Home-ier economies (Across the Sundering Seas 2020 #20)
I’m back with another missive. This one will be a little different, as you’ll see, but I’m just glad to get it out (even if it’s a day late).
First, though, your usual reminder, in case these years-long months have you wondering what exactly it is you’re reading (fair!): this is Across the Sundering Seas, a weekly-ish newsletter by Chris Krycho (hi!) about the things I’m studying and thinking about. You can unsubscribe any time if you need one fewer newsletter in your inbox; or you can forward it to friends if you think they need one more newsletter in theirs!
Now… buckle up: there are 3,200 words ahead!
In last week’s issue, I concluded with this:
The part she gets wrong is in her view (at least insofar as I understand it) of the place we find ourselves: with the Scylla of the tech industry’s “devouring maw” consuming domesticity on the one hand, and the Charybdis of a slavish domesticity on the other. These are, though, not the only options, even if they are the ones most current in the public imagination. And precisely because I believe in genuine alternatives, I don’t share her despair, though I understand and even to some degree sympathize with it. Household economies can be viable! Men can genuinely come to value (and contributing to!) the things women love—the things the real women in their lives really love, whether that’s physics research or child-rearing or both. Communities can be rich and healthy and ethically thick and genuinely mutually supportive. The market and the state can both be appropriately restrained.
A reader responded (I think rightly):
You offload a lot of work in this paragraph to your previous work in the 18 prior newsletters and [my podcast] Winning Slowly… A reader would be justified in saying, “it’s good that you believe that communities can be rich and healthy and ethically thick and genuinely mutually supportive, but how, in light of at least 120 years of that situation being a minority situation?” If you’re going to lean in to church, lean in! If you’re going to lean in to “men need to re-evaluate the role of the women in their life and make life changes appropriately,” go there! But this paragraph leads to an exciting final two statements and then little afterward (acknowledging that men reconsidering how to love the women in their lives well is no small task; insofar as it is no small task, I would have liked to have seen more explanation of how that really important mental shift can make community-level changes. I can guess at what I think would happen, but it’s a guess at this point.) And how the state and the market can be constrained by those communities is always and ever worth explaining.
So, yes, I agree with you, but there’s a lot offloaded that I think your readers would like to/be edified by reading.
Readers, this response is totally fair. And at some point I’d love to have a good long answer to the quesion of how this good hope I have plays out in practice. I think if I have a serious weakness as a thinker in these areas in general, it’s that I can see the shape of the kind of good thing we ought to pursue, but I haven’t dug deeply enough or worked hard enough to get concrete about my proposals. That’s a real failing of my writing! It’s all well and good to say “we can do better than this” in broad terms—and it’s necessary—but it’s deeply insufficient.
Having granted that as a critique (and one that I feel keenly), I want to respond in three parts:
- a not-exactly-a-defense/more-of-an-explanation
- some qualifications on what kind of answer I think is actually appropriate here
- a gesture in what I think is the right direction
If you don’t care about the explanation or the qualifications, just skip to the third section!
In many ways, this newsletter is a combination of thinking out loud in public plus hoping that you all will help me along the way. One of the ways you help is by responding exactly the way my reader did. I mean it: pushing back is really helpful.
So is asking questions. I noticed a few years ago that when someone asks me a question, it tends to have one of two effects:
- If I have sufficient background knowledge, it crystallizes a set of connections between the background knowledge and I’m often able to form a robust answer that I can flesh out quickly and easily.
- If I don’t have sufficient background knowledge, it clarifies that reality, and helps me see gaps in the sort of synthetic-analytical space I’ve built up mentally on the subject so far.
My reader’s pushback-questions here this time provided the second of those two for me. I have some very strong intuitive senses on political economy and on economics in general—you can call me something roughly like an Augustinian liberal by instinct—but those intuitive, instinctual senses aren’t sufficiently well-grounded for me to have sweeping positive pronouncements in the space. How do we deeply reform a political economy and a set of economic structures that go back at least the last 120 years, and whose roots are arguably much further back than that? You’ve got me. Please email me if you have reading/listening/watching I should be doing! Also, please email me with questions, arguments, etc.: they really are helpful.
That brings me to my two qualifications for the gestural outline of a direction which follows:
First, my use of the word “reform” above is critical and intentional. There are many voices out there right now (some of them folks I’m friendly with and even friends with!) calling for something more like a revolution. I’m not on that train. However we work to transform our way of life into one that rightly honors the dignity of women (as well as many other blocs who have consistently been handed the short end of the stick), it has to be in a way that does not give up the genuine goods that our culture does have.
In a time when many of the deficits of our way of life are increasingly obvious, it is easier to trash the whole system of modernity/liberalism/neoliberalism/capitalism/etc. than it is to admit that for all its faults it has also yielded some great goods: drastic reductions in poverty and in the deaths of children and in early death in general, genuine increases in personal liberties (of the sort that are inarguably good: less fear of a tyrant killing you on a whim), and so on. What comes next, if it is to be genuinely better, must include these goods, preferably improving on them.
