The lost tools of living: the family economy

Before the advent of wage labor, subsistence living was the norm. Here’s how Allan Carlson describes it in From Cottage to Workstation:

The introduction of machine technology and the factory system of production forced the reordering of Western social life beginning during the nineteenth century. Prior to their appearance, the daily flow of events for the vast majority of the European peoples had been surprisingly stable. For over a millennium, householding had been the dominant economic pattern, with production for trade a relatively minor feature. Residence and workplace were normally one and the same, whether in the form of a farmer’s cottage or a craftsman’s shop. Household production, ranging from tool making and weaving to the keeping of livestock and the garden patch, bound each family together as a basic economic unit, a “community of work.” Production complemented consumption and made the family largely self-sufficient, albeit at a relatively mean level of existence. Wives and children stood beside husbands and fathers as coworkers in the family enterprise, with no debate over issues of work and dependency. Indeed, family living was so central to life itself that it was largely taken for granted, being the social equivalent of breathing. Well into the nineteenth century, markets and money were of limited importance to the average farmer, cottager, or craftsman. In the European countryside, a varied mix of feudal obligations, payments-in-kind, barter, subsistence agriculture, and market production dominated. In towns, labor was governed by an elaborate series of customs designed, in part, to preserve the dignity of workers and the autonomy of households.

Carlson notes elsewhere that in 1800 more than ninety percent of Americans lived and worked on family farms. As industrialization set it, the factories were able to lure many away from this life, but not enough; by 1900 half of the population still lived and worked on family farms. Moreover, most of the folks who thought about such things recognized this movement away from the countryside for what it was, namely a social crisis, and much was said and some was even done to try to reverse the trend. But even with the resistance of farmers to giving up farming, and the awareness of what dire consequences would follow if the trend continued, by 1990 the percentage of people living on family farms had dropped so low (less than 2%) that the Census Bureau no longer counts them separately. What lured the rest of the farmers away?

Those farmers who resisted the lure of factory wages were lured by another industrial concept—the cash crop. Those who could not be persuaded to trade their labor for cash were enticed to trade a crop instead; it worked the same industrial magic, as farmers got accustomed to the idea that cash could supply their needs better than the fruits of their labors.

Soon enough farmers were concerned less with supplying their own needs and more with increasing yields, working more efficiently, and growing crops which the markets wanted most. And as they turned their attention to these things, children and women and grandparents on the family farm became superfluous, supplanted by specialized machinery and artificial fertilizers and store-bought food and clothing. No longer able to contribute to the family economy, family members found other ways to occupy their time, and the family began to erode. Meanwhile, the farmer was now at the mercy of the market, no longer able to supply his own needs directly, and did whatever was necessary to continue generating cash from his crop.

I know of no single book that tells this story. A good portion of it can be found in Andrew Lytle’s essay in the book I’ll Take My Stand. And much of the story is told in the form of a parable in H.L. Roush’s Henry and the Great Society.

Of all the reasons it was a bad idea for farmers to switch from subsistence farming to cash cropping, the most important is that it destroyed the family economy. When a family was focused primarily on supplying its own needs and selling only from its surplus, there was a place for every family member young and old to contribute to the enterprise. Pa Wilder was able to spend winter days making shingles for market, and Ma Wilder weaving cloth and churning butter for sale, in large part because ten-year-old Almanzo was able to do work that contributed significantly to the everyday operation of the farm.

But when cash cropping became the emphasis, the everyday work that had been needed to run a diverse farm rapidly disappeared,  and children, women, and elders could not work efficiently enough on the few remaining tasks to make a real contribution. No longer able to contribute to the family enterprise, they began to live separate lives, often outside the home.

In our family we’ve always thought that our children should be obligated to work, for many reasons—to teach diligence, to instill an appreciation of and even love for physical labor, to equip them with skills, to spread the burden of work around and thereby increase our capacity for work as a family. But until recently it was very difficult for us to come up with work that was both within the abilities of a child and a tangible contribution rather than makework.

This changed quickly once we began to farm. Suddenly there were meaningful chores everywhere—animals to feed and water and move, eggs to collect, chickens to slaughter and gut, a garden to plant and weed and pick, food to prepare and preserve, wood to stack, repairs to make, tools to improvise. The level of work rose to the point where there was no way we could get it done without the full participation of the children. We knew it, and they knew it, and they rose to the occasion, and they have grown in stature and wisdom as a result. They are now partners in our family operation. They are living a real life, right here at home, and understand that the work they do now will bless them in the years to come when they take over this multi-generational enterprise.

