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A Civic Economy

There was a coffee shop near my apartment on the West Side of Manhattan that served as a refuge for the troubled souls in the neighborhood. Older men sat for hours mumbling into their coffee. The owner, a kind Greek lady, would greet them when they arrived and wish them well when they departed. The waitresses were spunky pencil-behind-the-ear types who kept up a good-natured banter. It might have been the only warm human contact these men experienced in the course of their bleak days.

Late in the afternoon, I'd see some of these same men a few blocks up 8th Avenue, nursing more coffee in a McDonalds and looking forlorn in the plastic, bolted-down seats. Kids would tease them; the manager would wipe their tables in an attempt to shoo them away. In the family business they had been part of a community; here they were impediments to a target return per square foot.

For all this country's obsessive concern for its “economy,” we rarely stop to ask what an economy is for. Economists say it's just a machine for producing stuff and stuff-equivalents called “services.” The more stuff we buy, the better the economy is doing. By this standard, McDonalds is the hands-down champ.

But an economy has another kind of product that economists overlook – human interaction. The realm of commerce is where we spend most of our waking hours. It establishes the pace and flow of daily life; it determines how we connect to other people or don't. An economy is a social system, and the kinds of businesses we have determine in large measure the kind of society we will have. If commerce tends to isolate us from one another – if it channels us into settings in which we interact primarily as sellers and consumers rather than as neighbors and citizens, too – then we shouldn't be surprised if local self-help, civic action, and plain old fashioned friendliness start to decline.

A Greek coffee shop or a McDonalds: this is more than just a question of style and taste. It represents an unspoken theme in many of the conflicts in the US today. Wal-Marts versus traditional Main Streets, family farms versus corporate agrifactories, Starbucks versus local coffee shops, factory towns versus mall towns where people buy stuff made in factories abroad. To the conventional policy mind the only question is “efficiency,” that is, which arrangement results in the most stuff for the least money? Those who resist these trends are Luddites or mush-brained nostalgics.

Yet increasingly what “efficiency” really means is the efficient destruction of the kind of product – social product – that the US desperately needs. A traditional Main Street, for example, is a prodigious producer of this social product. It brings people together not just as passive shoppers, but as neighbors and citizens too. Displace it with a Wal-Mart, and the GDP might go up, but the civic culture stagnates. By the same thread, a factory turns out more than cardboard boxes or steel bearings. It also produces a community. Small businesses, parishes, union halls, softball leagues, all grow up around the local mill. Move the production abroad, and the bearings might cost less. But the social product vanishes.

So, too, with family farms. Urban pundits sneer at these as economic relics. It makes no difference where our food comes from, they say, so long as there is plenty of it on the nation's table. Well, there's no shortage of food on most tables in America; over half the population is overweight. But there's a mounting famine of the kind of social product that family farms once provided – the stable rural communities that were healthful settings for families and kids. Yet our economic experts continue to thump their tubs for more production of material products that we don't really need, oblivious to the destruction of the social product for which the need is great.

The nature of ownership plays a central role in social product. The owners of the local coffee shop are a part of the community. Their savings are tied up in the shop; their name is on a five-year lease. For the manager at Starbucks, it's a job. You just don't find the spontaneous interaction with the people at Starbucks that is common in independent coffee shops.

Ours is an era of hyperabundance, in which millions engage in grim daily combat with themselves to consume less, but find themselves bereft of the friendship, help, and support that neighbors once provided. Increasingly, social product might be the economy's most important product, and we have to start to weigh it in our calculations of economic loss and gain.

Jonathan Rowe is a contributing editor at the Washington Monthlyand a YES! editorial advisor.

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