Become a Producer to Put Your Consumption in Perspective

by Philip Brewer on 3 July 2013 4 comments

Since the invention of agriculture, and especially since the industrial revolution, the division between what we call production and what we call consumption has grown increasingly stark. This is crazy. (See also: The Freedom of the Independent Yeoman)

Oh, there's a reason for it — if everybody specializes in whatever they do best, all our standards of living go up.

Whether the thing you do best is drive a truck or operate precision machine tools or write software or style hair, it makes the most economic sense for you to do that thing for as many hours a week as practical, and then use the money you earn to buy the necessities of life.

Even if you're a polymath who can do carpentry as well as the best cabinet maker and brand steers as well as the best cowboy, it makes no economic sense to try to do both jobs for yourself (and not just because of the overhead of switching from workshop to open range). If you stick to what you do best and I stick to what I do best, and then we use economic transactions to trade for what we need, we both come out ahead.

That simple fact does not make it reasonable to create this rigid binary division in our lives. Many things can — and should — be both production and consumption.

Why You Should Expand Your Production

Your standard of living is usually measured by how much money you spend getting the things you want, and by that standard you're always going to come out ahead working more hours at your regular job, earning more money, and then spending it on stuff you want.

So, of course, what I'm saying is that that standard is wrong. There are a bunch of non-economic advantages to including some production in your life, besides your regular job. Let's look at some of the key ones.

It's More Fun

Maybe whatever you do for your job is the most fun thing you can think of to do. I hope so — that's the best situation to be in. But even people who love their jobs usually have other things they want to do, too. Some of those things will be pure consumption — eating dinner, watching a movie, playing a video game — but some of them will have a component of production — knitting a sweater, painting a picture, working in the garden. Do not disdain the productive aspects of these sorts of activities, just because you'd be "more productive" at your regular job.

It's Higher Quality, Maybe

For a lot of things, you can't produce a higher quality item than you can buy. (You can't make a better cell phone or camera lens, for example.) But there are a bunch of ways that your own production can be better than what you can buy. You can use better raw materials — knitting with premium wool. You can produce exactly what you want — cooking dinner exactly to your own taste. You can add a personal touch — writing your own condolence notes.

It's More Satisfying

A lot of the things where the quality of what you produce doesn't quite measure up can still be entirely satisfactory — and more satisfying. Anybody can whittle a wooden spoon, and even your first efforts are probably going to be good enough to use in the kitchen, even if you could buy a better wooden spoon for less than the cost of a piece of wood suitable for whittling. It would probably take years of practice (not to mention a forge or metal shop) to make a kitchen knife as good as one you can buy for a few dollars — but if you enjoy the work, even your early practice knives are going to be good enough to use, and much more satisfying than an $8 knife from a big box store.

It's More Dependable

It's always more dependable to do something yourself than to seek it in the money economy. When you do, you're insulated from global corporations deciding that whatever you want is no longer sufficiently profitable to produce, or should be produced in inferior form, or should be sold at a higher price. You're also much less dependent on the smooth functioning of the economy — each thing you can produce yourself is one thing you can be sure you can provide for your family, even if you lose your job.

It's Healthier

This comes to the fore with food-related production: gardening and cooking. From a health perspective, you're way ahead of the game cooking your own food as compared buying industrial food. Food you grow in your garden is unquestionably fresher than anything you can buy, and it's probably more nutritious as well (not to mention tastier). But not just food falls into this category. You can choose your own lawn care chemicals, if you do your own yard work, for example.

It's More Ethical

Each thing you can produce for yourself is one more thing you can be comfortable consuming, without having to worry if it was produced in a sweatshop by child laborers or prisoners or slaves. You can know that it wasn't tested on animals. You can know that it is made from materials produced in a sustainable manner.

It's Possible

When you think about it, the whole idea that you could just work one more hour and earn another hour's pay may be completely false. A lot of people are on salary — they can work all the hours they want, but they won't get paid any more. A lot of other people are already working as many hours as their employer has available. A lot of people don't even have regular jobs. What they can earn for each extra hour worked is hard even to know. But you can always produce the things you need and know you'll have those things.

How You Can Produce

In the examples above, I've already implied a bunch of ways you can add production to your life, but here's a short list of some of the most obvious — the ones that anyone can do.

All of these are, of course, in addition to your regular job, your regular contracting gig, or your regular profession.

Cooking

Cooking is probably the most basic way to add production into your life. It's always going to be cheaper and healthier than eating out, and probably quicker and easier as well. It can also produce better tasting food, if you put a little effort into getting good at it.

Your Garden

Gardening is a bigger step than cooking, but it doesn't have to be a huge step. A few pots on the windowsill can give you fresh herbs that will taste way better than anything you can buy in a jar. Even a small patio or balcony has room for a pot to grow a tomato plant or a pepper plant. Even the smallest patch of ground has enough space to grow some lettuce, spinach, kale, mustard or collard greens. It is immensely satisfying to eat food that you grew yourself.

Your Hobby

When people think of the economic impact of the hobby they're usually listing it as an expense — the cost of tools and supplies. If they think of it as production, they're usually thinking of what they can make and sell. But many other things are also production; things you make and use. Things you make and trade. Things you make and give away. Any hobby where you make something is production.

Household Repair and Maintenance

This is the classic example of coming out ahead by sticking to the money economy — work at your regular job; pay someone to do your yard work for you. This is all the more true for work that requires specialized tools, such as car repair, where someone who specializes in the work can keep their tools busy. And yet it remains the case that doing it yourself can be more dependable (no more waiting around for a workman who doesn't show up), more satisfying (getting something done the way you want it), healthier (choosing what chemicals your family gets exposed to), and all the other advantages listed above.

Solar Panels, etc.

Just like a garden is an opportunity to have your yard produce for you, things like solar panels are a way for you to have production happen without having to do anything yourself. (And solar panels are getting cheaper all the time.) Something as simple as a rain barrel, catching water that falls on your roof so that you can use it later to water your lawn or garden, makes you that much less dependent on the money economy.

Be careful about dividing your life into production and consumption. Many areas of your life can — and should — be both at the same time. I like to start each day with a bit of production, just to know that I've done so, even if I do quite a bit of consuming later in the day.

How about you? What do you produce that isn't part of your regular job?

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Guest's picture

I love cooking. That is probably the one thing I make a point to do every day besides get up and go to work. I like to be in control of how my food tastes, what I eat, what goes in to it, ect.

Guest's picture
Liisa

I am trying to grow in this area... I have always cooked but have added gardening in the last few years, and have very basic rain barrels since we just moved to the desert and that makes more sense than ever!

I have also started to sew throw-pillow cases and curtains for my house, which is much cheaper than buying ready-made items. My sewing instructor said that while it is hard to save money sewing your own clothes these days (I think I'd be afraid to be seen in any clothing I sewed, anyway!), you can save tons of money in home decor. Since I love to decorate, this has been a very satisfying project to take on.

I would love to learn more about canning, and invest in some solar panels to take advantage of the near-constant sun here in New Mexico. I'm also interested in learning how to store more drinking water long-term since we get so little rain here.

Philip Brewer's picture

Yes, it's very hard to win on price when you're competing with people who earn almost nothing (like textile workers in Bangladesh, for example). Winning on price is by no means the only important thing to consider, but it is a factor to take into account, so your example (prioritizing home decor) makes good sense.

Guest's picture
Kelly

I do canning, cooking and gardening, make my own household cleaners and laundry soap. Traded extra mulch that I had to a neighbor and they loaned me their tiller to use in my garden. We also trade extra produce from our gardens. I can't get cucumbers to grow well in my yard but my neighbor always has plenty to share.