To reclaim the family, we need to reclaim the idea of a family economy. But doing so in the context of a modern society may be the hardest task facing us. It may not require that we all become farmers, but it will require that we create family enterprises that are as diverse and satisfying and life-sustaining as a family farm. At the end of his essay in I’ll Take My Stand, Andrew Lytle spells out what it will take to reclaim the independent and full lives that our forefathers knew. Let us each search for our own way of throwing off the shackles he describes.

The small farmer must deny himself the articles the industrialists offer for sale. It is not so impossible as it may seem at first, for, after all, the necessities they machine-facture were once manufactured on the land, and as for the bric-a-brac, let it rot on their hands. Do what we did after the war and the Reconstruction: return to our looms, our handcrafts, our reproducing stock. Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall. Forsake the movies for the play-parties and the square dances. And turn away from the liberal capons who fill the pulpits as preachers. Seek a priesthood that may manifest the will and intelligence to renounce science and search out the Word in the authorities.

So long as the industrialist remains in the saddle there must be a money crop to pay him taxes, but let it occupy second place. Any man who grows his own food, kills his own meat, takes wool from his lambs and cotton from his stalks and makes them into clothes, plants corn and hay for his stock, shoes them at the crossroads blacksmith shop, draws milk and butter from his cows, eggs from his pullets, water from the ground, and fuel from the woodlot, can live in an industrial world without a great deal of cash. Let him diversify, but diversify so that he may live rather than that he may grow rich. In this way he wi
ll escape by far the heaviest form of taxation, and if the direct levies grow too exorbitant, refuse to pay them. Make those who rule the country bear the burden of government.

The lost tools of living: supplying our needs

For most of history, people had no choice but to supply their own needs directly—to grow the food they ate, make the clothes they wore, build the homes that sheltered them. Money was scarce, and largely irrelevant to everyday life. But since the rise of industrialism it has become a rare thing to supply your own needs directly, and rare is the person who is capable of doing so. Of the rest of us, a few are capitalists, but the majority by far are wage laborers, dependent on exchanging our time and effort for the money we need to purchase the goods that supply our needs.

It’s galling to admit that Karl Marx had something right, but his idea of alienated labor points right at a fundamental transition from agrarianism to industrialism. What Marx meant was that industrialism takes something that was once an intimate part of a man, namely his labor, and turns it into a commodity that can be bought and sold on the open market.

A farmer does not sell his labor but the fruits of his labor, and as such is able to retain many of the benefits of his labor for himself—land he has improved, tools he has made, skills he has developed, along with the fruits he chooses not to sell. But a wage laborer can only sell his labor, which is mixed with materials he does not own to create fruits which he does not own; the benefits of his labor accrue to his employer, not to him.

It wasn’t just Karl Marx who saw this; seventeenth and eighteenth century Englishmen were well aware of the lack of liberty and security that wage labor entailed, since so much of the population had been forced into that position and suffered as a result. Many had left England and come to America precisely to escape the bondage of wage labor. Captain John Smith wrote that it was his passionate belief that in the New World “every man may be master and owner of his own labour and land, or the greatest part in a small time.”

But nineteenth century American industrialists needed hired hands to turn the cranks in their factories—Henry Ford is said to have complained about having to hire the whole man when all he needed was his hands—and so an independent, self-sufficient agrarian population had to be persuaded to change its ways. Unlike in seventeenth century England, where the authorities were able to populate the cities with wage laborers by forcing peasants off the land, American yeoman farmers had to be coaxed out of their self-sufficient circumstances using other means.

The story is told of an industrialist who came to an agrarian village, built a factory, and invited the villagers to come make things for him in exchange for a wage. The villagers showed up the first day, worked hard at making things, took their daily wage, and went home. On the second day, no one showed up; it seems that the villagers had little need for money and now had more than enough for a long while. The industrialist was stymied, but only briefly. Soon enough he arranged for every villager to receive a mail-order catalog, and he never wanted for laborers again. No doubt the story is apocryphal, but it points up the human weakness that industrialists so successfully played on: our lust for material goods, once inflamed, is insatiable and must be constantly fed.

One of the saddest themes running through the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder is the growing dependence of the Ingalls family on purchased goods. For the most part Pa Ingalls celebrates the changes that have led them to substitute ‘boughten’ things and services for what they once produced or did for themselves (either that, or went without). Only once does he question this progress, during The Long Winter, when he notes that as good as a coal fire is, it has put them at the mercy of the railroad which transports coal from far away.

