RINGOES, NJ. Isn’t it interesting how quickly speculation becomes conventional wisdom? Back in the fall, when we began to hear rumblings of economic catastrophe, things were a bit vague. Most agreed that something was wrong. Some argued that the problems would self-correct. Others insisted that massive government intrusion was necessary to stave off a world-wide disaster. While there were dissenters among us, the chorus of “experts” grew to a mighty din, and those in power did not hesitate to get involved. After all, they were the servants of the people, and the people must be saved. Now that we are in the process of being saved, I’d like to ask a few questions.

First, shouldn’t we be at least a little suspicious when the very people who helped create the economic meltdown are the ones clamoring for a massive government fix? If they are smart enough to know how to fix the mess, why were they not smart enough to see it coming and act more prudently? Try this for fun. Read a variety of economic “experts.” Does the fact that they disagree on both the causes and the solutions to our problems give you pause? Could it be that they are—God forbid—as clueless as the rest of us? Now, let’s throw our grandchildren’s money at the problem. After all, we have to do something.

Second, here’s a well known principle of power: times of crisis result in the consolidation, expansion, and centralization of power. When those with power employ the rhetoric of crisis, watch for ulterior motives. And even if the motives are pure, the movement of power will be toward the center. Should we be concerned? When the crisis is over, do we expect that the power will be yielded easily? The easy movement of power is a one-way street. Reversing the direction is far more difficult. Consider the long-term implications of this dynamic.

Third, is there really a crisis? Talking heads tell us so, but they simply revel in crisis-talk. It drives up ratings. Politicians tend to favor this rhetoric as well. Have you noticed how often political agendas are framed in terms of war? We have fought hot wars against fascism and cold wars against communism. We’ve also declared wars on poverty, drugs, illiteracy, climate change and terror. In other words, if you want to pass an agenda, you must create a sense of urgency, and one of the most effective ways of doing this is to speak in the language of war. The irony is that now the only undeclared wars are the ones fought by soldiers.

Fourth, would a crisis be the worst thing to happen? Please know I am not dismissing the suffering, the worry, the agony that unemployment and hardship would cause. Times could get very tough. But, in the back of my mind, I find myself asking whether difficult times somehow could bring out the best in us. Of course, this is not necessarily true, but there is opportunity. Could a difficult time help to reshape a culture that has become isolated in its individualism and distracted by the short-term pleasures of consumerism? If the choice is between fragmented communities, the frantic pursuit of wealth, and the indolence of easy consumption or a time of economic hardship that hones our character, strengthens community ties, and perhaps even sharpens our souls, is the latter to be avoided because it is difficult? Might our grandchildren admire us for the way we weathered the storm?

Finally, if an economic collapse is a distinct possibility, what will people do? A couple months ago, my wife and I went to New York City. As we strolled around the streets of Manhattan, we talked about living in a city (which we don’t) and the opportunities that are clearly available. But then the question: if serious economic troubles hit, what would all these people do? What would they eat? How could they survive? And here we see a significant difference between the Great Depression and the Great Depression II (if it occurs). Today, less than 1% of Americans live on farms. This single demographic shift makes all the difference. And it is not only the lack of land that is the issue. The skills necessary to cultivate a garden or to care for livestock have largely been forgotten. Or to put matters in a somewhat different light, who is better prepared: a) the urban-dweller who works for a wage and rents a flat on the 15th floor of a high-rise, or b) the person who owns a bit of land and has developed the skills to grow a significant portion of his own food? Jefferson’s yeoman farmer whispers from a forgotten time. Can you hear him?

Perhaps this crisis is overblown. Perhaps it is simply being used as cover for the consolidation of power. That much is obviously true. But if the sky really is falling, we need to be wise. We should not blindly trust the fixers to fix the problem. After all, they created the problems in the first place. They very well could make matters worse. What to do? In my worst moments, I’m tempted to move to a mountain with a stockpile of beans and bullets and ride it out. But with sober reflection, I think there are some simple steps that virtually anyone can take. The most pressing and obvious is to figure out ways to become more dependent on local food sources. Ideally, this means growing some of your own food. This will, obviously, involve plenty of hard work, a steep learning curve, and time. Even in cities, space can be found for cultivating gardens and small animal husbandry; although, we’re going to have to get over our aversion to manual labor, to dirt and blood, to dung and death.

Consider what could be produced if suburban families got rid of part (or all) of the chemically-induced swath of green around their homes and planted fruit trees and a garden. Q: “What? Plow up my front yard and plant potatoes?” A: “Potatoes are better for your kids than Chem-Lawn. And while you’re at it, how about some chickens in the back?” But (the obvious objection) what about the home-owner’s association? Here we can catch a glimpse of how our present culture runs counter to good sense. As long as serious efforts at food production are separated from the places we live, we are not taking the present crisis seriously. And if hard times do in fact arrive, our lack of preparation, our lack of any modicum of independence, will make our transformation into wards of the all-caring state a natural and necessary outcome. Could it be that a local food economy is a bulwark of freedom?

