The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Successful & small localized economies

March 19th, 2008 · No Comments · Uncategorized

The dissolution of Bear Stearns over the weekend put a rather somber exclamation point on the sub-prime mortgage crisis. If anyone had any doubt regarding the extent of the problem or how deeply it had spread, that doubt should now be lifted.

I have no clue what to do about the global or national economies. I can’t fathom the size or details of either, except in the most general of terms. Billions of people; trillions of dollars: these things have a mythic form in my head, but I don’t think I want to know what a ‘billion’ of something looks like. It’s a lot, but it’s relative bigness over a million and under a trillion is not really understood in a precise way.

My wrists are sore from having flung my hands up in despair so often. If I had a solution or a hint of an idea about how to resolve these problems we face on a national level, you can bet I’ve already blogged about it. Most of the time, I just try not to think about it. Every so often, I catch myself woolgathering, largely with the hope of discovering some way to salvaging as much of my current standard of living as possible.

A specific series of thoughts do return to mind with some frequency. Many of these ideas coalesced during my brief study of Christian utopian communities and they’re relevant now, not because they attempt to solve the big picture problems, but because they offer a local solution that’s immanently practical and feasible. The best answer may be to allow small groups of people to build the prosperity of their own local economies in a tribal, rather than a small-town model.

A Family Economy
“Tribal” in terms of all of the members belonging to a “family economy” among each other in which goods and services are freely given without expectation of recompense. This is as opposed to the “market economy” in which goods and services are purchased from others by money or barter. The existence of an extended “family economy” is one of the points upon which the economic relevance of the community is built.

That being said, it would not be unreasonable for 1/3rd of a group to be dependents, 1/3rd of a group to be dedicated to feeding and supplying the community with goods, and the remaining 1/3rd focused on profitable industries for trade with other communities. The smaller the population, the more strict the group must be about allowing people in or out of the group, and in requiring some amount of interbreeding if generational continuity is anticipated. Larger groups relieve social and economic pressure on individuals, but place a higher premium on infrastructure and social conformity.

The limits on individual freedom may seem discouraging, but the limits on resources make any such plan nearly untenable from the start without extensive external capitalization. Never mind getting strawberries in November or fresh citrus in March: the specialized skills and technology needed simply to maintain and reproduce computers are impossible to support in a small economy. Many needed items will never be produced within every community, and thus trade networks will be the necessary lifelines for the community.

Again, this is all academic and based on studies of different groups over a wide area in time and space, but its application is pretty general. Self-reliance is the goal, with the expectation that up to 70% of the communities needs could eventually be supplied from within the community. That suggests that a fairly wide distribution of manufacturing and administrative tasks is necessary. For example: I’m not particularly agriculturally inclined, nor would I need to be. If the community were as small as 250 people, it might need as few as 25 of them to grow all the food needed by everyone. Even if half were dependents, that’s still 100 people that can each do 100 things — although it is better from a resource and efficiency standpoint if 100 people did 4 things in groups of 25 than 25 things in groups of 4.

From what I understand about local economics and about how local economies network to form into bigger economies, it’s clear that success has everything to do with social cohesion and group focus — and thus, ideology is key. There are but a few, basic issues one faces with small, localized economies and, save natural calamity, success can largely be planned for — at least, in the academic sense. But the glue that maintains the bulk of the community through good times and bad must be the specific, success-focused ideology to which everyone adheres.

A successful community needs its people to be focused, largely self-motivated and self-correcting, and the proven tool to leverage this behavior is ideology. It is the means to encourage people to decide to do the right things to take care of themselves, their neighbors, and their work. It helps to filter out the potential recruit base, leaving only those who will most likely work well with the existing workers. And it helps to keep people focused on the goals of the whole community and how those goals benefit them personally.

Not only is the correct ideology a requirement for sustainable success, errors in ideology can create many problems and obstacles in a community. Unfortunately, unless an “ideology of success” is well defined and maintained by the community an “ideology of failure” is equally likely to dominate. So the question is not whether one needs to define an ideology for such a community up front, but around what it should be centered and how that focus should point the way to the sustainable goals of the community.

After the issues of ideology are worked out, membership must be carefully built and strictly controlled. Specific skill sets must be selected for and utilized, in specific proportions to maintain the health and welfare of the community on one hand, and to provide profit to invest into the growth and maintenance of the community on the other. There should be an expectation that some percentage of the community is too young, old, or infirm to provide service, and that some portion of community resources will go towards the health and welfare of these people, and the education of the young into the community ideology.