Modernity works hard to persuade us that wage labor is an improvement, that the man who can turn his labor directly into money is as free or even freer than the man who must use that labor to produce and then sell those goods in an uncertain market. In fact we are encouraged to concentrate on converting our labor into money as efficiently as possible, pouring all our energies into learning to do one lucrative thing very well while living the rest of our lives through the medium of money.

And we end up persuaded, because we fail to remember that there was a time when money played a very minor role in the lives of most families, who lived and worked on farms and supplied nearly all their own needs directly through the fruits of their labors, bartering or selling their surplus to cover the rest. As Ma Wilder argues fiercely at the end of Farmer Boy, it is the farmer who is truly free, beholden to no man, while the rest are bound by the need to please customers or employers.

The best single book on how Americans were lured away from farm life and into wage labor is Allan Carlson’s From Cottage to Work Station, recently republished as The Family in America: Searching for Social Harmony in the Industrial Age. Another good book is Alan Kulikoff’s From British Peasant to Colonial American Farmer, which argues that medieval British farmers had it good until changes in the law forced half of them into wage labor, and that the social structure that was created in the American colonies was an explicit attempt to recapture the goodness of medieval, pre-capitalist times.  

The main reason we engage in wage labor is to obtain cash, and the main thing we use cash for is to obtain those things we don’t produce ourselves. But there are other ways to respond to our need for cash; here are three.

Supply your own needs directly. Every time we can make something ourselves that would otherwise cost us cash, we reduce our need for cash. This idea is scary if it is taken as an all-or-nothing proposition. We have come to need so many things that we have little or no idea how to produce any of them ourselves.

But there are many small things that can be done to change this: grow, prepare, or preserve some of your own food; make some of your own clothing; collect some of your own heating fuel; fix or improve things around the house yourself; entertain yourself and your family.

Small, tentative steps in this direction may at first seem insignificant or futile, but they are the most important steps of all. Not because they make a significant dent in our need for cash, but because they will end up being the small victories that encourage us both to persevere and to take on ever greater challenges.

Rethink your needs. Every time we are able to forego something that would cost us cash, we reduce our need for cash. The process of sorting through and evaluating our “needs” is what is most often associated with the simple life, and it is an important part of living simply.

These days many of our needs are actually desires fueled by a consumer culture. We don’t need most of the things we spend money on, but we are assured by the sellers that we deserve them, that it is good and proper to feed that particular desire, that the costs are minimal and the benefits are great, that success and contentment hinge on having them. Society at large depends on us to spend large quantities of cash on consumables, and will tell us whatever lies are needed to keep us doing so.

As we develop an understanding of what it means to live simply, we can more easily ignore society’s guidelines for deciding what we need because we are equipped to make such decisions ourselves. Rather than, say, assuming that air conditioning is a blessing on the order of dental anesthesia, we can remind ourselves that air conditioning (particularly central air) was a rare thing until forty years ago, we can learn how our forbears designed their houses and scheduled their activities so as to deal with summer heat, we can count the full cost by studying the cost of obtaining and maintaining an
d operating the equipment, along with the problems that result from pumping chilled air throughout our houses. And we can consider our own frailty, being honest about the fact that after so many years of becoming accustomed to it, it may be very difficult to forego such a luxury without grumbling. Only after doing all these things are we able to count the true costs and benefits of air conditioning, and make an informed decision about whether to use it.

As with supplying our own needs directly, small and tentative steps towards eliminating unnecessary “needs” are the most important steps of all. Many of these matters are as deeply intertwined as the Gordian knot, and we have to resist the temptation to take a sword to them by making radical (and ultimately unsustainable) changes to our life on principle. Perhaps we would like to live very locally, even without a car, but merely selling our car doesn’t deal with all the dependencies that the car represents. Better to begin by committing to stay home as much as possible. Such a small move can make many other simplifications natural for us, even necessary—we spend less for fuel and maintenance, we buy fewer things than we did while out and about, we incur fewer obligations to be somewhere or do something, we spend more of our time with neighbors, we free up the time we spent running around to use in other ways. And as we become content living a life that is less dependent on having a car, we move closer to the possibility of doing without one.

A popular slogan among advocates of simplicity is “Use it up or wear it out, make do or do without.” There is the danger of turning this sort of frugality into piety, of course. But kept in proper perspective, this trite slogan points directly to both good stewardship and contentment, both essential elements of a godly life.

