The Economist and the Mad Farmer

The largest major in my graduating class was economics by far. Somewhere behind were the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) majors, who generally wanted a little more human context to their quantificational data analysis while still preserving that prized hire-ability that comes of being an Econ major in this day and age. Common occurrence: visiting high school senior sits in on a humanities class. When asked what she wants to major in, she says economics, but (patronizingly, though she doesn't realize it) she would love to minor in [insert philosophy, English, classics, history, etc. here].

Okay, fine, so I'm obviously a little skeptical and/or bitter. Big surprise, since I majored in philosophy and I'm scraping by while all those Econ majors got consulting jobs. That's mostly a joke at my own expense, I think, because what bothers me more about the trend is what it expresses about our orientation as a culture, and I'm not entirely comfortable with the consequences of that orientation.

I recently led a meetup discussion about the ethics behind global aid. For supplemental reading, I had offered Onora O'Neil's "Rights, Obligations, and World Hunger," in which she argues for an obligation-based ethical theory. One of the participants in the discussion questioned whether the language of moral obligation could be meaningful at all for those who do not believe in a higher power. Certainly a hollow threat of divine or karmic retribution possesses minimal strength to motivate or alter human behaviors.

In hindsight, however, I would dispute his premise that for a non-theistic society there is no higher power. Indeed, he is the perfect example, because he was an atheist, but he put a great deal of faith in the benefits of capitalism and in its ability to resolve global issues.

In David Graeber's book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, he notes that prior to Adam Smith and his contemporaries, economics did not exist as a separate discipline. There was no abstract "market" distinct from other human political or social structures. 

Fast forward a few hundred years and you can't escape the idea. In an era of financial instability, students learn the principles of microeconomics, desperately hoping to gain some modicum of control over an abstract and slippery fate. They toss around the jargon of supply and demand, sunk costs, public goods, and game theory as they graph neat curves and calculate deadweight loss. 

Arguably for my discussion participant and for many others, the market has taken on some of the role of the divine. It is seen as an objective force, the cosmic balancing agent, and, intriguingly, an arbiter of justice. Note how trade has supplanted outright warfare on the world stage: where once we shot a man in the heart, now we're civilized and resort to picking his pockets. 

And of course we need a priesthood to act as intermediaries between our lives experience and this ultimate reality. In spite of all our neat equations, the Market is a nebulous being and its demands and judgments are difficult to interpret and hard to predict. Enter the economist, who knowingly looks on and provides financial guidance in the form of prophetic words about GDP growth percentages.

Where does that leave us? We are subjected to an impersonal, amoral, external will that determines everything from our education to our employment to our housing to our marriage prospects. We are told that our new ideals are to be efficiency, which unites with the old Protestant work ethic to produce a generation of hamsters forever running in their wheels and getting nowhere fast. But ah! We are to be consoled: the economy is growing. 

Someone like Wendell Berry runs perpendicular to the cult of economy, offering us a glimpse of an alternative. The center of Berry's world, the organizing principle toward which human efforts are directed, is the local community, to be understood as both the people and the land on and off of which they live. In this world, the money does not lead--it follows the concerted, directed efforts of the people and is a contributor to but not the sole arbiter of their flourishing.

In a recent article for The Nation about massive layoffs among journalists, Dale Maharidge states, "...The shift is deeper and more systemic. Like the story of Willy Loman [in Death of a Salesmen], cast aside in his creeping middle age, the tale of today's discarded journalists is, at its core, a parable of the way our economy, our whole American way of being, sucks people dry and throws them away as their cultural and economic currency wanes."

Does it really have to be this way? Berry casts himself in his poetry as "The Mad Farmer," whose romantic idealism leads him to throw himself, alone and small, against the giants of modern society. But surely, if he is alone in his fight, he is not alone in his desire. We may not believe it, we may hide behind pragmatism and cynicism, but I believe that we still carry a small seed of hope for something better, something that honors what is best and brightest about the human social life and does not treat individual lives as so much usable energy to be expended and cast aside at will. The mad farmer is the voice in the wilderness, drawing us out of our organized temples of finance and telling us that there is another way. It's up to us whether we will take heed and listen.

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