December 24, 2006


Browse in Gifts

A child is born, and its first cry goes right through you.  It changes you; and more it creates you.  Something that was latent and unrealized – a parent – comes into being; and from that moment the child’s urgent, insistent, all-consuming need is something you will do your best to meet.  You made him or her; and at the same time, he is making you.

I wonder if this reciprocal birth, this raising from the latent if not actually dead, is something of what this day is supposed to be about. I know it is what a human economy is about.  Our free market friends regard an economy as an arena where heroic individualists and equally heroic capital do their mighty and self-generating deeds.  But in fact an economy is a co-production – a multiple co-production – up and down the line.

There may be writers so pure that they write for the Creator alone.  Myself, I am writing this because you might read it, even if there is only one of you.  Your ear is calling forth something from me, like my child’s cry.  So it is with the most stolid industrialist.  Someone’s need, or desire, or at least capacity for seduction, summons forth his or her enterprise.

And doesn’t just summon it forth; the society makes it possible to begin with, and especially the gain from it.  This happens through investments in infrastructure, order, schooling and the rest.  Where would Rockefeller’s Standard Oil have been without the railroads and the land grants that financed them; the public highways, Henry Ford and his Model T, and on and on?  John D. did his part, for good and ill.  But an army of others – a society – did its part too.

Yes society, that thing the free-marketeer regards as a fighting word and that Margaret Thatcher, herself one of them, said famously does not exist.  Take it away, and what would happen to Maggie’s pop’s grocery store? I’m talking not just about the formal operations of the state, such as the police and courts; but even more about the cultural norms, the respect for property and rules, that is even more basic. In the Philippines, in the provincial capital of Iloilo, there are armed security guards even in the photo developing shops. This is not an atmosphere conducive to enterprise and gain.

Often the contribution of society is as great as is that of the enterprise.   A recent story in the Wall Street Journal related the problems of Microsoft in selling its new Zune listening device, which is an attempt to compete with Apple’s iPod.  A Zune owner cannot share music or whatever with others, unless those others have a Zune as well.  Zunes speak only to Zunes.  But Microsoft has been caught in its own closed network trap; because who wants to buy one when others don’t have them already?

The success of Zune, in other words, depends not just on Microsoft, but also on the willingness of buyers to create their own networks with them.  Each side contributes to the value of the whole.  Or take a favorite example of my colleague David Bollier – the embrace of Judy Garland by gay culture.  Judy is no longer with us.  Her role is done.  It is gay culture that is creating the new value of the recordings and memorabilia, not Ms. Garland herself – and certainly not her heirs, if any, who now are reaping where she and gay culture have sown.

This economic fact of co-production is a debt we all carry, generally in proportion to our gain.  It underlies our obligation to give something back, both voluntarily and through taxes.  In a recent press conference, the President declared, in the context of his proposed escalation – excuse me, surge – in Iraq, that “sacrifices will have to be made.”  Note the bureaucratic passive;  in this case the President’s syntax was deliberate and revealing.

Whom exactly would he call upon to make these sacrifices?  Not the very wealthy, for whom he supports continued tax cuts.  Whom does that leave?  The President didn’t want to say. The clumsy gesture at Churchillian rhetoric was somewhat lacking in Churchillian follow through.

When a culture is healthy none of this has to be explained.  It is warp and woof, an unspoken assumption that drives the whole.  This includes the giving of gifts.  Malinowski, in his famous study of South Pacific islanders, found  networks of continual gift giving. At designated times, one group would paddle across the sea to deliver gifts to another.  After a while that group would bring the gifts back.

So it would go, back and forth, like Zen-pong, in which the object is not to score a win but rather to keep the game going. Reciprocity was itself the end, not just a means to one. The gifts themselves did not matter; the exchange did.

How to connect that to the frantic buying that is going on around me now, at a mall in Daly City, California, where we are visiting my wife’s relatives?  There is reciprocity of a kind; but also a harried sense of duty.  I watch people filling shopping baskets at Long’s discount drugs and the faces are not joyful with anticipation.  Rather they are saying something more like, “I can’t wait until this is over.”

And what are we to make of the corporate honchos in Manhattan and elsewhere who, according to the Wall Street Journal, hire consultants – at $1000 and more – to do their gift buying for them?   What exactly are they giving?  Does not a gift, to be authentic, require something from the self that mixes with the thing?

The market ideal is to turn a human function into a “division of labor,” and fob it off on someone else. It redefines giving as “labor,” which it then proceeds to contract out.  Beyond a point, to divide labor is to divide the self, and to contract out our own humanity.

Here’s an alternative. My wife told the story yesterday on a local radio show on Christmas in other cultures.  She was talking about her childhood in a rural village in the Philippines.  People had little money, so there were no piles of gifts on Christmas morning.  Instead, on Christmas eve, there was a long walk to town – probably five miles at least, over dirt paths – for a midnight mass.  “The whole village went,” she said. “It was like a pilgrimage – fun.”

In school, which had a dirt floor, the children exchanged boiled bananas, kasava roots, whatever they could.  Somewhere in the New Testament, in the epistles I think, it says that true gifts come not from our abundance but from our lack.  Anyone can write a check to a consultant.  Those boiled bananas, and the late night pilgrimage to town, held value that came from the participation of everyone; and from the gratitude of the recipients rather than from the costliness of the things.

They had value that today’s economic mind has trouble grasping. We  must be patient with that mind;  it is an aspect of ourselves.  We are in this together, even – and often especially — those who think they aren’t.

Thanks for helping.