Easy credit

This article about a couple’s consumer debt is full of breathtaking numbers. And don’t stop reading before the end, since there are some mind-boggling details towards the end about where the debt came from and how long it took to build it.

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Music sale

As we continue to rethink our offerings as we prepare the 2007-2008 catalog (which we’ve decided to print and mail, incidentally) it is a good time to recognize that our sales of music CDs were never what we hoped they might be. So we’ll be dropping them from the catalog. But our failed experiment is your gain, or can be; until stock is depleted we will be selling our individual CDs for $5 apiece and the multi-disc sets for $10. We still think they are excellent, and we encourage you to take a chance on them.

(This announcement will go onto the Cumberland Books website in a couple of days, but the new prices are in effect now so that weblog readers can have first choice.)

Discipline and Hope

It turns out that I put down Wendell Berry in favor of Christopher Lasch exactly at the point where I was about to start on one of Berry’s very best (and longest, at eighty pages) essays, “Discipline and Hope.” Written in 1971, it covers much ground that Berry has revisited time and again in the following forty-five years. At the same time, there is a freshness to many of his observations here that made them stand out to me; some of them I’m probably just hearing for the first time, but I think others are “new”, i.e. I haven’t encountered them in his later writings. I think part of the freshness comes from bolder writing; not that Berry has lost confidence in his views, but his manner of presenting them has been tempered by time and experience.

I won’t try to summarize the thrust of the essay; instead, here are some of my favorite passages, from which I think the theme emerges:

  • “Nearly all the old standards, which implied and required rigorous disciplines, have now been replaced by a new standard of efficiency, which requires not discipline, not a mastery of means, but rather a carelessness of means, a relentless subjection of means to immediate ends. The standard of efficiency displaces and destroys the standards of quality because, by definition, it cannot even consider them. Instead of asking a man what he can do well, it asks him what he can do fast and cheap. […] What we have called efficiency has produced among us, and to our incalcuable cost, such unprcedented monuments of destructieness and waste as the strip-mining industry, the Pentagon, the federal bureaucracy, and the family car.”

  • “The fact is that farming is not a laboratory science, but a science of practice. It would be, I think, a good deal more accurate to call it an art, for it grows not only out of factual knowledge but out of cultural tradition’ it is learned not only by precept but by example, by apprenticeship’ and it requires not merely a competent knowledge of its facts and processes, but also a complex set of attitudes, a certain culturally evolved stance, in the face of the unexpected and the unknown [emphasis added]. That is to say, it requires style in the highest and richest sense of that term.”

  • “Training is a process of conditioning, an orderly and highly efficient procedure by which a man learns a prescribed pattern of facts and functions. Education, on the other hand, is an obscure process by which a person’s experience is brought into contact with his place and his history. A college can train a person in four years; it can barely begin his education in that time. A person’s education begins before his birth in the making of the disciplines, traditions, and attitudes of mind that he will inherit, and it continues until his death under the slow, expensive, uneasy tutelage of his experience. The process that produces astronauts may produce soldiers and factory workers and clerks; it will never produce good farmers or good artists or good citizens or good parents.”

  • “On September 10, 1814, Jefferson wrote to Dr. Thomas Cooper of the ‘condition of society; as he saw it at that time: ‘ … we have no paupers, the old and crippled among us, who possess nothing and have no families to take care of them, being too few to merit notice as a separate section of society…. The great mass of our population is of laborers; our rich … being few, and of moderate wealth. Most of the laboring classes possess property, cultivate their own lands … and from the demand for their labor are enabled … to be fed abundantly, clothed above mere decency, to labor moderately…. The wealthy … know nothing of what the Europeans call luxury.'”

  • “One of the common experiences of people who regularly do hard work that they enjoy is to find that they begin to ‘feel like it’ only after the task is begun. And one of the chief uses of discipline is to assure that the necessary work gets done even when the worker doesn’t feel like it.”

  • “A man who does meaningless work does not have his meaning at hand. He must go anxiously in search of it—and thus fail to find it. The farmer’s Sunday afternoon of sitting at home in the shade of a tree has been replaced by the ‘long weekend’ of a thousand miles. The difference is that the farmer was where he wanted to be, understood the value of being there, and therefore when he had no work to do could sit still. How much have we spent to obscure so simple and obvious a possibility? The point is that there is an indissoluble connection and dependence between work and leisure. The freedom from work must produce not leisure, but an ever more frantic search for something to do.”

  • “The change I am talking about appeals to me precisely because it need not wait upon ‘other people.’ Anybody who wants to do so can begin it in himself and in his household as soon as he is ready—by becoming answerable to at least some of his own needs, by acquiring skills and tools, by learning what his real needs are, by refusing the glamorous and the frivolous. WHen a person learns to act on his best hopes he enfranchises and validates them as no government or public policy ever will. And by his action the possibility that other people will do the same is made a likelihood.”

  • “A man who produces a fact or an idea has not completed his reponsibility until he sees that it is well used in the world.”

  • “A ‘labor-saving’ device that does the work it was intended to do is thought by its developers to be a success: in terms of their discipline and point of view, it works. That, in working, it considerably lowers the quality of a product and makes obsolete a considerable number of human beings is, to the specialists, merely an opportunity for other specialists.”

  • “If we all behaved as honorably and honestly and as industriously as we expect our representatives to behave, we would soon put the government out of work.”

  • “A person dependent on somebody else for everything from potatoes to opinions may declare that he is a free man, and his government may issue a certificate granting him his freedom, but he will not be free. […] Men are free precisely to the extent that they are equal to their own needs. The most able are the most free.”

