My Economic “Little Picture”

Tom's Farm

Drawing on the material we presented in the Economic Big Picture, here’s where I find myself today:

  • The value of our labor is falling, and will continue to fall. Whatever Automation doesn’t decimate, Globalization will. Since most of us sell our labor to make ends meet, the ends aren’t going to be meeting all that well in the years to come.
  • Wealth and power will continue to concentrate into the hands of the few.
  • Government will continue to serve the rich, and give lip-service to the rest of us.
  • The parade of economic crises will continue, and will likely intensify.
  • If I’m going to secure my long-term economic well-being, I’m going to have change how my household operates.

That’s the big picture.

My Strategy

As you can see, I’m not real excited about what I see happening at the macro-economic level, and I don’t think I can change it very much. That is a very frustrating position to be in, and I’m not willing to play that game any longer. I’m going to play a new game called “Self-Determination”.

Self-determination is a tough game. To win it, I’m going to need clear goals, a great strategy and a lot of hard work over many years.

The goals I’ve set are expressed in the following table. Each row of the table is one important aspect of my household that I want to change. For each aspect, I define “where I am now” and “where I want to get”.

Where I Am NowWhere I Want to Get
Household as cost centerHousehold as production center
Be a consumerBe a creator
Buy everything I need and want from regional / national / global sourcesProduce most of what I need/want myself or buy/trade with local sources
The “market” sets the value of my laborI set the value of my labor. My household is the market for most of my labor
Culture (what is valued or discouraged) set by othersCulture defined by me
Make my living degrading the planet (directly or indirectly)Make my living fixing the planet
Spend my time working to earn money so I can “live”Spend my time living
Consume things that are designed to break quicklyBuild and use things that are designed to last hundreds of years
Dump waste streamsRecycle waste streams
Be the victim of automationCapture the benefits of automation for myself
Fragile. A lot of things have to work “just right” in order for my household to functionResilient. My household can stand a lot of unexpected shocks and still function

Just because I happen to like these objectives, doesn’t mean I expect you to like them. Rest easy; this restaurant is “cafeteria style”. Take what you like, and just ignore the rest.

I started working on these objectives twenty-five years ago. I still have a long way to go, but most of the really harsh emotional and difficult intellectual work is in the rear-view mirror. Best of all, I’ve established momentum.

The reason this work has been so difficult is that:

  • The culture I live in rejects my values
  • The work takes a monstrous amount of resources and skill to do
  • I traded a lot of perfectly-attainable wealth and well-being in the short run in order to get a poorly-defined “something better” that might – only “might” – happen sometime in the future
  • The job was too big. I didn’t run this project; it’s run me

A sensible person would ask “if it was so much trouble, why in the world did you do it?”

Reason number one: this work needs to get done, and I understand that if everyone waits until it gets easy – e.g. waits until someone else does it first – it won’t get done.

The second reason is because I don’t do “give up”, and I’m not particularly intimidated by what I don’t know. Well, those two traits, which are generally a good thing, got me a long swim in some deep water. I’m still kickin’, but this job has stretched me out. And it isn’t over yet.

Reality Check

While much of the really tough “change” and “discovery” work is done, there are two really formidable objectives in that table above that put me into fight/flight mode when I think about them. The first one is:

Produce most of what I need/want myself or buy/trade with local sources

Why does the objective make me edgy? Because:

a. The global supply chain has had thousands of years to develop. It’s incredibly efficient. There is absolutely no way, in any short period of time, that I’m going to be as efficient as the world’s most efficient producer. I will always be paying more for the things I produce for myself .vs. what it would have cost me to buy it from the “market”. The question is “how much more?”

b. “Producing things” means “learning curve” and “investment” and “labor hours”. It takes effort and money to build the production apparatus, and then it takes labor hours to run that apparatus. When you produce for yourself, instead of paying for the goods, you pay with investment dollars and your time. It most certainly isn’t free. Romantic and exciting and interesting…yes. Free? No way.

Here’s the other monster-sized goal:

Make my living fixing the planet

So, not only do I have to become an efficient producer, now I have to fix the planet while I produce.

There’s a reason that industry resists “environmental regulations”: it’s expensive! It’s more work. And if you’re competing against a company that’s producing in a locale with weak environmental protection, that other company is going to be able to charge less than you do. If you try to “fix the planet” you may well just go out of business!

Next time you meet an organic farmer, ask them if they think organic farming is easier or harder than so-called “conventional farming”. That will give you some clues about why I’m a little worried. It’s dawned on me that I’m really going to have to up my game a lot in order to achieve these lofty goals.

Time to Get Creative

As I said, I’m not expecting top-down solutions to these big problems. If I want to live my values, I’m going to have to learn a lot of new skills, and I’m going to need to invent a lot of new tools and processes, and maybe some new products.

It should be obvious by this point why I emphasize values like “creator .vs. consumer” or “household as production center .vs. cost center”, and it’s equally obvious why I needed to get a little more control over the influence the prevailing culture had on me. It was getting in my way, so I had to do few minor – but significant – upgrades.

It’s Not For Everyone

I think a lot of people recognize the value of what I’m attempting, and some people are doing it way better than I am. But it does take a lot of resources, especially time.

Time is scarce. Most people are already full-to-the-brim earning money to pay the bills and raise their kids. They don’t have the time or resources to do this sort of work.

But some people have the motivation and the capability to take this on. If you’re one of those people, this website may become a useful resource.

Why I’m Documenting This

I’m building this website to document the evolution I’m attempting. Maybe others can learn from this, and very likely I can learn from them.

This website could also help me find other like-minded people. In spite of a lot of evidence to the contrary, I still believe that perfect strangers can ultimately evolve into a highly functional team.

If that happens, it’ll be shocking. But in a good way.

Author: Tom Pfotzer
Tom is an engineer and entrepreneur who has devoted his life to bringing people together to solve problems. He spent twenty years as software developer, systems architect, project manager, and business executive. In 2007 he began his second career building homestead-scale robotic systems to automate greenhouses, irrigation systems and solar thermal energy collection and distribution. Tom lives with his wife on their 40-acre permaculture farm in Northern Virginia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *