Experiential Capital and The Will to Work   (September 8, 2009)

My Labor Day entry drew extremely insightful reader responses.

The word "capital" usually conjures up concepts of money and perhaps factories. But there are several types of capital. As noted in yesterday's entry, there are four separate types of capital:

1. natural capital (arable soil, oil, coal, fresh water, etc.)

2. built capital (tools, cranes, manufacturing equipment, electrical grids, etc.)

3. social capital (government, education, healthcare, Imperial bureaucracy, etc.)

4. experiential (internal) capital (skills, drive, ability to learn, health, etc.)

Without the fourth type of capital, then the other three erode to worthlessness. Some may argue that internal skills are not properly capital, but I would argue that "soft capital" is no less important just because it cannot be quantified like the number of mines, miles of roadways or students graduating.

In one sense, experiential (internal) capital is where the rubber meets the road. You can have natural capital, built capital ands social capital, but if nobody wants to produce value in the real world any more, or has the experience to do so, then the physical capital is unproductive and the citizenry will rapidly decline into abject poverty.

The costs of losing the willingness to learn and work in the physical (non-digital) world is the common thread in these reader comments.

Eric Andrews:

Here in the country we're back to the season of canning tomatoes, freezing corn, drying beans and apples, which is the yearly round. And like TV, it's just a habit. We don't need it, necessarily, but it's so familiar that it's easy to us, and we can't let the knowledge die. I mean, what happens if THIS is the year we NEED it? And after 15 years of habit, this year we found someone who wants to learn canning, so the knowledge won't die, because it is. You can read it in a book, sure, but it's all these little habits, these workflows, these tricks. Without them, you'll ruin a bunch, work too hard, be too worried, and not eat it because to some extent your life is at stake. Or put better, you're putting your life back into your own hands and away from somebody else.

But back to the work of it, that no one will try or learn how to garden, much less can, it's astonishing to me. I go over to houses even here in the endless open farmlands of Western NY, and nobody works. Half of them are on welfare, disability, Social Security, or some other such, and lay in bed until 10:00, then get up to watch TV, video games, or the computer. They don't clean, don't plant, don't work on the "projects" they're planning to get around to. And these are country people! Many times even the old folks who used to know better.

Even when you have them over, or when talking with them on the phone, they get upset if you try to work, doing the dishes or something. Used to be we all had to work all the time, and here in the country, you'd have friends over to pitch hay or turn the corn sheller because it didn't do any harm and at least was a change from doing it alone. You'd sit on the porch and shell beans while talking. After dark, you'd sew or sort or something while listening to the radio, or watching TV.

How is that more harmful than doing exactly nothing? Could even do that much watching a movie. Heck, you could put up a whole wardrobe of sweaters in a year that way. But people get agitated, I think they feel desperately guilty, angry in a way, that you're doing more then them, that you're doing what they know they should be doing anyway, but aren't. And they want you to fall down rather than lifting themselves up. This isn't an American trait as it's been noted worldwide, and heard it mentioned especially about native societies.

There aren't many of us left, that know, that work, even in the country. And this knowledge is like seed-saving, it must be used every year, every 3 years, or it vanishes, extinct, like a nursery rhyme with no new generation to carry it on. Even this far out, the country's really the suburbs now, because although the lots remain at 10 or 50 acres, the mentality is all from the city, which is all dispersed through the TV to every corner of the nation, and we get little hip-hop children here in a tiny cabbage town of 3,000 because they want to be somebody, and thanks to the Federal Reserve and Co., working for a living by making things and saving for tomorrow is being a nobody.

How so? What's the point of saving when rates are +1% minus 6% inflation for 30 years in a row? What's the point of planning when they'll change the rules on chickens, on milk, on where you can make a barn, or a Tastee-Freez, or where –Pop!--thanks to foolish and easy bank money, where you once had a rural paradise, someone drops in a car lot or a prison or a trailer park over your favorite spring-house stream? Why bother? Why love? Why hope? When you've seen this every year of your life, or for you older folks, since 1963?

It's incredibly destructive, and has made the entire nation acutely ill. They're falling apart, in trouble, and their relationships are dark and self-destructive as well. Again, it has every sign of drug addiction, denial, decay, lack of work, the kind of simmering violence of lashing out at someone when they feel unwell all the time and are looking for the reason for it. Since they can't define it, that reason must be YOU, and you should pay.

And all for the lack of getting up at 6:00 in the morning and doing something for yourself? Cleaning the house or rustling up a shovel to plant something, make something of yourself, having ideas and dreams?

I'd say luckily it's going to get all shut off for us, and soon.

The US is like a classic movie starlet, born on a farm in Kansas, raised on family and hard work, and with years of love and hard struggle, touring, loving all the people down in the smallest little grange towns, finally made the big-time in LA. Then stayed fixed in the limelight year after year as they aged, always taking new big parts in the same big movies, not noticing anything changing as life turned from love of craft and the people, slowly to parties and dissipation.

