How Cheap Enslaves Us — And Our Way Out

When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that we cannot eat money.

Native American Saying

Why the Obsession with Cheap?

Becca and I and a couple of friends — let’s say Fred and Wilma — were discussing sustainable living ideas over dinner. Permaculture, animal husbandry, power generation, hunting, gardening, and more all came up. Thinking now about our conversation, it is clear how indoctrinated into the cult of “how cheaply can I do this” we all are.

Should I buy organic? Should I drive a fuel-efficient car or a powerful SUV? Which octane of fuel should I put in my car, and is ethanol in my fuel a good deal? Should I add solar power to my home energy system? Should I keep chickens? The list goes on, almost everything we “need” gets tested based on money first.

In the quest to optimize for enjoyment of life, Becca and I have put much of what we do to a version of this test. Is [thing or activity] at least as valuable to us as the part of our life it took to earn it (often expressed as money)? For example, do we want a big, expensive house? No, we don’t, because the time spent earning that house is more valuable to us than the house itself.

We're totally happy with the HPMDU as a house.We're totally happy with the HPMDU as a house.

We’re totally happy with the HPMDU as a house.

When Economic Questions Don’t Come First

What I found interesting, though, was that we set those calculations aside when we care about something. Fred brought up the intrinsic value of homegrown broccoli. Even if it costs more to grow it yourself (even while paying yourself zero dollars for labor), there is no broccoli that can compete with the broccoli you cut from your garden just minutes ago. I like broccoli, and I love homegrown broccoli, but I have not been inspired to put in the effort to grow my own when I can purchase very good organic broccoli for a few dollars a pound or less any day of the year. Fred cares about homegrown broccoli more than I do, for me it’s an economic question and for him it isn’t.

Our positions flip-flop when it comes to electricity. Fred pointed out that his cost for electricity is under 6 cents a kWh. There is no way to economically justify home power generation, with the possible exception of microhydro if you’re lucky enough to have access to that resource. Yet I happily spent $1/rated watt on solar panels, buy expensive batteries and inverters (which can fail and require replacement), and spend hours installing the equipment so I can make tiny amounts of power. It feels like a good deal to me, though any accountant would tell derisive stories about my folly at dinner parties.

Chickens and turkeys, too, fail the purely economic test. When the cost of the chicks (or eggs and incubation equipment), feed, housing, water, other equipment, time to care for them/opportunity cost (do not underestimate it!), losses to predation, disease, and other stupid shit, processing, and so on, you are better off buying the most expensive organic free-range roaster you can find. If you are doing it for egg production, the economics are a bit rosier, but still upside down unless you get lucky and/or don’t value your time. And yet, all four of us agreed — we will all have chickens as often as possible.

Chickens are a dubious affair.

Chickens are a dubious affair.

Made in USA is a big thing for me. The economics are often not good on this, either. Somehow, even with all the efficiencies gained from not having to ship raw materials and finished products around the world, pay import/export taxes, and so on, US manufacturing is unable to compete price-wise on most goods. Since the majority of companies seem to put profit before product quality or worker’s quality of life here in the US as elsewhere, there is little real reason to seek out USA made unless you just want to spend more. Still, I persist in seeking out products made here, imagining that I’m doing something to support the US economy. Or, at least, trying to.

What’s the Difference?

Why would we raise chickens, collect energy from the sun, grow our own broccoli, buy USA made goods, or make any choices that don’t maximize our buying power? I argue that we all know there is something much more important than money. But what?

Our world is ruled by the “laws” of economics. Small farmers go out of business and lose their land because mega-farms out-compete them. We can’t “afford” to grow our own poultry because organic cooperatives leverage massive buying power to produce chickens so cheaply. Many of us can’t even sell our own time (AKA life) for a living wage any more because industry buys foreign labor in bulk, too.

I sense that most of our readers are in agreement with me up to this point. It is a fairly common perspective that large corporations would rather have a dollar than a save a drowning child, but unless you’re that drowning child, what does it really matter, right?

It matters because the real costs of all this cheapness are anything but cheap. Once you have contracted out every last need — food, water, shelter, and so on — you are left with nothing to leverage. All you’ve got is money, but you have never been in control of what happens to that. The difference is control over your destiny.

Hey – I’m Totally Secure in My Destiny!

Think I’m crazy? Maybe I’m exaggerating. I assure you, I’m not. Maybe you know someone who lived through the Great Depression, like my grandmother did. Ask that person how much fun that was, and how much control they felt over their own destiny. Here’s an excerpt from the article I just linked:

“You wanted to take a bath, you heat up the water in these big cans,” Martinez says. “It was always a challenge to keep warm — we hugged each other on the floor. We had little beds that open and close. When I think about it, it was horrible. It was horrible. And then the sanitation of the community — garbage was just put in the alley — and did that create a condition? Yes it did: TB [tuberculosis]. I know my sister came down with TB. Sometimes I like to block that out and just say, ‘Thank God you’re here.'”

Or read about what happened in Germany, when the value of the nation’s currency, the Reichsmark, collapsed from 8.9 per US$1 in 1918 to 4.2 trillion per US$1 in 1920. Those who didn’t have the ability to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves without money had nothing but desperate need.

That’s all so last-century. That shit can’t happen anymore, right? Okay, how about 2008?

Great Depression

City Life Breeds Dependence

How much do you trust the system you pay to keep you alive? If you live in a city, it must be a whole lot. Essential resources must be imported constantly, and, for economic reasons once again, from farther and farther away.

