Growing What Money Can’t Buy

Living in Northern California at a time when the tech industry is booming and at a time and place where the faux “sharing economy” (websites that let you buy and sell any service you can imagine) is all the rage, I’m reminded quite frequently how people expect that they can buy anything. It’s just a matter of having money and being willing to spend it. Want someone to come to your house and wash your socks and fold them while you stand and watch? No problem. Want to get a personal tour guide / door opener to the most trendy restaurants in a big city? No problem. As has been articulated by many authors, in effect what’s happening is that things people do that were not part of the money economy are now being monetized, and various intermediaries are taking their cut. When everything is for sale, there’s an expectation among people with lots of money to spend that they should be able to get anything as long as the price is right. And sure, GDP is increasing because these services weren’t part of GDP calculations before, but it’s not clear that this “growth” is good.

In the last few years I’ve been spending a lot of time learning how to grow and growing fruits of various kinds, many of which are rare for one reason or another. What I’ve realized over the past few years of growing fruit is that what I’m growing (and what friends and acquaintances of mine are growing) literally can’t be bought. These fruits aren’t sold in any store, and they’re often not even grown by any commercial farm. They’re not even available at the farmers market. Fresh Passionfruits, Manzano peppers, Pineapple Guavas, Lemon Guavas, Chilean Guavas, non-Hass Avocados, White Sapotes, Sugarcane, and much more are delicious and hard to buy. The only way to get these fruits are to grow them yourself or to trade with someone who does. I suppose I wouldn’t say that it’s impossible to buy these fruits — I’m sure someone out there will sell them, and once in a blue moon I see some at a farmers market stand — but by and large the only way is to know a rare fruit grower. And rare fruit growers by and large don’t exchange money with each other — they trade and give gifts of plants and fruit, and the usual rules (if you can call them that) of informal trade and gifts apply here. I hadn’t really thought too deeply about it but it’s become so common for me now to give someone seeds or plants or fruit or scionwood and for someone else to give me seeds or plants or fruit or scionwood. It’s how a community works — there’s interdependency and sharing.

Those who are providing goods and services — in this case growing the plants and fruit — have a choice. They can choose to sell their fruit for money or they can enter into barter and gift relationships. Often they choose to do the latter because they don’t earn their living from growing fruit, and that’s actually key to the idea I want to discuss:

Luxury items are the place to start for barter and gift economies.

I know that might be counterintuitive — most barter and gift economies have traditionally been for staples, and even the various new barter systems that have been set up in recent years (such as part of Transition Towns) tend to focus on basics. But in relatively wealthy societies most people have the basics covered through the money economy, and it seems unlikely that’s going to go away anytime soon. However, to fight this trend of monetizing everything, perhaps the place to start is with things that people can do without (and thus have some special value to the producer). As someone who grows uncommon fruits (that meet all the standard definitions of luxury food: organic, locally-grown, rare), if someone offered me a lot of money for, for example, the Passionfruits I grow, there’s pretty much no price at which I’d sell. But I happily give them away all the time, most often to people who have no fruit to trade. I don’t know what a neoclassical economist would say about the calculation I’m making — probably that’s it’s not rational; Sandel’s book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets is a good exploration into this sort of thinking.

There’s a point to this: by forcing luxury items into the barter / gift economy, we force people to do something useful to get those items, especially those who earn money doing things that the money economy values but that are actually useless. (Take for instance someone who makes millions packaging and bundling questionable derivatives for a large bank.) Those very people who have money are the ones who will look to buy luxury items with that money, but those providing them don’t have to sell.

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Responses to “Growing What Money Can’t Buy”

  1. I like this idea a lot, Barath. And—though I haven’t read Sandel’s book, so you’ll have to tell me—I think it’s a point interestingly distinct from any of his. His parade case, IIRC, is the Israeli day care which wanted parents to stop arriving late to pick up their children, and so instituted fines for late pickup. And what resulted was that the average pickup time was even later than before the fine regime, since parents on the whole decided that incurring the monetary cost was worth the convenience of late pickup. Creating a market, in this case, led to less efficient outcomes along the very measure it was created to help; whereas ordinary social norms of reciprocity and inconvenience were more efficient.

    Which is a really nice point. But yours is complementary: maybe the best way to intervene in the social world to create non-market communities is to produce luxury goods.

    I wonder, though—does it have to be luxury goods in particular? What about things like skill trading? A friend of mine teaches guitar, and at one point acquired a student who is a boxing coach. After a little while they decided to take the money out of the relationship, and just trade regular guitar lessons for regular boxing lessons.

  2. You’re right — “luxury items” isn’t quite right. Maybe what I should have said is non-commodity goods and services? Because I think commodities are going to be hardest to replace since the seller doesn’t care much about the relationship and the buyer doesn’t care about much other than price.

    It’s been a couple of years since I read Sandel’s book, but I do think it’s distinct from the points he makes. This is an argument for how we might go about changing the status quo, and for doing so in a way that might wake up those with money and power (i.e. “I’m willing to pay — what do you mean this isn’t for sale?”) in a small way. Though really in a larger sense it probably applies to at least half of Americans (though probably less so internationally) if we’re not talking about real luxury items any more and just non-commodity goods and services.

    One practical concern I have (though perhaps not a big one) is that someone might always be willing to be the intermediary / trader between the monetary and non-monetary economies. So even if I and others decide we will only trade or gift our passionfruit, someone might be willing to sell the passionfruit they get from us to the highest bidder. I think at the community scale this is self correcting; it’s unlikely that person will get passionfruit from us the next time around.

    I haven’t read Orlov in a while, but I’m reminded of a talk he gave a while back where he discusses money economies vs. gift/barter and makes a number of interesting points (slides, video).

  3. Life at the end of empire, where life is cheap, and diversity is priceless.

  4. Mary — your observation is tantalizingly cryptic — I’m curious about the broader observation you’re making.