Lately, Pippa has taken an interest in how much things cost, but her 8-year-old’s grasp of economics is a little hazy. One day, she announced that a house in Palm Springs would cost a lot of money — at least $6,000! Even more if you want a swimming pool.
I’m sad that she’s already focused on the price of things, but it seems inevitable when everything in our culture is up for sale. People make fortunes peddling nothing more than their own notoriety. I’m told that the hottest new get-rich-quick career is Social Media Influencer. That’s when people accumulate a bunch of online followers and then make money off those relationships. I just read that there’s an 8-year-old who made $2 million last year reviewing toys on his YouTube channel.
Until recently, my reaction to all this was grumpy resignation, but then I read the book "Braiding Sweetgrass" by Native American botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer. In it, she describes two philosophical frameworks for creating and assigning value: The gift economy, which once flourished in every corner of this continent across hundreds of indigenous cultures; and the market economy, which gave us the Kardashians.
A market economy is based on ownership. Objects come with property rights: the right to keep, sell or even destroy something as its owner pleases. What increases value, and therefore drives the market economy, is a feeling of scarcity. Scarcity creates demand, which increases value, which makes owners rich. A market economy depends on people wanting more, and never being content with what they have.
A gift economy, on the other hand, is based on reciprocity. Objects carry the responsibility of further giving. Something only gains value when it’s passed on — if you hoard it, it’s worthless. Each time something is gifted it creates value for the giver and the receiver at the same time. In that way, the gift economy creates a sense of abundance. It depends on people being grateful for what they receive, and willing to share.
When Europeans first came to the Americas, they brought the market economy with them. They “purchased” vast tracts of land with beads and trinkets, in transactions that meant something entirely different to the Native Americans with whom they traded. And when they asserted the property rights that they had paid for, they did so with a righteous sense of ownership, heaping reproach and retribution on any “Indian givers” who tried to renege on those deals.
That market mentality came to dominate American culture. Everything can be treated as a commodity — not just physical objects, but identities, relationships and ideas. And because the market economy is all around us, it seeps into our value system from all sides. There’s a price for everything, and everyone has their price.
How do we measure the status of jobs and careers? By salary. How do we rank educational institutions, from preschools to universities? By their exclusivity, and their tuition rates. How do we evaluate the success of a book or a movie, a musician or an artist? By gross sales and box office earnings.
If we let the market economy permeate our lives, we also absorb a pervasive sensation of scarcity. We become less and less content with what we have, and we resent others who have more. But there is an alternative. All around us, there are natural gift economies just waiting to be found.
We could start with the easy stuff. The time you spend with your child isn’t a commodity, it’s a gift. Likewise, a gesture of kindness for your partner, your workmate, or the checker at the grocery store. Then move on to slightly harder ones: the person who you let into traffic at the intersection, or the tolerance you show for an uncle who launches into political diatribes over Thanksgiving dinner. Eventually, you realize that we’ve turned things into commodities that don’t really have to be: work, learning, nature, art. Suddenly, the idea of giving without losing, and of feeling that you have enough to be content — or even share — seems possible again.
The next time you find yourself thinking that you don’t have enough — enough money, enough time, enough love, enough stuff — remember that two things of great value are always yours for the taking: gratitude and generosity. With those in our possession, each of us carries the seeds of a gift economy wherever we go. We have enough to be grateful. We have enough to be generous. That’s all it takes, really, because one leads to the other and abundance grows.
Every family has its own economy, with a unique set of rights, responsibilities and rules. This holiday season, many things will pass between us, not all of them wrapped with ribbons and bows. Will we treat them as commodities or gifts? Will they give us a sense of scarcity or of plenty? We get to choose — but only if we remember that we have a choice.
Jeff Lee is looking into Palm Springs real estate, just in case, in Seattle.
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