means that they will be out of a job. Consequently, there’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 there’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 weren’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 “better to give than to receive,” 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 there’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 “professional” 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 economist’s bribery to get men to do what they presumably don’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 else’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 “entitlements” 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 man’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 man’s natural inclination towards indolence has no basis in fact. Man isn’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 “told what to do,” 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 “do what they are told.” The real issue is power–man’s ability to direct the behavior of other people. Therein lies the volunteer’s social value. For, in addition to maintaining a pool of unpaid labor to counteract the “excessive” 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 wasn’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 “special interests” 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 “special interests” and the bureaucracy. Which, of course, involves an antagonistic stance, even though the weapon–factual information–isn’t what one would expect to be perceived as a threat. That it is, is a consequence of the fact that the “objective” information, which bureaucrats ostensibly provide, rarely is. More often than not, if it isn’t tailored to suit some “special interest,” it is biased by the bureaucrat’s perception of how the public interest is best served.

While it has become routine to blame “special interests” for the inefficiency and abuse of power which seems to have become endemic in the public sector, the “special interests” are largely a bureaucratic invention. Which is not to say that they are not real, only that the “special interests” didn’t materialize of their own volition as pressure groups, antagonistic to the general welfare. Most of the “special interests” are nothing more than yesterday’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 “solution” to bureaucratic lapses. Which, by the way, is truly unbiased. It doesn’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 “they . . . serve who only sit and wait”), entitles public servants to additional compensation in the form of deference and appreciation, or some other special recognition (to balance the “special interest” 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 isn’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, that’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) don’t want. From the perspective of “each man for himself,” 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 doesn’t work very well in practice.

Which shouldn’t be surprising, considering that the next generation, the children, can’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 “each man for himself” may flourish in the short term by depleting the surplus of good will generated in the past, it can’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 “apres moi le deluge” 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 won’t be there to see it.

That’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 don’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 doesn’t make much difference whether these essential household functions are centralized or dispersed into what I refer to as “functional equivalents,” 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.