The conservative (and generous) economics of Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry has become one of my heroes.  His writings and ideas are among the most penetrating I have encountered in any living author, and he has a wonderful and luminous presence.  He was featured on the Diane Rehm show earlier this year, and that conversation was selected for re-broadcast on New Year’s Eve, a fitting editorial choice about what we Americans should be thinking about as we compost the years 2000-2009 and decide what seeds we will plant in the coming decade (with what little fertile soil is left).

As I was driving around town and thinking about the extraordinary costs going into both the construction of Manifold Recording (not to mention the equipment budget), I was struck by these comments (at 17:16 into the one hour program):

Useful criticism always begins with an appropriate standard.  And consumerism—the flourishing of consumerism—is not an adequate standard, just as economic feasibility is not an adequate standard for human behavior.


What might this mean?

Berry continues:

[What] we have to understand is that the economy is based first of all upon the natural world, and second of all upon the economic landscapes and those who use them to provide us with the necessities of our lives.  Last of all should it be dependent upon consumerism.  But our present economy is based upon consumerism, and when we speak of stimulating the economy we don’t mean greater care for the natural world or greater concern for the economic landscapes, or the farmers and foresters who use them, but we speak of stimulating spending, and as I’ve said in a recent essay, spending is not an economic virtue.  Miserliness is not an economic virtue either, but saving is; thrift is, because for one thing thrift and saving (conservatism in the proper true sense) means that you can be generous.

In my youth is searched far, wide, desperately, and somewhat fruitlessly, to learn the meaning of life.  I was perhaps right to reject the idea that I should study hard and work hard so that I could earn enough money to be a good little consumer.  But neither was I able to find a particularly adequate standard against which to being my own process of self-criticism and improvement.  Berry generously offers what he has spent a lifetime learning, which is that being generous is an appropriate human behavior.  And thus the question of economics becomes not one of profit maximization or, heaven forbid, trying to win a zero-sum game, but one of appropriate behavior, not merely appropriate in dollars and cents, but in terms of natural reality and real needs.  Which brings me back to the studio and the goals of the studio.

As I blogged a few weeks ago, NPR reports that spending on recording studios is in freefall, and some of the best and most historic ones have closed [1] [2] [3] due to their lack of economic feasibility.  A simplistic analysis would ask the question “how can we get more people to spend more for studio time?” but as Berry points out, spending is not the solution.  Nor is the miserliness of those who spend endless hours in their bedrooms trying to create magic with a laptop, a hard disk, and a microphone.  I believe that for music to survive in a meaningful way, we must create environments that are generous to music: generous in attention, generous in ability, generous in experience, and most importantly, generous in the spirit of conviviality.  I believe that if we truly hold ourselves to the standard of musical excellence, in all its manifold dimensions, we will achieve economic sustainability, or at least meet our own needs, and the needs of those souls that cannot survive without adequate music.

Author: Michael Tiemann

Open source pioneer. Red Hat Executive. UNCSA Trustee. Ninja.

One thought on “The conservative (and generous) economics of Wendell Berry”

  1. in that inspiring interview Berry also said “the driving force of our economy has always been to drive costs down and that means to replace people with machines, to pay workers as little as possible.” This does not bode well for musicians, as most carry multiple jobs to feed their passion of writing and/or making music. Easy access to “free” music online, and less live music venues only make matters worse. Berry also said “even if we weren’t worried about climate change, it would [still] be wrong to pollute the air to the extent that trees have a hard time living.” A parallel to music? ‘Even in the toughest economic times, not finding ways to support musicians would also still be wrong.’

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