  • “I believe that the closer we come to correct discipline, the less concerned we are with ends, and with questions of futurity in general. Correct discipline brings us into alignment with natural process, which has no explicity or deliberate concern for the future. We do not eat, for instance, because we want to live until tomorrow, but because we are hungry and it satisfies us to eat. Similarly, a good farmer plants, not because of the abstractions of demand or market or his financial condition, but because it is planting time and the ground is ready—that is, he plants in response to his discipline and his place. […] The man who works and behaves well today need take no thought for the morrow’ he has discharged today’s only obligation to the morrow.”

  • “The ameliorations of technology are largely illusory. They are always accompanied by penalties that are equal and opposite. Like the weather reports, they suggest the possibility of better solutions than they can provide; and by this suggestiveness—this glib and shallow optimism of gimcrackery—they have too often replaced older skills that were more serviceable to life in a misterious universe. The farmer whose weather eye has been usurped by the radio has become less observant, has lost his old judicious fatalism with respect to the elements—and he is no more certain of the weather.”

Lasch on the bookshelf again

After a week of steady reading, I am now about 320 pages into Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven, with another 200 pages to go. And I am ready to put it back on the bookshelf for awhile (except this time with a bookmark!). Ten years ago I would have studied this book very closely; but because I’ve long since been persuaded of his thesis, and because I’ve read more than my fill of Enlightenment philosophers and philosophy, I can’t give Lasch the attention he deserves.

It might be easier if he weren’t so thorough; one interesting but endless chapter discussed the relationship between Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Jonathan Edwards; another gave a short history of syndicalism, a failed and long-forgotten alternative to capitalism whose importance is mainly that it flourished at a particular historical juncture. But I’ve learned a few things:

  • Emerson was more, not less, of a Calvinist than the Unitarians he left behind.

  • Many 19th century thinkers were against philanthropy, because it led communities to turn traditional responsibilities over to the state.

  • Most thinkers from Adam Smith on recognized that free-market capitalism and the consumer society that results from it would weaken and possibly destroy traditional virtues (thrift, delayed gratification, benevolence, generosity) among the people. Some resisted it for this reason, while others thought it was worth the price, or maybe even a good thing to have a kindler, gentler populace. Some thinkers (Teddy Roosevelt among them) thought that the solution was an imperialist mindset, inspiring the population to make sacrificial efforts to conquer the world.

  • The idea of wage labor was universally despised in the 18th and early 19th century. The only argument was over whether it should be rejected altogether, or tolerated as a lesser evil yielding the greater good of material abundance.

It really is a good book, well-written and very thoughtful about its subject. But the time for me to read in this subject is past, and I don’t know if it will ever come again.

Cow report

  • Puzzle was the first cow to freshen, and now that her calf is about two months old he is taking all her milk; we’re not milking her at all. Fortunately Dory has produced more milk than Puzzle ever did, and her calf is only one month old, so we’re still getting a bit shy of two gallons per day from her. But as her calf grows that will go down. So we’re already making plans to wean Puzzle’s calf at three months, which Joann Grohman suggests. We’ll set up a paddock with cattle panels in a part of the pasture where Puzzle will be able to visit but not nurse her calf, keeping him there for however long it takes.

  • Debbie made butter from Dory’s pudding-like cream. Two and one half quarts of cream yielded two and one half pounds of butter, with only a pint of buttermilk. If there are odd flavors in a batch of milk it seems to concentrate in the cream, and so the butter had distinctive overtones, but nothing so obnoxious that we couldn’t slather it on some buttermilk pancakes.

  • The grass is very, very high in the parts of the pasture where the cows haven’t yet grazed (and is coming back quickly elsewhere). It isn’t optimal grazing and might be a problem if we had more cows, but the two cows and three calves are finding plenty to eat as we move their 80×80 foot paddock every two or three days. I’d like to cut a fair amount of it, not for hay but just to manure the ground, but we’re not set up to do that and it would probably cost $100 to have someone cut it for us, perhaps more with today’s high fuel prices.

  • We just cut into a two-month-old farmhouse cheddar, four gallons of milk into three pounds of cheese. It’s a little sharper than we’re used to (usually we buy mild or colby cheddar at the store), but otherwise it tastes like real cheese. So far we’ve just eaten it straight, but we’ll be trying it in cooked dishes soon. This is the last cheese made from Holstein milk; the ones to follow have been made with our own milk.

  • Other chores took priority over perimeter fencing this week, but we really need to have it done in the next couple of weeks (certainly by the time we’re ready to wean a calf). Once it is done we’ll turn the cows loose in it without cross-fencing for now, since we’re pressed for time and strip-grazing probably isn’t critical, since it’s basically five cows on eight lush acres. We have the electrical fence we’ll need to set up strip-grazing whenever we find the time to start experimenting with it.

  • Our 3/4 cow will be ready to pick up from the butcher on Monday. Debbie and Maggie have been working hard to make freezer space for about 400 pounds of beef.

Great quote

Upton Sinclair once said this:

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

I learned long ago that if you are wondering whether some activity is a good thing, don’t bother asking someone who makes a living at it. Whoever it is—a professional musician, a paid clergyman, the head of a parachurch ministry, a schoolteacher, a university professor, a real estate agent, a lawyer, a career legislator, a homeschooling conference speaker, a homeschool curriculum creator, an intellectual property creator—will give you all the pros and none of the cons. And, really, it’s unrealistic to expect them to take a detached look at the situation.

Housing prices

This news puzzles me. Housing sales in the Northeast in April were up 43% over March, while they were down 28% in the Midwest, 25% in the West, and 3% in the South. At the same time housing prices in April were down 11% from March nationally (I wish they had given the regional numbers for price changes, too).

Meanwhile, here’s an article about a couple who are suddenly in a real mind, more even than they seem to realize, because of dropping real estate prices. There are a lot of interesting numbers to ponder here.