Produce a surplus and sell it. Although there are many ways to reduce our need for cash, it is difficult and probably undesirable to eliminate it completely. Taxes will always require cash. And there is nothing wrong with buying some of the things you need, only with being dependent on doing so.

Occasional wage labor is one possible way of earning cash, but the drawbacks are significant; as Marxists are fond of pointing out, it is your employer who ends up with the ongoing benefits of what your labor produces. Better to be in the business of earning cash by selling things you have produced yourself; not only will you end up with more of the cash exchanged, but you will also build and retain many side benefits—tools, skills, customer relationships.

It is easier to make more of what you’re already making than to start making a new thing from scratch. The things you make for yourself also make the best products—you understand them better, you take extra care to produce them, you know that these things are truly useful, you can speak to customers about them with a special enthusiasm. Since you already produce a wide variety of things to meet your own varied needs, selling from your surplus puts you in a position to test the local market for a wide variety of products. And selling the surplus of a wide variety of products will insulate you from fluctuations in demand for any particular product.

The lost tools of living: Introduction

The upcoming series of posts, which I will gather under the title “The Lost Tools of Living,” has been cannibalized from a shorter (and tighter) article I wrote for a newsletter project that I had to abandon. The title is a reference to an essay by Dorothy Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” in which she argues for a return to a traditional model of education. Since I am suggesting a return to a traditional model of living, the reference is apt.

For many years I’ve been a close observer of cultural trends. At first I was just an amused and curious bystander, but soon enough I was an alarmed husband and father who was scrambling to make a family life which would be a safe place for my wife and children, to be for us what Christopher Lasch described as a “haven in a heartless world.”

As we identified cultural trends that were threats to us, we looked for ways to counter them. The steps we took were not part of any grand plan, only a series of specific responses to particular perceived dangers. We turned off the television not because we understood the central role mass media has come to play in enslaving people to a modern industrial mindset, but just because we were nervous about our growing devotion to TV programs. And we decided to homeschool our children not because we knew that institutional schools, whether public or private, were vehicles for indoctrinating children into the modern way of life, but just because we couldn’t stand the thought of being parted from our kids for seven hours every day. Other such decisions followed, each of them a direct and specific response to pressures we were experiencing.

After ten years or so we stood back and looked at the path we had followed, and we were surprised to discover that we had been steadily headed in a certain direction, one that was very much out of step with modern culture. In fact, as we would uncover and face up to yet another dangerous modern trend, we often found that the response that occurred to us was not to adopt some new and innovative approach but to search out old and time-tested approaches, ones that had seemed good and necessary to our forefathers but had been jettisoned in the name of progress.

A Lost Way of Life

As I continued to study modernity and the ills which it has inflicted on society,  I encountered a group of writers who promoted a way of life that very closely described the path we were pursuing. They called it agrarianism, a way of life where each family works within the context of a small agriculturally-centered community to directly supply their own needs.

These writers pointed out that agrarianism did not propose a new way of living, but in fact described life as it had been lived by most people through most of history. And they claimed that this way of life was not some obsolete precursor to modern industrial society, but a viable and healthy alternative to it which could still be reclaimed.

This makes for a fine and attractive theory, but can we know with any certainty that the agrarian life is a better alternative to modern industrial living—and, more important, that it is possible to live an agrarian life in the midst of a modern industrial society? After all, much of what has been written over the years in favor of agrarianism has been written by folks who did not live the life they were extolling. And in Allan Carlson’s The New Agrarian Mind, his excellent short history of the twentieth century American agrarian movement, he tells the stories of intentional agrarian communities which faltered and ultimately failed as ideals gave way to realities.

Although my studies were slow to yield answers to these questions, our family continued to walk the agrarian path because we knew of no alternative nearly as promising. We couldn’t know for sure that agrarian was the best way or even a good way. But we had learned that as we took step after step along this path, God would continue to bless us in and through our efforts.

A Peculiar People

And then suddenly the answers came, but from an unexpected quarter—the internet, in the form of weblogs. Beginning in early 2005 an online community of Christians began to gather, folks who were not only pursuing an agrarian way of life but were eager to share in writing with others what they were learning on the journey, both the successes and the setbacks.

Some of these folks have chosen to describe themselves as Christian agrarians, and it was clear from the stories they told that the name was accurate—they were all pursuing the agrarian way of life not because they had some romantic notion of returning to the Good Old Days, but because they thought God was calling them to live this way.

