Sunday, February 1, 2015

Economics 101 with Cyprian

Yesterday we made a pretty major purchase, a 15-cubic foot chest freezer. We're anticipating needing a great deal more freezer space in the coming year. Rosemary's parents will help us fill up the space later this week when they arrive with a quarter of tasty, home-grown, grass-fed Wisconsin beef from their place. We'll also need more freezer space for garden produce, and especially if we decide to scale up our production of organic whole chicken. I figure that we'll have to scale up production, in any case, to pay for the freezer!

Frigidaire, 15-cubic foot chest freezer. $499 at D&A Appliance in Sims, N.C.
Not too bad a deal. There's one more in stock if anybody is interested!

I brought the boys with me to purchase the freezer, giving Rosemary a little bit of a breather. Yes, we'e still waiting for the new baby's arrival. On the way to the store, Cyprian asked how a freezer is made. I told him I didn't know many of the specifics, referring vaguely to insulation, coolant, and compressor motors. Ever the inquisitive child, Cyprian then suggested that we ask the people at the store; surely they'd know more, he reasoned, since they themselves make freezers. When I explained that retailers merely make available and sell at a marked up price the products they've acquired from factories, Cyprian was astonished and scandalized. His precise words were, "Well, then they're lazy!"

To start with, my apologies to anybody in the retail profession if I didn't adequately jump to your defense at this point . I was too amused by my recollection of the description of tradesmen in Plato's Republic. The description comes in the early part of the dialogue, where Socrates and his interlocutors are "building a city in speech" to discern better the nature of justice in human society. Socrates begins by imagining a city where everybody's basic needs are met. In this "city of utmost necessity," individuals practice a single art, contributing their expertise in this single art to the common good. (If you're interested, you can read my skeptical thoughts on this notion in the form of a graduate school essay by clicking here.) For his part, Socrates goes on to reason, and rightly so, that people wouldn't be satisfied with just their basic needs met, and his city therefore grows to include many more professions, including, apparently, big-box store sales associates. He says,
"There are men who... set themselves to this service; in rightly governed cities they are usually those whose bodies are weakest and are useless for doing any other job. They must stay there in the market and exchange things for money with those who need to sell something and exchange, for money again, with all those who need to buy something."
My apologies if I didn't defend sales associates as vigorously as I should have with this less-than-flattering image in my mind. Though I never worked retail, I did work a cash register at Taco Bell, and I imagine that's close enough since I was exchanging burritos for money. Maybe I'd better not tell Cyprian about my former employer!

Don't get me wrong, I'd hate to have to build the family van, or pretty much anything mechanical or electronic, from scratch. This is the grain of truth in Socrates' point that society as a whole progresses when individuals are permitted to specialize. If I had to build my own chest freezer, I'd probably never get around to raising the chickens to fill it. And my goodness, the commercial hatcheries do a great job hatching out broiler chicks. I don't know how I'd ever get big, fat Cornish Rock broilers to an age and a condition where they're laying fertilized eggs for me to put in a brooder. I'm a big fan of some degree of specialized knowledge, and I'm okay with handing off some tasks to others who can do them better than I.

But Cyprian's exclamation nonetheless elicits profound philosophical reflection. How does it change us to buy things ready-made rather than make them for ourselves? How much handing off of tasks to others who've become specialists is too much? Any follower of this blog has rightly discerned that we're interested in recovering some of this basic homesteading knowledge as a family. I strongly believe that I have a greater appreciation for the food that I eat, in any case, when I've been intimately involved at every step. I feel more connected to the earth when it actually matters to me whether it rains or when it's sunny. There's something humanizing and gratitude-inducing in ushering animals and crops through every stage of growth and maturity.

That said, thank God for chest freezer salesmen. I'm not quite ready to build a freezer for myself.

And happy birthday to Cyprian, who turned six years old on Thursday!

Birthday cake with the Flood family!

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