Second, I have been mulling a lot lately on something my friend Jake Meador has suggested to me in conversation a few times, riffing on ideas from Patrick Deneen: that perhaps what we need is in fact not a grand program of political economy, but many more localized approaches.
I’ve gestured at this before in this space and on Winning Slowly, and in both spaces I’ve also acknowledged that mere localism is insufficient here. As Jake is also fond of noting: American federalism has failed—and failed catastrophically—twice over when it comes to questions of race: on the question of slavery, and on Jim Crow. (Arguably, it continues to fail catastrophically in many places on exactly that same front.) Left only to their own devices, many locales would still be enforcing Jim Crow at a minimum, and it’s not clear in the least that the South would ever have abolished slavery without force. So localism is not and cannot be a panacea.
Yet even granting that, it seems to me that any recovery-and-reform in the direction of healthier home economies has to be carried out in an explicitly local fashion, even if the local is insufficient for guaranteeing good outcomes. A well-functioning economy with opportunities for men and women both and equally to flourish in the context of their families and communities would necessarily look sharply different in a small town in Idaho than it would in a San Diego suburb than it would in Brooklyn. I’m only just starting to develop a sense of what that might look like in a small town that isn’t quite a suburb of a medium-sized (and itself aggressively suburban) city, right where I live.
I’ve found it interesting for a few years now that many of the best critiques of our political system—e.g. David Koyzis’ really excellent Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Critique of Contemporary Ideologies—end up being much clearer about the problems of the reigning political ideologies than about any program for a path forward. Perhaps this is a feature, not a bug.
A gesture in the right direction
Those explanations and qualifications are all well and good, but if I left it there, it would something of a cop-out. Even in that framing, I’m still responsible to help make things better where I am. So in an attempt to get down to brass tacks specifically when it comes to healthier home economies, at least as it looks in the context of my own community and economy and family—
I would love if it both I and my wife could each work 20–30 hours a week on things which use our gifts and passions, and because we’re not working “full time” could take an equal load around the house. That would be much, much better for my wife than our current circumstances. Someday, in fact, I hope this actually can be the case. At the moment, it cannot, but there are moves we are making that, Lord willing, will actually enable us to move that way.
As I look around at many other middle-class families, that seems generally true across the board. Even in the cases where many of the women genuinely and earnestly both desire to primarily work as homemakers and mothers, every one of them of my acquaintance would love to be able to do other things as well. No doubt in some families, this would still look like it does today, with one parent doing all the money-earning work and the other managing the household; and in many (perhaps most!) others the balance would not be exactly 50/50—but people would be dealing with the load as they desired rather than as the economy allows.
Looking at lower-class families, the dynamics in play in my own circles are even more pronounced, given that in many cases both parents have to be working full-time—or more. Multiply all of this by an order of magnitude for single parents, another for single mothers, and another yet for single mothers of color.
This would entail decoupling our economy from the norm of “full-time employment” in two ways.
First, we have to decouple health care and health insurance from “full-time” employment. One of the key reasons most families can’t do the kind of thing I just suggested is that even if both parents could earn a reasonable amount of money given their equivalent “hourly wage” such that they’d support their family effectively however they chose to break down responsibilities between them, health care currently mostly requires health insurance which currently mostly requires a full-time job. This may be the most important political-economic change we could make here. (And for many other reasons besides!)
Second—and this would be much easier once the first point was dealt with—companies would have to shift their norms to having employees who work all sorts of different amounts per week. While it would be easier once the first point was dealt with, this would be a very, very significant transition in our economy.
Neither of those gets you to a household economy in a traditional sense; they’re iterative steps toward it. Genuine (and not merely financialized-via-stocks) employee ownership of companies would be another iterative step in the right direction. A much deeper and more thorough embrace of remote work as a normal option and even in some cases a default would be yet another. Each of these would, over time, allow more people to participate in healthy local economies, as well as healthily in their own families. Coupled with the internet, there are real possibilities here even in the case where a given locale doesn’t demand the particular expertise or interest of individuals: being able to ship some piece of craftwork across the world for a reasonably low cost and in a matter of a week or two means that home economies do not need to be merely local, even if they are richly local.
I also think we would be much healthier communally, and could much more readily support healthy norms for the women in our communities, if we profoundly reduced our geographical sprawl—both at large and in our communities specifically.