Which gave us the answers to our two questions. Is the agrarian life a better alternative to modern industrial living? The growing community of Christian agrarians would argue that it is, based not only on their practical experience with both ways of life, but also on their understanding of God’s Word. Is it possible to live an agrarian life in the midst of a modern industrial society? The Christian agrarians answer with a resounding “Yes!”, one which they back up with their commitment to move deliberately in that direction.

As these folks continue to write about the development of their thinking and the practical outworking of that thinking in their everyday lives, they have begun to examine and discuss some very important topics, and to raise important questions about the conventional wisdom about them. Much of this work is being done on their weblogs, and I encourage you to follow their ongoing accounts of their struggles to turn agrarian thought into agrarian practice.

I should mention at this point that I think the agrarian writer Wendell Berry is wise when he exhorts us to distrust movements. I don’t see Christian agrarianism as a movement, i.e. an effort to create a kind of agrarianism that is distinctly Christian, but rather a sharing of information and experiences among Christians who are exploring agrarian thinking as they strive to find ways to better live out their Christian faith. To avoid any confusion about this, from here on I will not refer to Christian agrarianism but only agrarianism.

Look to the Past

Most of my thinking about modern life is guided by two simple questions: How did we get into the current mess? and, What can we do to get out of it? One central quality of modern life that almost no one, critic or advocate, will dispute is that it is complicated. Life used to be simple, and now it is not. I will take for granted that this was a change for the worse, and look to agrarianism for answers to my two simple questions, formulated as follows: How did our lives get so complicated? and, What can we do to make our lives simple again?

I’ve learned that there is no definition of agrarianism that all agrarians will agree to, but most agrarians do exhibit preferences that seem to flow from a common understanding of how life should be. For example, agrarians tend to prefer rural over urban settings, production over consumption, doing a job oneself over paying to have it done, being generally capable over specializing, a home-based family economy over careerism, craftsmanship over mass manufacturing, small-scale activity over large-scale, subsisting over accumulating wealth, tradition over innovation, staying home over going out, following in their parents’ footsteps over striking out on their own.

It is fair to say that agrarians tend to prefer things the way they used to be, and live so as to keep them that way. The plain people (Amish and Mennonite) are a prime example of this sort of thinking. Deeply skeptical of the benefits that modernity claims to offer, they scrutinize every last innovation for the damage it might do to their social fabric. And if an innovation threatens that fabric, they reject it. And as odd as their ultra-traditionalism seems to us
, we can see the blessings that such a life has bestowed on them—contentment, health, community, security, faithful children.

These days many Christians are turning to traditional practices as a way of fending off the dangers of modern society, but for pragmatic rather than principled reasons. And tradition rewards their pragmatism, because tradition works. Tradition can keep men and women on a godly path, strengthen families, and instill godliness in children. We need only compare the results of modern and traditional practices, and we see that adhering to tradition yields much better fruit. We can then decide to walk a traditional path as a practical matter, without taking the time to understand why these practices work as well as they do.

Sadly, this approach is sure to fail us in difficult times. If we have no reason for walking this path other besides the fact that it seems to work, we will be easily tempted to abandon it once it seems to stop working. And those times will come. For strength in the crisis, we need to not only pursue these practices but understand what makes them good, to seek out the wisdom that led our forefathers to proceed in this direction and not another.

George Santayana’s famous aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” is true but doesn’t go far enough. It implies that we should study history so as to identify the mistakes of our forebears and avoid them. Fair enough. But it misses the fact that often our forebears were not mistaken at all—in fact, we were the ones who were mistaken when we abandoned their practices. In these cases it would be a blessing rather than a curse for us to repeat the past. And so we should also study history with an eye to identifying departures from tradition which seemed wise at the time, but have turned out to be foolish and destructive.

As I continue to read about the development of modern industrial culture, there are fewer things I am certain about, but of those few things I am more certain than ever. In particular, I think that our rapid downward slide since the early 1800s is the result of a series of bad choices. At that time, starry-eyed with the idea of progress, we began to abandon long-established practices in favor of innovations that were quick to promise short-term gains but slow to reveal their true cost.

In the series of posts that follows I will offer brief descriptions of some of these wrong turns away from tradition, and make some suggestions about what families can do to counter those wrong turns.