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. Or to put matters in a somewhat different light, who is better prepared: a) the urban-dweller who works for a wage and rents a flat on the 15th floor of a high-rise, or b) the person who owns a bit of land and has developed the skills to grow a significant portion of his own food? Jefferson’s yeoman farmer whispers from a forgotten time. Can you hear him?

    I’ve commented on a few occasions of late that it may be high time for me to hightail it back to Indiana, to starting tilling the land on Grandpa’s farm, and to clean up the shotgun and the rifle on the farm (and to buy some ammo), to protect family, property, and produce when the flat-dwellers come looking for handouts.

    So I hyperbolize — a bit —, but the point you’ve made here, the notion underlying my “desire” to resurrect and to defend the farm, is worrisomely relevant.

  2. Re: the fourth point.. I do believe that difficult times could weed out much of what worthless in our culture. I can’t help but be kind of excited for it.

  3. Mark,
    Great post. On the theme of our “experts” having no clue what was happening even in the midst of the collapse – and to whom we should accord little trust in bailing us out – some of our readers might enjoy Jon Stewart’s devastating evisceration of the nincompoops over at CNBC, here.

  4. Patrick,
    That youtube piece was in the back of my mind when I wrote this. Our willingness to trust the “experts” really begs an important question: why do we believe these folks, or at least want to believe them, when, upon reflection, we know better (or ought to)? The cult of the expert is one facet of our current troubles.

  5. Mark,
    The rise of the expert is the necessary accompaniment to modern efforts to displace folk wisdom, and the culture that gives rise to such wisdom. It is the effort to replace a traditional way of knowing – and thus, one that is more stable and less “dynamic” – with a progressive orientation whose aim is the Baconian project of the mastery of nature. For a chilling, and very recent invocation of just this sort of acquiescence to expertise in the name of a progressive and improved human future, see the Presidential memo that is accompanying President Obama’s overturning of limits on stem cell research – done in the name of removing “politics” from “science” (as if science should in no way be subject to “political” considerations, or the common wisdom of the political community).

    There is no better example of dissolving aspects of expertise than the strenuous efforts by Progressive era thinkers and politicians to institute a national bureaucracy populated with people who had proven their qualifications based on civil service examinations (i.e., deracinated forms of knowing). The establishment of the bureaucracy effectively severed the local electoral tie from policy in many instances, leading to the demise of political parties as fundamentally local entities that provided the main link between localities, States and the nation, and instead gave way to the rise of parties that are national collections of increasingly abstract and detached interests.

    The importance of detaching such local ties and reliance upon “folk wisdom” is of central importance in modern political philosophy (read no further than the philosophy of Hobbes – the origins of placeless analytic philosophy). More often than not such local knowledge represents a constraint upon our belief in our capacity for liberation from restraint or the prospects for progress. More than that, the culture that gives rise to “folk wisdom” is local, personal, generational and embodied. For us to become liberated from place and tradition, such “common sense” (or Vico’s “sensus communis”) must be replaced increasingly by abstracted forms of knowing and impersonal relationships (again, symbolized no better than the role of bureaucracy, displacing such political activities defended in the great tract, “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall”). We must come to understand our future as ensured not by our place in a community and its responsibilities toward those whom have contributed, but to the gyrations of the stock market and our insurance portfolios (for a great explanation of the role of insurance in dissolving communal bonds, and its rejection by the likes of the Amish, see Stephen Marglin’s important new book “The Dismal Science”).

    Finally, experts encourage us to distrust our own senses, our own intuitive or inherited understanding of things. Nothing is as it appears to be. Expertise – while doubtlessly valuable in many respects, if properly limited and embedded as a form of traditional knowledge – is our modern cult, explaining to us the mysteries of a world that we purportedly do not understand. Experts are our contemporary priests, no less worshiped than prophets of old, but rather than reinforcing solidarity and the centrality of community and its place in the order of the created universe, our new priesthood dissolves that sense of belonging and “throws us back into the solitude of our own hearts.”

  6. Mark,

    Thank you for this excellent post. It reminds me how blessed my family is to live amidst the agrarian Eden of Wayne County, New York.

    As the spring rains water the earth, and the intensifying sun heats things up, we know it will not be long before we are able to drive about from farm stand to farm where local farmers, our neighbors, set out their produce at small stands tended only by a small locked box for you to place your money in. The honor system is sufficient among an honorable people.