Unbelievably, it’s cheaper to ship food from California to New York City than to grow it ninety miles away in upstate New York. That supply line is fragile, and the supply of food within the city would last less than three days if resupply stopped. Suddenly, money would be nearly worthless — what would you pay for the last loaf of bread or can of baked beans within twenty miles? Oh, and there’s no gasoline left, either…

In light of those thoughts, what might the true value of that chicken, the eggs it lays, a stalk of broccoli, or a day’s worth of electricity be? How about the knowledge and experience to reproduce them day after day, season after season, without outside help?

How Can We Balance Autonomy and Economy?

Cooperative preparation. We’re not suggesting that you quit your job and move to the country to live as a Neo-Luddite. Our suggestion is to hedge against risk. While we can’t all be farmers with photovoltaic arrays and wood stoves, we can all learn skills which can make us valuable in a world that doesn’t run the way we’re accustomed to.

We can build relationships with others and create cooperatives to pool knowledge and resources. Who knows, we might even enjoy the time spent learning and doing something beside building a financial house of cards for the benefit of others.

Don’t Come Here When Shit Goes Sideways

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard, “I know where I’m going when the Zombie Apocalypse happens.” Well, guess what? Unless you’ve got skills and/or resources with intrinsic value, you’re not coming to our place. If worthless money is your only bargaining chip, it’s going to be a rough moment for you.

What if, instead, you had skills and experience that could directly help yourself and others? You would be in demand! Moreover, you might be able to take care of yourself and your family until you got somewhere safer. This is not just “Zombie Apocalypse” talk, but straight talk about self-reliance, self-empowerment, and self-respect. It wasn’t people who needed everything handed to them that built this country, and it will not be people who have nothing to offer but money who will pave the way forward. How far would Lewis and Clark have gotten with nothing but a fat wallet?

You Can Come to Our Place Now, Though

All of this is why Becca and I are setting up a teaching/learning/doing center for self-reliance skills. You don’t need to be a full-time survivalist to have a great skill set. You’ll be able to come here and immerse yourself in a demanding, realistic environment requiring self-reliance with almost total safety. Will it cost money? It could, but barter and trade is always better.

Our big announcement is that we’re now the owners of ten acres in the panhandle of Idaho that’s close, but not too close, to civilization (including a medical center) where you can join us for a weekend or longer and get hands-on experience on our renewable-energy powered, working homestead.

You might want to come just for the view.

You might want to come just for the view.

This will be a homestead in the true sense. We’ll be starting from scratch and building up all the elements we need to live — which, at their core, are likely shockingly similar to what you require to live, just in a little different color, size, or shape. So, if you come to visit us, you might:

  • Care for livestock
  • Learn how to process and preserve food
  • Build infrastructure like small buildings, solar power set-ups, and water filtration
  • Work in the garden and learn how to efficiently set up your own
  • Learn to build an emergency shelter
  • Hunt, trap, and fish with us
  • Identify and forage for local edibles
  • Condition your body through hard, physical work
  • Do some “circuits” on an obstacle course found in nature
  • Reduce your dependence on money
  • Increase your confidence in any situation
  • Enjoy the outdoors
  • Stop running in circles

Our long-term goal is to open the homestead free of charge to underprivileged kids, especially ones who’ve grown up in cities, who could use a dose of self-confidence and possibility-enhancement. But starting very soon we’ll be offering seminars, workshops, and other opportunities for you to participate in and contribute to this exciting project.

This isn’t about “prepping,” paranoia, or zombies. This is about taking responsibility for your food and your energy use. It’s about living inside nature instead of looking at pictures of it on somebody-else’s Instagram. It’s about becoming aware of the power you have to create your life exactly as you want it to be and living outside what “they” have been telling you all these years. It’s about those secret dreams you have of making the world a better place.

  • We keep a garden and have chickens for eggs. The quality is what keeps us doing it, after having pasture raised eggs I can’t go back to factory farmed eggs. And the higher prices you pay for quality ingredients like pasture raised eggs is what makes it pay off monetarily as well. If we did not raise our own anymore, we would buy from our local farmers market. It’s a good way to support small farms and keep your food supply local.

    • Yes, great ideas. We have had chickens in the past and the place where our RV is currently locate has free range chickens also. So we definitely appreciate the difference — “homemade” eggs are the best, by far.

  • We also dream of having some type of homestead or farm where we can mentor and train youth. Thanks for sharing your perspective on the cheap equation. I think how much you value your time and opportunity cost is directly related to how much you want to do the thing. We love raising a garden, chickens, and tapping our trees, so we don’t care about the time. We all need a hobby; we happen to like these.

    • Yep, absolutely agreed — some might tell us our entire endeavor does not pencil out in a way that makes sense, but we see our entire lifestyle as both our mission and our hobby, so it makes total sense to us.

  • Good article. Quality ranks higher for me than Made in the USA, and I want value for the dollar. I don’t want items from countries that lack sanitation and clean water, are severely impoverished and have high rates of diseases and deaths, and I have unfortunately seen such imports.

    Being healthy, fit, independent and self-sufficient are excellent goals.

  • There are so many skills and ways to be prepared for sudden economic changes. Even short periods can be devastating if you rely on electricity for survival (dialysis). I’m not paranoid, just skilled.

  • Spot on. This is related to what I cover in a post titled Sensibly Frugal. We often confuse value with cheap. It is far better to seek value than cheap in my opinion.

  • Also wanted to add that we also teach two underprivileged kids for free. We teach them math and science, and they teach us about life.

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