Cultural Congruency
The second question addresses a host of issues from recruitment to harassment: to what degree should the community ideology remain culturally congruent with the host or predominant culture? A group working the ‘foreign’ angle would want just enough congruency to allow gradual learning curves into the society, while a group attempting to co-opt the mainstream would need to leave enough incongruence to appear new and interesting. Naturally, there is a direct relationship between congruence and natural recruitment rates, as well as an indirect relationship between congruence and harassment.

In this country, any ideology that wasn’t significantly reminiscent of Christianity would have a very low congruence. No matter how industrious, faithful, honorable, and unified the ideology may make its members, if people are required to bathe in blood or sacrifice live animals, or pray to animal-headed deities, then you can be sure to count most folks right out.

Thankfully, between 19th century romanticists and modern “New Agers”, our culture does allow for an expanded palette of choices from which a good deal of variation may be spun. Once you move away from having a Christ figure and/or Neo-Platonic theology, the pool of recruits is suddenly much smaller, although often with more advanced, but highly urbanized, skill sets.

Economic Relevance
Economic relevance is the third question. Membership in the community must be economically relevant to the members, meaning that the work they do with and for the community must directly and significantly contribute to their well-being in food, shelter, or other needed resources. The production of the community must also be economically relevant to the larger social order, in that the items (or services) produced must be (1) in demand; (2) well made; (3) fairly priced.

The last item can only be a profitable number if the materials needed are available closely, cheaply and in large quantities. The second number is the best possible compromise between production and quality, and is thus a function of the manufacturing process and manageable. It is the first value that is the most important and least controllable. A well made, fairly priced object will gather dust next to the poorly made, outrageously priced object if neither are in demand.

Economic Focus
For that matter, the general economic malaise begs a certain point. Let’s take it as a given that a reasonably culturally congruent ideology can be formulated that (a) draws people; (b) keeps people; and (c) acts as a focus for community goals. What could such a community produce that would profitable enough to create economic relevance, to sustain the community over a long period, and is compatible with the ideology of the group? In the current economic context, what produce would make the most sense? Is anything remotely possible?

Assuming something is likely, agriculture is probably not it. It would be an obvious output of a community, but it’s not obvious that effort should be expended to produce additional food to be sold outside the community. Fresh produce and meats are produced in enormous factory settings and shipped flash frozen around the world. The advantage locally grown foods have is in the maximized nutrient values available to those who can eat the foods soon after harvest. In the current market, it is unlikely that they can command a sustainable price, and so have greater value within the community than outside of it.

Something more along the lines of textiles or some durable, manufactured goods — even high-tech products, as suggested above — have greater potential for profit over the long term because each item can be stored or shipped over long periods without losing inherent value. The trick would be in finding some product or products that profitably fills the needs of the regional marketplace. Any industrial process can be scaled to any appropriate size, tending toward a compromise between economy and flexibility, and as such does not inherently limit available choices. The controlling limits are instead the availability of local resources, the size of the local market, and the ability to capitalize the necessary facilities.

Housing Strategies
Housing strategies are next to be considered. A tribal model crowds their members as close as possible while still allowing each a modicum of personal space. The trade-off in loss of personal space is in the dramatically increased availability of shared spaces and shared resources. On a community-wide scale, the improvements in efficiency and infrastructure costs are dramatic if the population can be kept within a tight radius. Conveniently, ideology is also more easily reinforced when everyone lives nearby. Proximity encourages the free exchange of goods and services between community members

Something between a hotel and a collegiate dorm is suggested. Each adult should have adequate space and privacy to seek pleasure, understanding, and enlightenment. Beyond this, shared facilities and resources should be used in order to maximize both community bonding and the economic relevance of each resource for the whole community. Proximity of people to needed shops and services should be arranged to reduce the need for motorized vehicles for most errands.

Ultimately, the population of the community will be limited by the housing strategies utilized by the community. Once the space set aside for new buildings is used up, people may crowd up a bit, but more of them will simply move to different communities. But how to handle the distribution of the last 30% of the available space without making it into an enormously divisive issue? What trigger causes a population to split off into colonies? Is is more sustainable to limit population growth to set population sizes or to simply moderate growth and periodically spawn colonies?

There are dozens of other questions, but most vary by implementation of these last points. Questions of diet are framed by the agricultural potential of the community and its land. Issues of sustainability and growth dictate size and complexity of infrastructure. Materials and waste management issues vary significantly as the needs of the community develops. How many and what services — health care, education, legal assistance — will be required by the larger communities? All of these questions are academic if the ideology is unsuccessful in attracting or keeping members, or fails to guide members towards community profitability.