Adjustable rate mortgages

When an adjustable rate mortgage resets these days, the mortgage holder is faced with a higher monthly payment, often much higher. Many of them were already hard pressed to make their payments, and so many of them are defaulting on their mortgages.

The following chart, provided by Bank of America analyst Robert Lacoursiere, shows that we are only about one-third of the way through the massive number of adjustable rate mortgage resets that will have occurred between January 2007 and June 2008.

A rough reading of this chart indicates that in the first nine months of 2007 there were $360 billion dollars of mortgages that reset, whereas in the nine months to come another $720 billion will do so.

The crisis hasn't begun yet

Although there is turmoil in the financial sector, it’s important to remember that the factors that will combine to create the upcoming crisis haven’t kicked in yet. One of those factors is unwinding credit, and here’s how one credit expert describes the stage we are at today:

Satyajit Das is laughing. It appears I have said something very funny, but I have no idea what it was. My only clue is that the laugh sounds somewhat pitying.

One of the world’s leading experts on credit derivatives (financial instruments that transfer credit risk from one party to another), Das is the author of a 4,200-page reference work on the subject, among a half-dozen other tomes. As a developer and marketer of the exotic instruments himself over the past 30 years, he seemed like the ideal industry insider to help us get to the bottom of the recent debt crunch—and I expected him to defend and explain the practice.

I started by asking the Calcutta-born Australian whether the credit crisis was in what Americans would call the “third inning.” This was pretty amusing, it seemed, judging from the laughter. So I tried again. “Second inning?” More laughter. “First?” Still too optimistic.

Das, who knows as much about global money flows as anyone in the world, stopped chuckling long enough to suggest that we’re actually still in the middle of the national anthem before a game destined to go into extra innings. And it won’t end well for the global economy.

The article not only does a good job of simplifying an arcane topic, it points out that a significant amount of wickedness underlies the current credit crunch:

Rather than joining the crowd that blames the mess on American slobs who took on more mortgage debt than they could afford and have endangered the world by stiffing lenders, he points a finger at three parties: regulators who stood by as U.S. banks developed ingenious but dangerous ways of shifting trillions of dollars of credit risk off their balance sheets and into the hands of unsophisticated foreign investors, hedge and pension fund managers who gorged on high-yield debt instruments they didn’t understand and financial engineers who built towers of “securitized” debt with math models that were fundamentally flawed.

“Defaulting middle-class U.S. homeowners are blamed, but they are merely a pawn in the game,” he says. “Those loans were invented so that hedge funds would have high-yield debt to buy.”

Carter Fold

Well, Chris and I played on the Carter Fold stage yesterday, and if photographs are proof of anything these days you’ll find a couple of them here. The program began with a 50 minute set showcasing some of the performers who appear on the Music of Coal CD. We played backup for those who needed it, and Chris and I stood in for Dwight Yoakam doing his “Miner’s Prayer”. That was followed by a 30 minute set featuring Wayne Scott, and then an hour long set with his son Darrell, who is well-known and well loved in the Bristol area.

Woody Allen taught me that eighty percent of success is showing up. Since then I’ve learned that you can add five percent by showing up on time, five percent by showing up early, and five percent by showing up prepared, so as sidemen we try to do all those things consistently. We were there early and weren’t needed, so we had the time and opportunity to chat for awhile with Wayne Scott when he showed up. Darrell Scott was on a tight schedule, arriving from Charlottesville around 2:30, going on at 4:30 with his dad, ending the show at 6pm, and heading home to Nashville shortly afterwards, so we didn’t have a chance to meet him. But someday, maybe.

The Carter Fold was recently renovated and now seats about 850 people; maybe half the seats were filled for the show. It’s nowhere near as homemade as it used to be, but it is now a very nice performance space, much more comfortable for both the crowd and the musicians. I’m sure that there are folks who lament the changes, and I have no idea how they have affected the week-to-week atmosphere, but I liked it.

Contrarians on the current crisis

The economic contrarians I read these days are holding their collective breath. Many of them have spun scenarios in the past about what the plunge into the abyss will be like, but now that events indicate that we’ve finally tipped over the edge, the contrarians are content to stop ringing the alarm bells and merely watch things unfold.

Not all of them, though. As I’ve said before, it’s difficult to find contrarian scenarios that are specific about the likely consequences of tipping past this or that point. Nick Jones has written one though, about what he thinks will result from the Fed’s recent abandoment of the dollar. It taught me a few things.

