Ok, so first off I want to acknowledge that I’m bending the #pfmessages rules a tiny bit here. I had suggested that we all analyze the money-related messages in novels or other fictional works, but for my own contribution I’ve decided to talk about a series of memoirs: the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. That being said, I would also argue that memoirs are by nature a form of creative non-fiction—that the landscape of memory is vast and messy, and choices must be made about what to play up or down in order to present a coherent narrative.
So with that in mind, here is my #pfmessages contribution about the Ingalls family and what they taught me about the utter weirdness of money.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, as you probably know, wrote a series of books about her experiences growing up with her parents and sisters in Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, and South Dakota in the mid-late 19th century. Laura’s family are homesteaders—pioneers—and they move around a lot. Whenever they move, Laura’s father, Pa, builds a new house for the family and makes furniture to fill it. Pa and Ma grow and water and harvest crops and raise animals for food, and Pa hunts for more food. Ma cooks and preserves the food, sews clothing and linens, and cleans and takes care of the house. These jobs take all day, and Pa and Ma (and Laura) work extremely hard, on every day of the week except Sundays.
This was absolutely fascinating to me as a child because I grew up, as many of us did, in a home where everything we needed in order to survive (as well as some things that we didn’t necessarily need) was procured through money. To read about a little girl whose family made, found, built, and grew many of the necessities of daily life, with relatively few money transactions involved, was an unfamiliar and highly intriguing idea to me. (To be sure, Pa does take on short-term jobs at different points, and his earnings are used to buy things like sugar and flour, and seeds to plant, and fabric for making clothing, but whenever the family can make or grow or raise or cut down or hunt or build something themselves, they do so. It’s a true DIY kind of lifestyle.)
So let’s compare the Ingalls family to a typical modern middle-class family in the Western world. What do these two families have in common? Well, if we strip everything down to the absolute basics, I’d say that both families have the same basic goal: they need food, clothing, and shelter. And both families work all day in order to ensure that they will have these things.
However, the two families reach this end goal in very different ways. I like graphs and figures, so let’s look at this visually. Here’s how you achieve those goals if you’re part of a modern, middle-class family:
Rather indirect, isn’t it?
Here’s how you would achieve those same goals if you lived like the Ingalls family:
In both cases the family spends all day working, and in both cases the end result is the same.
The difference, one could say, is that Ingalls family takes a sort of shortcut.
It’s funny, isn’t it? How removed most of our jobs seem to be from the underlying goals of working, I mean. The original reason people worked all day was because that was how long it took to procure food with adequate caloric value to get through the day and ensure that other basic needs were met. Very few modern jobs, on the other hand, are directly related to where the workers are going to personally sleep that night, or personally have for dinner; rather, they’re several giant steps removed.
I suppose the key difference is that the Ingalls family, for whatever reason(s), was not participating in the larger economy in the way the most of us do today. When you have a large number of people sharing a system of capital, different jobs can be claimed by different people (theoretically according to our skills and talents), and that way each person can learn one specific job really well, and no one has to learn how to do everything. And the result is that some of us take care of farming and building houses and making clothing, while others of us have jobs that have nothing to do with any of that. I know zilch about economic theory, so I can’t explain to you how this actually works—or how it is that many of us are able to make double or triple or quadruple what we technically need in order to survive from day to day—but I’m pretty sure that’s the general idea.
My goal here is not to make a value judgment about homesteading vs. modern jobs. Some people might say that homesteading is purer than a modern consumer lifestyle and therefore something to aspire to, while others might point out that a homesteading lifestyle can be precarious and stressful and does not allow for furthering one’s education or saving or retiring or achieving financial independence. I certainly don’t want to romanticize homesteading, as it involves a huge amount of work, and in some cases it could involve feeling uncomfortable, unsafe, and/or worried about where the next few meals are coming from.
I do, however, want to suggest that it could be a valuable exercise to take a moment, once in a while, to pause and reflect and marvel at the strange, strange, world we live in, a world in which a day spent pressing keys on a keyboard, or performing calculations, or talking to people on the phone, or preparing documents, or painting, or teaching, or selling things to people, somehow magically transforms itself into clothes on our backs and food on the table and a warm bed to sleep in, among other things.
That’s what Laura Ingalls Wilder taught me about money.
Just something to think about.
Addendum: For a list of links to other cool #pfmessages posts by other people, click here.
What do you think about all of this? Did you get anything similar (or different) out of the Little House books? Do you know more about economic theory than I do and want to explain why our modern route to feeding ourselves is so indirect? Go for it!