Home > finance > Money, food, and the local

Money, food, and the local

May 20, 2013

I take the Economist into the bath with me on the weekend when I have time. It’s relaxing for whatever reason, even when it’s describing horrible things or when I disagree with it. I appreciate the Economist for at least discussing many of the issues I care about.

Last night I came across this book review, about the book “Money: The Unauthorised Biography” written by Felix Martin. It tells the story of an ad hoc currency system in Ireland popping up during a financial crisis more than 40 years ago. The moral of that story is supposed to be something about how banking should operate, but I was struck by this line in the review:

It helped that a lot of Irish life is lived locally: builders, greengrocers, mechanics and barmen all turned out to be dab hands at personal credit profiling.

It occurs to me that “living locally” is exactly what most people, at least in New York, don’t do at all.

At this point I’ve lived in my neighborhood near Columbia University for 8 years, which is long enough to know Bob, the guy at the hardware store who sells me air conditioners and spatulas. If our currency system froze and we needed to use IOU notes, I’m pretty sure Bob and I would be good.

But, even though I shop at Morty’s (Morton Williams) regularly, the turnover there is high enough that I have never connected with anyone working there. I’m shit out of luck for food, in other words, in the case of a currency freeze.

Bear with me for one more minute. When I read articles like this one, which is called Pay People to Cook at Home –  in which the author proposes a government program that will pay young parents to stay home and cook healthy food – it makes me think two things.

First, that people sometimes get confused between what could or should happen and what might actually happen, mostly because they don’t think about power and who has it and what their best interests are. I’m not holding my breath for this government program, in other words, even though I think there’s definitely a link between a hostile food environment and bad health among our nation’s youth.

Second, that in some sense we traditionally had pretty good solutions to child care and home cooking, namely we lived together with our families and not everyone had a job, so someone was usually on hand to cook and watch the kids. It’s a natural enough arrangement, which we’ve chucked in favor of a cosmopolitan existence.

And when I say “natural”, I don’t mean “appealing”:  my mom has a full-time job as a CS professor in Boston and is not interested in staying home and cooking. Nor am I, for that matter.

In other words, we’ve traded away localness for something else, which I’m personally benefitting from, but there are other direct cultural effects which aren’t always so awesome. Our dependency on international banking and credit scores and having very little time to cook for our kids are a few examples.

Categories: finance
  1. May 20, 2013 at 9:16 am

    I think it is very important to always remember that there are tradeoffs. And this is the only way to understand why people can have very different world views from us: (1) they can have their eyes on certain benefits they value (or personally experience) more than other benefits, and/or (2) they are unaware of the full picture of the downsides of their choices.


  2. May 20, 2013 at 9:38 am

    We may have ‘traded away’ local connections not by choice but rather because the only choice available was to help in the destruction of the local shops. By allowing (yes allowing) the financial industry to become such a large part of the economy we became subject to their whims and desires for sucking the money out of every part of our systems. That meant the dominance of large retailers (because your local shop does not trade shares) and then someone there got the bright idea of outsourcing jobs and the fad spread like shit through a goose. It would have been hard to fight that choice presented to us even if we could have seen the ultimate effects coming.

    But if ever things do collapse to a point where we need to be more local I do believe that alternative can spring up very quickly. People are researching alternatives all the time especially in the Southern European countries. So we may once again see banned currencies pop up like; http://www.mindcontagion.org/worgl/worgl1.html

    It would not take long for something like this to happen again. During the depression there were some 200 small communities in the US using a local currency. Something that did not make it into the high school history books about the Great Depression.

    Maybe that’s why the preemptive strike on Bitcoin happened?


  3. josh
    May 20, 2013 at 10:08 am

    You write:

    “people sometimes get confused between what could or should happen and what might actually happen, mostly because they don’t think about power and who has it and what their best interests are. I’m not holding my breath for this government program”

    I doubt the author of that article disagrees with you about the chances that will be enacted any time soon.

    But that shouldn’t be a reason not to propose it or consider its merits.


  4. Thads
    May 20, 2013 at 3:56 pm

    Bob is a kindly guy and a pillar of the neighborhood. His great-aunt and uncle, the Milsteins, used to run the shop when I was a kid.


  5. May 21, 2013 at 1:08 am

    There have been a number of ad hoc currency systems over the years. Money is like language, people will invent it when they need it.

    In Port Angeles where I live, Lauridsen Boulevard is named for a late 19th century merchant who issued his own currency during one of the many financial crises of that century and kept the town economy moving. Not all the goods were local, since merchants wanted to sell their inventory of items brought into town, and there were informal barter networks at the wholesale level to keep things supplied and provide goods to Seattle and points east. (There’s a lot to be said for just having the Fed print money.)

    During FDR’s bank holiday, we didn’t climb trees and shy coconuts at each other as at least one pundit predicted, Instead, people kept ledgers and out-of-towners wrote checks that were then treated like scrip. Hotels would often cash checks for people in residence, so this was just an extension of the usual service. You didn’t need a local reputation, as long as your bank had a regional or national one.

    If anything, we could probably weather a financial crisis that shut down banking even more easily today since so many transactions don’t actually involve money. As long as the various credit and debit card clearing houses were operating, you could buy yourself lunch 12,000 miles from the nearest person who might recognize you by sight or voice, sign the slip if they ask you to, and enjoy your meal. As anyone who has traveled lately knows, reputations are no longer local.

    There is an old saying in diplomatic circles – sometimes attributed to Clausewitz – that all international relations eventually comes down to you-and-what-army? War, though best avoided, is at the heart of the matter. Similarly, financiers have noted that all of finance eventually comes down to cash payment, though, as with war, this is often best avoided.

    P.S. I readily agree that avoiding war is probably even more important than avoiding cash payment, but I’m not a diplomat or a financier.


  6. rob
    May 21, 2013 at 9:17 am

    Moderation in all things. Chain stores, the extreme of anti-local, have merits — some can sustain round-the-clock hours that smaller stores can’t, for example — but they are spreading invasively, raising commercial rents, driving out lots of local businesses in their path. In an immigrant town like NYC, they choke the diversity out of neighborhood character, leveling everything to a suburban plane — no prejudice against the suburbs, it’s just that one valued virtue of the city was its distinction from the suburban. Localness is no panacea, but corporate control from afar has got to be the death of a great American city.

    Full disclosure: I belong to a group that’s trying to promote local self-determination in NYC. Our petition requesting a zoning amendment for local control may be of interest:



  7. June 4, 2013 at 12:40 am

    Here’s a curious rant by Orlov about “communities that abide”. I wonder what you make of it: http://cluborlov.blogspot.com/2013/06/communities-that-abide-preamble.html


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