Meritocracy

I finally got smart enough to leave a book in the cab of the truck, for those inevitable times when I am waiting for someone to either load or unload. The downside is that the book sits in the cab of the truck, and when I have a two-week spell of not driving (like the one that just passed) then the book doesn’t get read. The upside is that if there’s lots of waiting, there’s lots of reading.

Yesterday was a long one. There was the usual morning delivery to Good Foods in Lexington, but there were other things to follow, so I was out the door at 5am. This time a Mennonite friend was along for the ride; he needed to see a chiropractor in Danville, about halfway to Lexington, so I dropped him off at 7:30am and told him I hoped to be driving back through at 10am. But a wreck along the way stopped traffic for 30 minutes, and so I wasn’t back in Danville until 10:45am. We made our way back to South Fork, I dropped him off, and then went to 501 Produce for a full load of apples to deliver to western Kentucky. And then there was a Mennonite in western Kentucky relocating to South Fork who wanted a load of household furniture to ride back with me. I made it back home at 11pm, left again at 8am to drop the furniture in South Fork, and was home at 10:30am.

That made for lots of reading time: 30 minutes to load the apples, 45 minutes to unload them, 2 hours to unload the furniture, and 1 hour to unload it. I used it all. And the book I had with me was just the right sort, Wendell Berry: Life and Work, a collection of short essays about, well, both the life and the work of the man. The essays aren’t uniformly interesting to me—a few are too academic, or discuss aspects of Berry’s poetry or fiction that I don’t understand very well—but most of them are very good, and a few have taught me some important things about Berry’s thinking.

One essay I read this morning was a stunner, entitled “Wendell Berry and the Traditionalist Critique of Meritocracy.” This one almost got written off as overly academic, and I still think that the writer could benefit from a close study of Berry’s spare style, but the thesis of the essay had me riveted, namely that in recent history there have been a woefully small group of traditionalist writers—mainly Edmund Burke, Wilhelm Roepke, Christopher Lasch, and Berry himself—who have questioned the idea of meritocracy, where society distributes rewards and benefits on the basis of individual merit. The surprising thought here, one which is nearly heretical to think in modern times, is that not only are there other ways for society to distribute resources, but those other ways might be preferable, even more humane.

Edmund Burke wrote about this issue (and many others) in Reflections on the Revolution in France, a copy of which is somewhere on the bookshelves; I might dig it out, though I doubt I have time to read through the whole thing for the sake of this one idea. I was pleasantly surprised, though, to find out that Christopher Lasch had also written on this, in his book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. I read that book when it came out many years ago, and don’t remember much except that I was impressed by Lasch’s thinking. It was right at hand on a nearby shelf, and so I’ve started in on re-reading it.

For those of you following the economics of my truck driving, Friday was a good day. I drove Jerome’s truck to Lexington, for which he pays me $50 for the morning’s work. Last time I delivered apples to Christian County the truck was only 3/4 full, and I decided to charge $1 per bushel, or $216. This time the truck was full, making 288 bushels, but $288 dollars seemed high to me, so I asked for $1.60 per loaded mile, assuming 150 miles. Leroy Burkholder told me that he had made the trip many times and figured it at 180 miles, which at $1.60/mi would have been $288. Which still seemed high, so I told him I was happy to take $240, and he countered with $250, which I accepted. The fellow who wanted household goods taken to South Fork had said he didn’t want to pay more than $125, which I agreed to. So, figuring about $90 for fuel, I was left with $285 for the truck driving (some of which needs to go to maintenance) plus the $50 for the morning delivery, making $345 for a long day’s work.

I also did well with packing my own food. Since I had advance notice I was able to take a half gallon of orange juice, some block cheese cut into cubes, some summer sausage sliced into pieces, a ziploc bag of Triscuits, a ziploc bag of Wheat Thins, some grapes, and two apples. I also made coffee and a cream cheese bagel which I took for breakfast. The food, though less expensive than a single drive-through meal, was more than enough. My only mistake was to forget my water bottle. I didn’t have a chance to buy one until 8pm, and after a day of drinking orange juice it tasted really, really good.

Authority

I’m not much of an exegete, which is probably why Reformed thinking was so attractive to me when I first discovered it—all those biblical interconnections, laid out neatly, explained in detail, tied up with neat ribbons. I read a lot of Reformed writings, and it helped me internalize both the structure and content of the Bible.