    It also reminds me that my freezer is starting to get to the point when we will have to call a neighboring farmer and place our order for a side of beef, which is slaughtered and packaged at Joe’s Meat market in nearby Ontario, New York. When we do, we will pick up plenty of the best breakfast sausage that I have ever tasted- a rival to the breakfast patties served at the Jeffersonville Fireman’s Breakfast when I was a boy. That sausage was the recipe of my Uncle Pete (who also drove the Fire-truck when he was not making sausage). Joe’s is the best I have tasted since… and might be better.

    On the way we can stop at one of the Town of Walworth Conservative Party members to buy a couple dozen brown eggs and to talk politics.

    Here is to local food, and to those blessed to be able to enjoy it.

  7. Mark, thanks for the excellent post. It’s funny that my philosopher-husband and I have been talking quite a bit recently about locally grown food, growing our own food, and the types of community that support such endeavors. Two years ago I would not have considered myself a “crunchy con”, but lately I’ve begun to realize that’s just what I am. Heh. We’ve made our first inroads into our own garden, and hope to join an almost-local CSA farm. Our neighbors come just short of calling us completely nuts.

    And that’s the really frightening thing. Even in the semi-rural area where we now live – an area of the country with a long growing season, cheap land that is great for farming, and plenty of folks needing food – I see few gardens, large or small. If the folks who already have the land and time won’t make the effort to plant a few tomatoes or okra or beans, how will those urban-flat-dwellers ever be inspired to do so if the direst predictions come true?

  8. SusannaS,
    Are you the SusannaS I think you are? In any case, welcome.
    You ask a great question, and it’s one I’ve asked, too. It is really striking to see how much good farm land is turned to giant lawns that require hours of mowing but are rarely used otherwise. Call it the “suburban aesthetic.” That needs to change. Somehow people have come to think of food as that nicely wrapped stuff at the store rather than the product of dirt, hard work, and skill. Your neighbors may think you’re nuts now, but they may be asking you for gardening advice when they are forced to grow their own. Necessity might make gardeners of us all. And that’s not a bad thing.

  9. Mark,

    Well stated and Patrick restated it very well the rise of experts and the problem with the mob that follows them. Having been born and raised in a giant suburb I believe there is one point that needs to be added to the rise of experts. The dummying down of education.

    In my fine suburb we are seeing education being cut every year and more amore streamlining what is taught. Music and arts have been cut in the last 20 years to save money. Creative thinking is frowned on and more just learn the facts but do not question the facts has risen. Having schools have failing grades on tests that are designed not for creative thinking but “facts” has led to a generation that questions authority but not the “facts” presented for the authority by experts.

    We no longer ask why but expect to be told so. We want the comfort that those who tell us how to think are experts. When troubles come we seek the comfort of those experts will give us. We want to be coddled and not responsible for things. Just tell us what to do.


  10. Yup – I am who you think I am. ::grin::

    And what I’m seeing here is even worse than the “surburban aesthetic”. I’m seeing impoverished mobile homes sitting on several acres of land, with the families on food stamps and unemployment benefits. Maybe they used to work at Goodyear. Maybe they used to work at the steel plant or the cotton mill. But they take their food stamps to the local grocery store (or Wal Mart!) and buy expensive produce they could grow almost free in their own backyards. They’ve already hit the wall financially, and it hasn’t occured to them that buying a 50 cent packet of seeds might supply them with food for several months with a little time and effort on their part.

    I’ve been trying to get involved with our local Master Gardeners group, which operates through the county extension office. (Ahh, if they would only offer their classes when I’m not at work!) It occurs to me that among the many community outreach projects they do, teaching folks how to grow vegetables would be far more valuable than tending the county’s highway shrub beds.

  11. I’m not yet convinced that this particular crisis is about the consolidation of government power. So far neither Bush nor Obama has given any significant new orders.

    FDR began his solution by forcibly closing the bad banks and reorganizing the financial system. This was a necessary step, because the system had shown the need for restraint.

    Bush and Obama have thrown unimaginable amounts of money into the bad system, without any reorganization or new rules. If any power is being consolidated, it’s not government power but the power of the Wall Street Mafia. The whole thing smells like blackmail to my sensus communis.

  12. Here is a familiar story, one usually told about the English peasantry after the enactment of Enclosure Laws, but, in this instance, of much more recent vintage and in reference to a more modern peasantry:

    Some years ago, I had a Mexican exchange student in one of my courses. We were talking about the visibly awful poverty in Mexico City, and how the residents in the most abysmal parts of town were in part responsible for the ugliness and filth amid which they lived.

    I asked her how she accounted for it.

    She said that the poor had simply forgotten their ancestors habits. Removed to ghettos in the city from subsistence work in the country, they’d lost the skills that had once been useful, and had learned no new ones appropriate to their new environs.

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