I once visited a beach deep into Mexico along the Gulf of California. I encountered a group of young girls as I was walking the shore collecting seashells, as I love to do. We neither spoke each other’s language. The girls were probably as interested in an American on their beach as they were in what I was doing in particular. I showed them the pocket full of shells I had collected and then oddly enough they did the same. It seems a universal habit then to pick up shells along the shore and show them off. Humans the eternal collector and showoff!
One of the girls pointed to a particularly nice shell in my hand and I interpreted her expression of sounds/words to mean that she wanted to know if she could have it. I sat down on the sand, spread out my shells, and invited her to do the same. She immediately did so. Amazing how much we communicate without words!
I saw a shell in her pile that I wanted, I drew two lines in the sand between us with a space in between. I then reached over to her pile, picked up the shell I wanted, and placed it in the middle space. I motioned with my hand that she could select from mine. She grasped the idea quickly and did so, but selected a shell with which I was not willing to part. I shook my head no, removed it from the middle, and invited her to pick again. After she had chosen again I felt the one she selected was ‘worth’ more than the one I had chosen from her pile. I made the sound of “hmmm” to indicate I was thinking about it and then I reached over and selected a second shell from hers and placed it in the middle. I looked at her to see if she understood. She shook her head yes and added a big smile, and we each took the shell(s) we had selected from the middle. Our trading was completed.
We both seemed happy with our transaction, perhaps she was simply happy to have had interaction with an American. Difficult to know! But for me it was a pleasant experience because we had done something as complicated as make trade decisions even though we did not speak each other’s language. Later I reflected on trade deals and economics. I realized that in our exchange we were both free to decline. We both agreed to what we exchanged. Neither of us had any power to force the other to trade unfairly. We both knew what we were getting and what we were giving up. We traded fairly.
So what does this have to do with the complex economic system we currently call our global economy? The values of the seashells were arbitrarily chosen and what was valuable to me was different from what was valuable to her. There wasn’t an intrinsic or objective value; we each decided what we were willing to exchange. If it had been food or water and one of us had been hungry or thirsty the other could have held out for more because of the other’s need. I tend to think of this as economic blackmail. Supply and demand would also affect our trade decisions. If the beach had been covered with shells perhaps we would have seen no reason to trade for each other’s. We all individually decide the value of the things we want and need.
Economics is a give and take, exchanging things we value; except we exchange dollars for cartons of milk, or pairs of shoes, or a package of meat. And since we trade with dollars or some unit of currency it creates an intermediary, the ‘job’ where we acquire the dollars. But economies are still about trading. I trade my labor for the dollars you agree to pay me. If you have more power than me I have less position to bargain. The store owner trades dollars for products they then trade for more dollars. The more intermediaries, the more complexity of the trading, the more difficult it is to see all the levels and ramifications of our trade.
Wages earners seem less able to negotiate the value of their labor making us less satisfied as employees. We know less and less about the products we buy. I go to a store and trade some dollars for a bottle of weed spray. I don’t see the factory where it was made. I don’t see how the factory affects the environment around it. I don’t see the number of people who handled the bottle from manufacture to arrival in the store. I don’t see the person who unpacked the container and placed the bottle on the shelf. After using the spray in my garden I don’t see its effects on the microbes in the soil, the insects that visit the plant that was sprayed. I don’t make the connection between the spray and a skin rash I develop later. All of the things we don’t see or don’t make connections to are part of the reason why we’ve lost transparency in the trading system we call our economy. And as trading has become more complex transactions are even less transparent. Our purchases are increasingly affecting people around the world.
Trading seems to me to part of human nature, and it certainly has been important in the development or our civilization. Rather than obsess about what we buy perhaps we should simply pay more attention. Read labels and insist on good labeling and transparency because the more accurate the information the better informed we are as consumers. We should do our best to find out about the product’s effect on users, producers, and the environment. And we can start to think about how trade and economy work, how it affects the world. This is the power of the market; we are the market, we are on both sides of the market because we trade labor for money and money for goods.
We should keep in mind that across every ‘line in the sand’ is a another person. It is much nicer when both parties have some power to trade or not, to walk away satisfied with the bargain. And it never hurts to remember that every resource we trade comes from the earth. We might dig it up, melt it, process it, make it into something with our hands or machines; but we still need the earth to supply the raw materials. Ultimately, everything we trade is traded with the earth itself.