Thoreau and economics

I've admired Thoreau since I first read Walden; or, Life in the Woods when I was thirteen or so. For a time in my adult life I lived in Lincoln, Massachusetts, just a couple of miles from Walden Pond. And for a stretch of a year or two I got up at 6am, drove to the pond, and ran around it twice before I went to work. Just living in that beautiful part of New England gave me a subtle but marvelous feeling, perhaps just as an affirmation of kinship with Thoreau, Emerson and others of their time and place.

As I undertake some projects which one day may lead to a semblance of livelihood, a bit of Walden keeps popping up in my mind. Thoreau writes:

...A strolling Indian went to sell baskets at the house of a well known lawyer in my neighborhood. "Do you wish to buy any baskets?" he asked. "No we do not want any," was the reply.

"What!" exclaimed the Indian as he went out the gate, "do you mean to starve us?" Having seen his industrious white neighbors so well off, --that the lawyer had only to weave arguments and by some magic wealth and standing followed, he had said to himself: I will go into business; I will weave baskets; it is a thing which I can do. Thinking that when he had made the baskets he would have done his part and then it would be the white man's to buy them. He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other's while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or to make something else which it would be worth his while to buy. I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but I had not made it worth any one's while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men's while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them. The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?

The painful urgency of the marketplace has ramped up considerably since the start of the global financial debacle a few years ago. Perhaps conditions are improving a bit now, but our "social safety net" in the U.S. seems to be a disappointment. One in six people go hungry each day. More than 40 million people don't have health insurance. And most of the wealth of our country is in the hands of a tiny fraction of its citizens. I doubt that any of these circumstances can continue.

I am by nature not a political person: I don't think politics or government will be the primary sources of positive change for our country and the world. I wonder whether the most crucial of our economic struggles is not between capitalism and socialism or communism, but between greed and generosity. This struggle occurs within people, not among them. Thoreau wrote that the essentials for life are food, clothing, shelter, and fuel for cooking and warmth. Everyone should have these.

I have not begun this blog or Noble Planet with an eye on making money. It would be a welcome coincidence if these efforts eventually create a modest livelihood for some assurance of the necessities of life, but I find my efforts spoiled if every choice is determined by guessing whether the result will be a profit or a loss. I feel smarter, saner, too, when I just try to do what seems to need doing; I may be paid in some way in the future, but money will not be the most important reward. If profit comes my way through these efforts, I will keep enough to carry on this work and pass the rest to a foundation.

The video is of Walden Pond, as you might have guessed. Even now, with the large parking lots and false beach, the pond remains magical. The stone cairn at the end is at the site of Thoreau's cabin, as best as historians can figure. (BTW, no sound for this clip, and if you get a hitch in the video it's due to some technical issues in my editing system that I am working out.)

--Rod

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