I still like a lot about Reformed thinking, but I’m no longer so enamored with the Reformed tendency to look for a pat answer to difficult questions. These days I’m more interested in a sort of Bible reading that I have no name for, but is often found in the writings of liberal or neo-orthodox Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jacques Ellul and Wendell Berry, folks who take a superficially troubling passage and rather than explaining difficult implications away will try to wrestle them to the ground, even at the risk of unresolved conflicts in their understanding of the Bible.

One simple example that comes to mind is Mark 10:24, where “the disciples were astonished at his words. But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!” The pat answer, I suppose, is that the danger is not in riches but in trustring riches—as long as you don’t trust in them, go ahead and pile them up. And plenty of writers have made a biblical case that wealth is a blessing, not a curse. But my naive initial reaction to that verse is to think, why would anyone ever want to be rich at all, if riches can put you at risk of entering into the kingdom of God?

So I am drawn to troubling passages, and am grateful when someone points out reasons to be troubled by passages I previously glossed over. Last week I was reading some Ellul, and ended up seeing this passage with new eyes:

In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes. (Judges 17:6, 21:25)

If I thought about that passage at all, I thought of it as a negative assessment of the situation in Israel at the time: these wayward folks needed to be brought under the authority of a king.

But that can’t be right, can it? When the people eventually demanded of Samuel that they have a king, Samuel explained to them exactly what horrors a king would visit upon them. And when he does finally crown Saul, he tells the people “Ye have this day rejected your God.” (1 Samuel 10:19) So, wasn’t it a good (or at least a better) thing that in the days of Judges there was no king in Israel?

Furthermore, is it necessarily a bad thing that “every man did that which was right in his own eyes”? Wouldn’t we expect a righteous man to do that which is right in his own eyes, eyes that have been trained in godliness and so need no worldly authority to guide his actions? In Romans 13:3, Paul tells us “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same.” I don’t read this as a command to do whatever the rulers tell us, but simply to do what is right in our own (godly) eyes, trusting that the rulers will not terrorize us for them.

New recorder

I’ve owned various portable recording devices over the years, and gotten a lot of work done with them. For the past four or five years I’ve used a Sony minidisc recorder, which unfortunately is a great technlogy like Betamax videotape was a great technology—great, but mishandled by Sony so badly that other kinds of devices captured the market. Now you can’t even buy a minidisc recorder, and I depend so heavily on the fragile mechanical recorder I do own that I’ve been constantly looking for a suitable replacement.

Over the past year or so high quality solid-state recorders have begun to appear on the scene, though most of them cost much more than I wanted to pay. One of the most interesting was the Zoom H4 from Samson, almost exactly the features I wanted but a bit clunky and at $400 too pricey. Well, Samson has just released the H4’s little brother, the Zoom H2, keeping the features I wanted but dropping the price to $200. I just received mine today.

One of the features I need the most is quick recording. With the Zoom H2 you flip the power switch on, wait five seconds until the display shows the sound leve meters, press the red button once, check the sound level (if you need to), then press the red button again and it begins recording. Very simple, very nice.

The top of the unit contains four microphones that can be set to record in four patterns: 90 degrees (facing the front), 120 degrees (facing the rear), and either 2-channel or 4-channel 360 degree sound. The microphones themselves are much better quality than the tiny built-in mics you find in devices in this price range.

I was hoping that the Zoom H2 would be simple enough that Chris and I could knock out reference recordings without the hassle of setting up the mini-studio we used for our podcasts. The H2 comes with a handle shaped like a microphone base that screws into the bottom of the H2, which you can then insert into a microphone stand and position anywhere you need it. We did just that tonight, grabbing a mic stand, putting the H2 into it, turning it on, and doing some quick takes on three songs we’ve been playing lately.

Miner’s Prayer (90 degrees)
One Teardrop and One Step Away (90 degrees)
Coal Tattoo (120 degrees)

The only audio processing I did on these tracks is to normalize them (i.e. boost the volume level a bit), otherwise they are as the H2 captured them. The H2 is capable of recording CD quality sound (WAV files), but I have it set to record 128K MP3 files, which can fit ten times as much audio into the same space. If we were recording a CD for distribution I might record in WAV format, but MP3 is fine for most of what we do. Right now I’m using a 2GB memory card that cost me $19, and it will hold 35 hours of 128K MP3 audio.

The Zoom H2 is small and light, almost cheap feeling with lots of plastic. The lightness and compactness are features to us, though; we want something that can be kept in an instrument case and pulled out at a moment’s notice when we need to record something, e.g. another musician who wants to teach us a song or show us a technique.