Wendell Berry is not a formally trained economist, though he is a great many other things: poet, essayist, social critic and novelist. In our estimation, Mr. Berry habitually 'sheds light on ultimate questions in an excellent way' (that's from the About Us page on our website) not only in his writing but through his way of living--as a farmer, philosopher, teacher, activist, devoted family man and steadfast community member. And lest you think this blurb is little more than a paean to a man seeking no such thing, we hold that what makes the man makes him particularly suited to propose a sensible, though not uncomplicated, solution.
'My economic point of view,' writes Berry in the first essay, 'Money Versus Goods,' 'is from ground-level. It is a point of view sometimes described as 'agrarian.' That means that in ordering the economy of a household or community or nation, I would put nature first, the economies of land use second, the manufacturing economy third, and the consumer economy fourth.' He goes on to say that America, on the whole, has replaced economy with finance to a catastrophic degree by confusing wants with needs. 'Spending is not an economic virtue...Saving is. Not-wasting is.' Berry decries usury and its destabilization of the relationship between money and goods. He goes on to criticize America's overemphasis on education (it's been 'oversold, overbuilt, over-electrified, and overpriced'), laying out a sixteen point agenda to promote a long-term, sustainable agricultural policy for both ecological health and true stimulation of our human economy, for 'there is no good reason...to wish for the 'recovery' and continuation of the economy we have had.'
And that's just the first essay. The remaining fourteen include 'Faustian Economics' (a recognition of limitation amidst the myth of limitless consumption), a 50-Year Farm Bill proposing 'diversification, detoxification, perennialization, and resettlement of our agricultural landscapes,' and an argument for orienting the 'humanities' not around the careers of their practitioners but on the diversities of local cultures and landscapes within a beloved country. In 'Economy and Pleasure,' Berry ruminates on the imperfection and frailty of an economy based almost entirely on the rule of competition, holding up the ideals of community ('neighborly love, marital fidelity, local loyalty, integrity and continuity of family life, respect of the old, and instruction of the young') as a vital, sustainable way of life.
About half of these essays are reprints from Berry's earlier books Another Turn of the Crank, Citizenship Papers, Home Economics, and What Are People For? Possibly the most eloquent is 'The Work of Local Culture,' a meditation comparing the making of earth in a battered galvanized bucket to a similar kind of accumulation--the thoughtful and active creation of local culture. Berry consistently, insistently emphasizes the vital relationship between the land and the human community: 'If the local culture cannot preserve and improve the local soil, then, as both reason and history inform us, the local community will decay and perish, and the work of soil building will be resumed by nature.'
An Eighth Day View:
Over the years, Wendell Berry has sought to understand and confront the financial structure of modern society and the impact of developing late capitalism on American culture. There is perhaps no more demanding or important critique available to contemporary citizens than Berry's writings--just as there is no vocabulary more given to obfuscation than that of economics as practiced by professionals and academics. Berry has called upon us to return to the basics. He has traced how the clarity of our economic approach has eroded over time, as the financial asylum was overtaken by the inmates, and citizens were turned from consumers--entertained and distracted--to victims, threatened by a future of despair and disillusion. For this collection, Berry offers essays from over the last twenty-five years, alongside new essays about the recent economic collapse, including "Money Versus Goods" and "Faustian Economics," treatises of great alarm and courage. He offers advice and perspective that should be heeded by all concerned as our society attempts to steer from its present chaos and recession to a future of hope and opportunity. With urgency and clarity, Berry asks us to look toward a true sustainable commonwealth, grounded in realistic Jeffersonian principles applied to our present day.