Sunday, December 29, 2013

on money and stuff

I've been reading Ben Hewitt's blog for a while, ever since Shannon Hayes (author of Radical Homemakers, which kicked me off on the activities I try to document here) linked to it, probably late last spring. He has two unschooling boys, and I'm fascinated by his accounts of their life, which in many ways looks like my fantasy life -- except they have the actual skills to carry it off.

A couple of months ago, I finally asked my library to buy a copy of his latest book, Saved: How I Quit Worrying about Money and Became the Richest Guy in the World. In a lot of ways, it's exactly the kind of book I enjoy. Some parts memoir or personal anecdote, some parts historical examination and some parts inspiration. The most memorable part of the book, for me, was his examination of how money is made. I've been able to avoid debts other than our mortgage since 2008 and I remain committed to doing everything I can to avoid it going forward. I was already aware that money has no intrinsic value; you can't eat it or burn it to keep you warm (oh sure, you could burn paper money but it would take a lot to cook a whole meal). Its value comes solely from everyone agreeing that it has value. But did you know that money is essentially debt itself? When money is created, it's created by borrowing. 

The other part of the book I really enjoyed was how he and and his protagonist, Eric, acknowledge their privilege. I've been increasingly aware of how much privilege is involved in farming, especially if you can do it without debt. (Eric is not a farmer but he has tremendous skills for foraging and building things and clearly for making friends and building community -- all skills I am aware that I am decidedly lacking in right now.) I enjoyed Forrest Pritchard's book, Gaining Ground, as a fun sort of read, but I continually struggled with his unawareness of his privilege. He tells his story like a pulling up by the bootstraps kind of story, where he's pulling up his whole family with his hard work. I have no doubt he worked very hard and went without spending money for a long time. But he inherited a 300-acre farm full of old machinery and a beef herd already in place. The farm also had an unused home he lived in so he didn't need to leave with his parents. And when his grandfather's 50-year-old livestock trailer proved un-roadworthy, his dad bought him a new, albeit smaller one. Of course that doesn't take away from his commitment to pasture-based foods, the truth of his arguments for farmers' markets or the depth of his struggles and hard work. But as someone for whom the main barrier to pursuing a farming life is access to affordable land, it was at times hard to swallow.

So Hewitt's awareness of and gratitude for his privilege is refreshing. He owns his 40 acres and 2000 square-foot home without debt and he and his wife have huge skills (they built their house and their farm's infrastructure themselves) to produce most of their food themselves. Eric, who at the start of the book lives in a 96 square-foot cabin he built himself, earns $10,000 a year and regularly dumpster dives for food and other goods, is the first to count his privilege: he has the same ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation as most of the people in power and could easily find waged work if and when he needs to. He has tremendous skill for finding food, building relationships and making things. So many of us are blind to these privileges.

The funny thing about my response to the book is that it's actually helped me make peace with money. Before I read the book, I dreamed about a day when my family could live without any need for money. I wasn't sure I'd personally be able to make it reality, but I thought it was possible. But the fact that Hewitt and his wife produce so much of their own food (his kids are also avid hunters and forages) and he still earns about $35,000 a year, makes me realize that there's probably no point in trying to avoid money entirely. As he points out, money itself isn't the problem. "The problem is intent; the problem is how we use money, and what we expect of it." The problem is that our idea of money as security is only an illusion, and our focus on accumulating it serves to make us poorer in true wealth.

"Over the past century or so, perhaps longer, we have been taught that to rely on others is to be weak and incapable. The notion that we should depend on one another is almost antithetical to contemporary American expectations of autonomy and independence. But in truth it is that autonomy that exploits, and, irony of ironies, turns us all into dependents of the very arrangements that profess to offer independence. It exploits our resource base, because it depends on each of us owning the raw materials that enable us to shun one another. But even more profoundly, it exploits us, because it deprives us of the opportunity to experience the richness of interconnectedness and the meaningful relationships it gives rise to. By striving to achieve the American ideal of personal independence, we wind up not just independent but isolated." (p. 151)

Hewitt distinguishes between the unconscious and conscious economies as a way to point to true wealth. "I call our society's way of life the 'unconscious economy' and the way of life life I'm striving for the 'conscious economy' because I fervently believe that the only sane way forward -- indeed the only possible way forward -- is to become conscious of both our actions and our intent, and to understand the ramifications of each."

He quotes from Charles Eisenstein's Sacred Economics, which I think I must read: "To give and receive, to owe and be owed, to depend on others and be depended upon -- this is being fully alive. To neither give nor receive, but to pay for everything; to never depend on any one, but to be financially independent; to not be bound to a community or place, but to be mobile … such is the illusory paradise of the discrete and separate self."

There are parts of the book and Hewitt's style that I find myself reacting to. As a plain language champion, I can't ignore that his sentences are often unnecessarily complex and long, getting in the way of his message. And his old-timey style is occasionally intrusive and distracting. And as someone for whom social media is often my only connection to people, I reacted to his dismissal of it and other new technology that I use as something we've been duped into. As much as I'd like it to be otherwise, for a number of reasons, at the moment I just don't have the time or energy resources to be reaching out to my neighbours and local friends.

But overall, it's definitely worth the read. I recommend it. And I also recommend Hewitt's blog

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