We moved here to be close to family, with the idea of mutual support and help in mind. To some extent, that has worked out, but to some degree it hasn’t, and that’s entirely a function of automobile-driven suburban sprawl. We’re a half-hour drive from my parents and one of my sisters, and forty-five minutes from my other sister: they’re infinitely more accessible than when we lived on the other side of the country from them, but they’re not close. Doing things together—or, more importantly in some ways, relying on and helping each other—requires planning. This is by our own doing, in the most modernist way possible: we built a house based on liking the area it’s in, rather than prioritizing immediate proximity to family—in part because we have very different taste in culture and lifestyle than my parents do. We could have done differently, to be sure, and there’s a goodness to learning to love a place in spite of its lack of intrinsic appeal to you, but that comes with its own costs. Mitigating those while maintaining the good of proximity is hard.
That doesn’t just go for family. It goes for friends equally. We picked our church here in something like a “parish” model: we’re confessionally Presbyterians1 and we literally picked the closest Presbyterian church we could and said: if they’re not crazy, we’re going there and staying there. Even with that, and with other friends similarly going to the closest PCA church to them, the closest any of our friends at the church live is 7–10 minutes away. Our closest friends are 15–20 minutes from us. This is better than average in our experience, and we chose our church aiming for this specific factor to be as good as it can! But we’re still isolated in practical terms. One of the great joys for my wife during our years while I was in seminary—hard as they were in many other ways—was that she had neighbors she could count on, including some women who are still among her best friends in the world. We had neighbor-friends we could not merely borrow sugar for but leave our children with for an afternoon break (and even overnight for an anniversary date). We have nothing remotely like that here, much as we want it.
Suburban sprawl and commuting-as-norm are awful for the development of truly local culture, too—not to mention being pretty terrible environmentally. We could perhaps make it more viable for people to choose to live nearer each other if we embraced ways of planning cities (and towns and suburbs…) that were oriented around ease of walking, riding bicycles, and other non-automotive transit. Small coffee shops and tea houses could develop in their own niche. Local grocers (not just massive chain groceries) might support not only small local farms but even home gardens. Small parish-style churches could be embedded in the life of the neighborhood.
Healthier proximity would allow much more resource-sharing, including the resource of time. Families and friends could pool time spent caring for kids, unlocking time for each both to pursue their other vocations and to have times of genuine rest, both of which are profoundly difficult to come by without that kind of support.
This kind of change would require radically altering our approach to zoning laws: to stop separating businesses from homes—a distinction that both requires and thereby re-enshrines automobiles as central and dislocates work from home for most people. This whole frame would also likely require us to radically rework much of our regulation, much of which exists to mitigate the losses that emerge when we have no relationship with the people with whom we do business (and indeed when it is not people but large corporations with whom we are doing business). Laws meant to guarantee certain things about food quality would prevent the emergence of many goods of local economies, for example—the same kinds of idiotic enforcement which sees cities forbidding children from selling lemonade would no doubt be even worse for their parents attempting to engage in gardening or local cooking as trades.
To the obvious rejoinder from feminists that in these arrangements, things have historically tended to leave women with all of this labor and men with all the benefits of the extra time: wholly granted; I think the point is basically incontrovertible. For this to work rightly, this kind of more-actively-communal life would have to be coupled with a profound commitment to the flourishing and good of all the people involved in it. That includes the kids, too! Churches would need to make a point to teach why and model how men could shift their own expectations and norms to put their wives and children ahead of themselves in practical ways. One part of this would be developing a more robustly Christian (!) view of masculinity that sees nurture and self-abnegation as virtues worth inculcating, that sets tenderness and strength as complements rather than as in tension, that affirms the distinctive goodness of men and women without reducing either to caricatures and without demanding conformity to specific cultural instantiations of those good differences.
There’s another challenge there, in that none of these suggestions begin to address the ways that class disparities emerge both organically and intentionally in all such spaces, and then are maintained over time—often in ways I won’t hesitate to call wicked, even demonic. (Certainly the way that has played out around questions of race fits the second label.) On that specific front, I have very few ideas. Most of the “solutions” I’ve seen are pretty bad in their own ways, not least in the rich/white savior complex so many of them come with. A group of upper-middle-class people moving into a poor community to “help” is fraught with many perils, however well-intended; and that goes quintuple when race is involved. The things I have profferred above, even at their best, would not inherently solve these issues, and it’s here I think that the sharper critiques of our entire political economy find most purchase—but it’s also where my ability even to gesture runs out.
This is an infinitely deep well—but I feel keenly the limits of my own knowledge (and still more my utter lack of expertise in this area). I hope that at a minimum serves to flesh out some of the kinds of things I think we ought to be thinking about when we’re thinking about reorienting our economy toward flourishing homes, where women are able to fulfill all their vocations—and men, too: for one of ours is to support women in fulfilling their vocations (the way we so often assume they are meant to support us).
Thanks for reading. And once again, thanks to all of you who email me back—with critique, with questions, with feedback of all sorts!
Really, Presbyterians are the closest thing that’s theologically conservative and has any churches in the area. I’m actually something like Continental Reformed, but there weren’t really any options in that space for us. ↩