Friendly Exchanges, Part One -- Micro
Little by little, we're managing to integrate ourselves into the local economy of Hadley Mill Road. Or in other words, we're getting to know some neighbors, making some friends.
The first breakthrough, you might say, came when we were about to embark on a two-week road trip, the first long voyage with our five- month-old Eli. The day before we planned to leave, he was very fussy and fidgety, and we wanted last-minute approval from the doctor, if we could get it. Now, it happens that the two staff physicians of our local medical center are married to each other: and neighbors of ours. We called the center at five pm, too late, really, for there to be much chance of getting Eli examined that day. But we got Dr. Walter himself on the phone. The receptionists were gone for the day, and he said, "I'm just catching up on some paperwork -- why don't you come on in right now?"
I'm happy to report that nothing was wrong, except for regular teething pain (we appear to have won the "Nervous Parents of the Month Award"). I asked the Doc what we owed him, and he declined, saying he'd like to avoid the paperwork. But we pressed him, because he'd done us a favor. So he said, "You're going to New Mexico on this trip? How about bringing us some real Albuquerque green chiles?"
And so, we picked up two pounds of green chiles for next to nothing, and carried them two thousand miles by plane and car, to exchange them for nick-of-time medical attention. And they say barter is inefficient!
"Now, wait a minute," you might say, "that's not economics, that's just a friendly exchange!" Well, friendly it was, yes -- but it was also, undeniably, an exchange. What's the dividing line? How anonymous or impersonal must a transaction be before it leaves the realm of friendly exchange (and thus enters, presumably, the global economy)?
I admit to being a newcomer to these sorts of transactions -- and they fascinate me. They aren't talked about enough, I think. The news is full of talk about economic "globalization", but we oughtn't forget that "the economy" is not monolithic. Local economies, with their own idiosyncracies (and advantages) exert a powerful influence on how people actually live.
Examples abound. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian currency began a period of instability (from which it has not fully recovered). Inflation was very high indeed. But an odd phenomenon occurred on the streets of Moscow, and other cities. People needed a buffer from the devastating spiral, and they implemented a sort of grassroots monetary policy. Rubles started being worth more when people used them to buy bread than they were when people used them to buy mink coats. The currency's value began to stretch -- based on the survival value of the items being bought!
I find more and more opportunities for labor-barter. A pair of our neighbors live in a house they built themselves, quite similar in design to the house I am planning to build. Think of the grief I could avoid by simply picking their brains about all the right questions to ask, and all the things they see clearly in hindsight! Is that not a valuable consulting service? I walked all around, under and over their house, tape measure in hand, asking every question I could think of. Their house is raised on a rather high foundation of pressure-treated posts -- high enough for extensive storage underneath, and also, alas, for a bit of vibration inside. To demonstrate this, she suggested he turn the washing machine, which lived upstairs, on the spin cycle -- and we experienced a gentle swishing vibration, just enough to faintly disturb the end of a three-foot radio antenna. I allowed as how I could live with that.
These neighbors, meanwhile, have just packed off their daughter to her first year away at college. They would dearly love to communicate with her via this great new thing called "email", if only they could figure out how. How much would it cost, on the anonymous market, to get a consultant in to set that up? On an hourly basis? How much equipment would they have to buy? But I said I'd gladly go down there and set it up. (It turns out that they own an Apple IIc -- rather old, but still serviceable for email, I believe. If anyone out there can give me a lead on communications software for that machine, please join the friendly exchange network, and drop me a note!)
I recall learning the theoretical point in economics about how the value of a thing equals the amount of labor that is saved by having the thing. I remember turning that over and over in my head, trying to make sense of it. The principle seems hard to grasp -- until one sees it demonstrated.
Why is it, I wonder, that friendly exchanges of this sort seem identified with folksy country living -- unheard of in the big tough city? That isn't entirely true, of course. People in cities do help each other out (despite stereotypes) and good, sensible barter exchanges do take place. However, I do think it's fair to say that city dwellers have more of a tendency to think in terms of billable hours and opportunity costs -- and I think I know why.
It's because the cost of living is higher, in cities -- and I mean that in the most literal way. The amount of wealth that must be exchanged for access to the earth, which we all need to live - - the rent, in other words, the cost of one's right to live -- is higher there. High rents force city dwellers to place a higher priority on efficiency. In the country, closer to the margin, it takes more labor to make a living -- but our right to live costs less. That gives us the luxury of being able to place more emphasis on the quality of the transactions themselves. Economic relations, then, become less like cold, anonymous business and more a part of daily life, friendship and fun.
No, it's not always so idyllic, of course. This, like every fact in economics, is a matter of tendency and degree. I am very glad, though, for the opportunity to exchange expertise, and green chile peppers, with neighbors. And I think that a wider awareness of such pleasures might just lead people to seek ways to lower the cost of their right to live.
October 29, 1997
Back to The Progress Report