Sunday, July 5, 2009

Swinging Your Own Hammer

In my post, Localism And Resilient Neighborhoods, I discussed the importance of building and supporting local economies as a part of building resilient neighborhoods. Of course, building local economies means the revival of a great number and variety of local businesses that were destroyed by the rise of globalism and the concentration of massive amounts of capital in the hands of a small number of national and global elites. The revival of local businesses that actually make or repair the material goods needed for everyday life is a key element of neighborhoods and communities that can survive large-scale economic shocks caused by the failure of the global economy – a failure that is occurring right now due to the collapse of the resource base needed to sustain that global economy.

A key question is whether now is the right time to begin reviving and/or building local economies, and the necessary businesses that make up such economies. That question can be answered on two levels. On one level, the answer is “Of course this is the right time! In fact, we should have started yesterday, given our precarious, crumbling national economy and the coming economic shocks caused by our post-Peak resource base.” But I'm asking a different question, namely, whether people who are trying to rebuild a local economy in their locality can get away with it at this time.

I believe that at present, an increasing number of people are starting to resent the official economy and the conditions under which they are forced to participate in it. I believe that these people would gladly turn to alternatives if these alternatives were readily available. Yet the masters of this official economy and of the big businesses that comprise this economy are actively working to prevent the emergence of alternatives. In this they are willing to use any tools at their disposal, including the lobbying of politicians in order to make it hard for people to pursue alternatives. The sudden emergence of many local economies based primarily on large numbers of small local businesses would constitute a threat to the “official” global economy and its dominant players. Therefore I am not asking whether “we” should formulate some grand policy for reviving local economies, nor am I asking whether we should try to enlist the help of our government at the Federal or State level to promote such a policy. Rather, I'm asking, “If I want to start a local business that both makes and sells useful things, can I get away with it at this time? Or will I be driven out of business?”

To put the problem another way, the official global economy is like a huge, vicious pit bull that has suddenly shown up in the front yard of a home. Inside is a group of children who are trying to escape from the house, but they are rightly afraid of the pit bull. They have already lost a couple of their comrades who tried to make a break for it and were caught in the jaws of this evil mutt. But a Providential event has befallen them in that the pit bull has just knocked over a trash can and eaten some really gross, poisonous garbage. Now he's looking quite sick, and the children are starting to think he may die – or at least that he might be sick enough that they could outrun him and get away from that house. Yet they're not quite sure – so they converse back and forth along the following lines, “I think maybe he's dead. Wanna check it out?” “No way, man! You go first.” “Chicken!” “You see what that dog did to Jimmy's leg, don't you?” “Maybe if we throw a stick at it, we can see if it's still alive...”

Is the official economy sick? Absolutely. Those who depend on that economy for their livelihoods are being jettisoned from that economy in staggering numbers. The “official” unemployment rate in the United States is now 9.1 percent, although if you check out Shadowstats (, the actual rate is over 20 percent. Is the Government, the enabler of that official economy sick? One way to answer that is to note that the Federal government depends heavily on debt, and foreign nations have grown increasingly reluctant to buy U.S. debt. Many state governments are in much worse shape. (California is the present poster child.) Is modern industrial society feeling well? Consider that there is now abundant evidence that global oil production is past peak and in decline, and that U.S. commercial crude inventories have been falling consistently by 3 to 4 million barrels every week for the past two to three months. Oil – the original topic of this blog, as well as the cause of our present economic collapse – is about to assume a central role in our story once again.

Is there still some “bite” left in the jaws of this pit bull? Unfortunately, yes. Consider government, for instance. There are several “food safety” bills now making their way through the United States Congress, bills that, if signed into law, would drive small farms and food producers out of business by creating such an expensive regulatory burden that only the biggest agribusinesses could survive. It's not surprising that large food corporations like General Mills, Kraft Foods and W.M. Kellogg have endorsed this legislation. There was also the “Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act” passed earlier this year ostensibly to protect children from lead and toxic chemicals. What the law actually accomplished was to saddle small American producers of children's toys with a crushing burden of required tests on products that obviously did not contain lead in the first place. These cases illustrate the strategy of big business, when faced with a crisis caused by a lack of safety in products produced by big business. That strategy is to promote legislation that does not forbid the big business practices that lead to dangerous products, but that rather saddle all businesses with a regulatory burden so heavy that it can only be borne by big businesses. Thus they drive smaller businesses out of business.

The use of governments to promote the policies of big business is but one of the strategies of big business. There are the other strategies – economies of scale, specialization, large-scale automation and the use of cheap labor in a globalized economy. Do you want to make something for a living? How about custom handmade guitars? It is certainly possible to make a decent living as a luthier, as long as you have a good reputation for quality products. Some well-known custom and semi-custom luthiers come to mind, such as Linda Manzer, Kevin Ryan, Grit Laskin and George Lowden, and their instruments can command a price of several thousand dollars each. Yet China has recently emerged as a lutherie powerhouse, and Chinese instruments of high quality can be had very cheaply, due to low labor costs and cheap fossil fuel-based transport. Last year's oil price spike put a temporary crimp in globalism, but that spike has gone away for the present.

Okay, then, how about bicycles? China's prominence is true in spades here. Almost every inexpensive bike sold in the USA is made in China. Yet it is also becoming true that expensive, supposedly “custom” bikes are also made in “low-cost” overseas locations. Consider the offerings of Rivendell Bicycle Works, a seller of “custom” bikes that were at one time all made in the United States. The majority of their most popular models are now made in foreign countries such as Japan (for the Rivendell Atlantis) and Taiwan (for the Sam Hillborne). Now don't get me wrong. I really like Rivendell and respect the company, and I know they aren't exactly rolling in dough. But even they have been somewhat altered by globalism. My point is that making a living in the First World by making things in the First World is still fraught with difficulty, unless you're a really big player.

So what's a person to do if they want to start a local business? What should be the focus of their business? This question is no doubt uppermost in the minds of many people who see that the official globalist system is breaking and who are looking for some sort of escape. Yet such people may feel trapped, people whose education has “...prepared [them] solely for working in a large organization,” and who can't imagine earning a living otherwise, as Matthew B. Crawford says in his book, Shop Class As Soulcraft.

Crawford's book is a deliciously subversive critique of modern globalism, and of white-collar culture and all its support institutions, including schools that teach useless factoids while destroying common sense. To those looking for a localist escape from the breaking globalist system, Crawford suggests finding work that essentially requires human craft of the kind that can only be gained through experience, and that can only be handed down through apprenticeship. This sort of work can't be globalized, outsourced, automated or exploited over an Internet connection. He suggests “finding work in the cracks,” work that is not being done by the official global economy because its scale or scope does not fit the large scale suited to the organs of the global economy.

Figuring out where the “cracks” are and what sort of work can be done in the cracks is a challenge I leave to you, the reader. (It's certainly a challenge I myself am facing.) But I leave you with some suggested avenues of exploration for finding such work. These were written by Ahavah Gayle, author of the blog Shalom Bayit, and are found in a series on that blog titled, “The Collision With The Reality Train – What Can We Do?” The relevant post is here: Repost: Third and Final part. Enjoy!

(P.S. I once got to see a Rivendell Atlantis as I was coming home from work and waiting at a MAX platform. It belonged to a middle-aged lady who was also a bike commuter. I came up to her and said, “Is that a Rivendell Atlantis? Can I drool over it?!” She said, “Sure! Do you need a bib?” Those bikes are cool.)


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