Posts tagged with: Micah Mattix

Blog author: jballor
Friday, December 20, 2013
By

Newburgh, ME Piper Mountain Christmas tree farm1

A couple of further points in reply to Micah Mattix’s response on buying Christmas trees, based on his original post here.

1) I think Mattix’s characterization of the buyer as “selfish” goes a bit too far, and is not an accurate characterization of a good deal of market activity. “Self-interested” would be more accurate, and would allow for selfish actors, but would also allow more generally for benevolent actors. For instance, a nun who runs an orphanage has decided that her wards need spiritual as well as material sustenance, and has allotted a portion of the budget to purchase a live Christmas tree. But for every dollar she spends on the tree, one less bowl of gruel will be served. Is she acting selfishly if she gets the best deal on a tree that she can get? She may not be regarding the interests of the seller on the same level as her own (which include the interests of her wards), but it seems to bias the discussion too much to simply describe all the players involved as necessarily selfish. The same would apply mutatis mutandis to the father providing a tree for his family. In fact, buying a Christmas tree is usually a pretty unselfish activity.

2) Related to the above point, and developing it a bit further, certainly the buyer ought view the seller as someone to whom he or she has moral obligations. But to expect the seller to haggle up seems wrong. Perhaps the seller is perpetuating injustice by simply trying to sell trees even at a loss. Perhaps like the poet in Frost’s work they would be better off doing something else with them besides dumping. But they key here is that the buyer and the seller are in the best position to judge for themselves. It should also be noted that the tree seller isn’t just selling a single tree. Earlier sales of higher priced trees may subsidize and offset the costs of selling later trees at a discount. Mattix largely seems to want to argue for conscientious consumption, and I am all in favor of that. Let your conscience be your guide, and let your conscience be informed. But all too often things move beyond this to legislation of some kind of baseline. I realize that Mattix is not arguing for this, but the dangers of a mandated price floor for Christmas trees should be apparent.

3) We do agree “that a market economy is a good system that takes into consideration certain truths about human nature” and we also agree, as Mattix concludes, “that as a buyer price should always be the only determining factor.” I am certainly not defending an ideal of perfect prices. Prices are not perfect, and they are not sacrosanct. But they are often the best device we have for sorting out all of the complex realities that lie behind market transactions. The dynamic of this issue shares similarities with the disputes over fast food as well as, more broadly, the debates over fair trade. Here’s how Victor Claar sums things up, and I’ll close with this thought: “If you purchase ‘fair trade,’ buy it because you like the good or the service. Do not do it out of mere charity. Instead, give generously to charities that you know are effectively working for human rights, development of human and physical capital, and opportunities for the poor to discover increasingly valuable ways to serve others in the global marketplace.” Otherwise you might just be helping perpetuate the poverty-trap of Christmas tree sales.

20131219-231356.jpg

The Ballors went with a live tree this year. We bought it at Flowerland and I do not know the name of the farm whence it came.

Over at the American Conservative, Micah Mattix reflects on the Christmas tree market, which in his neck of the woods is “notoriously unstable.” In Ashe County, North Carolina, says Mattix, a dilemma faces the small tree farmer: “It is not sell or starve, but it is sell or go without a new septic tank, a repaired roof, a mended this or that.” Although not specifically about Christmas trees, the difficult choice faced by the poet in the Robert Frost poem Mattix engages at length is also reminiscent of the dynamic of poverty in Winter’s Bone.

Mattix explores some valid concerns about the human cost of low prices: “When we look for ‘deals’ at Christmas, I doubt many of us think about the labor another human being expended to make a certain object and whether the price we pay for it is a fair one. We think, rather, of big corporations and highly paid CEOs who can afford a dollar to two less and who have probably already calculated the discount into the cost of production.”

In the context of a market transaction, particularly in a globalized marketplace where we cannot possibly know all the people that have been involved in bringing a commodity to market, there is a kind of anonymity that is inherent in the system. Thus, writes Mattix, “But an anonymous market economy can obscure the relational aspect of trade—it can obscure the fact that transactions are always, ultimately, between people. And when we look to buy objects for as little as possible without any consideration of the labor of others, we are acting no differently than CEOs who look to maximize profit, whatever the human expense.” Perhaps. Perhaps.
(more…)

FAULKNERCourtesy today’s edition of Prufrock, a fine daily newsletter edited by Micah Mattix, comes this classic resignation letter from William Faulkner, onetime postmaster at the University of Mississippi:

[October, 1924]

As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.

This, sir, is my resignation.

(Signed)

As the economist Walter Williams once observed, in the market system you don’t have to love your neighbors, you just have to serve them, even if they happen to take the form of an “itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.” That, apparently, was something that Faulkner just couldn’t tolerate.