Eventually, the craft decayed and with increasing poor acting and bad manners and drunken, selfish fits, she found less and less work, still living the high life as the money ran out and secretly hit up old friends for “loans”. Finally, the constant pressure and desperation has led them to become a true junkie, losing house and fortune, raving in an astonished public about attacks and injustices, and using the old charms and stories to sleep with people for favors. Oh, not prostitution yet, of course--we could never do that--but what's the real difference except in the way we lie to ourselves?

And the thing the rest of the world is thinking, and makes them keep us going, is "this is the star! She was so GOOD in the day. She'll surely reform, come to her senses, go back to the old magic you can still see glowing under the surface. How can we pull the plug on her and leave her in the gutter, lost and dying in deluded dreams?" And I agree. Here's a really GOOD person, even now: smart, talented, hardworking, well-meaning, with a long history of overcoming challenges with brilliance. Genius almost. And yet--what else can anyone do?

They are going to cut us off, because, like any junkie at this point, they have to. And that's not an easy time, because it's do or die, and even odds as to which way it may fall. Dying as a nation IS an option here. We're not special. Without hard work, what have we got? And our drug is CREDIT. It's something for nothing. It's dreams borrowed from the future and we can't stop ourselves anymore.

And that's coming whether they want to or not. Plummeting imports (like this)

mean that China, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Germany won't have money to recycle into our economy even if they wanted to. And where would it get them if they did? Clearly, Liberty has hit the skids, and the work ethic has died.

Have you seen any official, any leader, any pundit yet saying, “There's no way out, boys, we're going to have to roll up our sleeves and get to WORK.” Get to work on corruption, with a big, ugly broom. Get to work on the catastrophic malinvestment in un-sustainable houses. Get to work on our sclerotic health care system that spends 60% on paper and 40% on doctors. Get to work on our infrastructure--and I don't mean roads--of decaying steel mills, grain elevators, factories, canals, ports, and a rail system worse than Bolivia.

And most especially, get to work on a solution to the energy crisis, where we can stop wasting 2/3 of our oil on stupid things like shuttling minivans back and forth to a school and work we should be walking to. Wouldn't that just make life as terrible in America as it was in 1923?

But I have yet to hear the FIRST official, pundit, or leader say the word “Work”, which is too bad, because that's what we're best at. So since they won't say it, won't do it, won't help it, and will fight you every step of the way, you're just going to have to go out there and take life by the handles and do the work yourself. Without anybody asking you. Anywhere you find it.

Me, I found it first here on the farm and with struggling to get somebody--anybody--to allow me to fix their barn for free. No takers. Let me show them how to lay stone. No takers. How to restore any door, window, or wall of our perfect, and perfectly run-down, falling-in 1890's Main St America. No takers. How to prune an apple and how to can a jar. Well, this week we found a taker for that, and that's a start.

From the low belly of the sow, that's life on the farm here.

Michael H.:

I am retired, and find that when I get off of my assssss, and do something I feel much better. I do play a lot on the computer. However, I find that when I physically.... reposition the fence in the back yard, when I dig a drainage ditch, when I repair drywall and paint I feel better. When all else falls I get on the treed mill. It will be snowing soon, and the ability move snow is a work out. Helping my neighbors move snow, cut trees etc is good. I have plenty of time to sit on my asss. There is a true joy in working, of doing something, for self and for others.

Rob M.:

I could not agree more (with your entry Labor Day Musings: On Skills and Skil 77s). What is funny is that when I was a kid in the sixties if you did not have a vegetable garden/root cellar and canning expertise you were the exception. I guess people got lazy over the years when there was no longer any seasonality in the retail produce business (ie. you can buy tomatoes, strawberries, blueberries, grapes, cherries year round now). Grapes used to be high status, only the well-to-do could afford them at any time of the year.

I also think people have gotten out of touch with the taste of homegrown food. A lot of the fruits sold today are picked green so they can stand the rigours of shipping. When I was young the only decent fruits and vegetables to be had during a Canadian winter were in a can or jar (courtesy of mom). Frankly no one felt hard done by either. Now everyone expects to have everything they want when they want it, even though it is often over-priced and tastes cruddy.

RE: your peaches: I worked in a peach orchard a few years ago after exiting twenty years of work-a-day grind in the lovely world of insurance. Rode my bike to the "office" and loved every minute of it. Kept thinking of Steinbeck for some reason. Unfortunately the orchard is gone now, a victim of our twenty-first century depression.

Gene M.:

"...Guitar Hero over actually learning how to play a real guitar and watching rather than doing."

Have you heard about the guy who was asked whether he could play the violin. He responded: I don't know. I've never tried."

(I don't often get to tell that joke!) I have to say that the jam sessions I've had with my kids over 3 decades will remain among the most treasured memories of my life. I play 6 instruments or so, but none all that good. Sure is fun though.

Thank you, correspondents, for your experiences and insights. As Emerson noted: Do the thing and you shall have the power.
Essays: V. Compensation (1841) (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

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