It might seem unusual, but recently the image popped into my head of the economy as being quite like a blackberry bush.
Not a normal thought, perhaps, but it seems as good a season as any for such an image to come to fruition. I had cultivated the soil this spring with a semester-long course on the history of economic thought, with a cast of characters ranging from Aristotle to Marx. Then, this summer was spent interning at a charitable trust, where I spent months watching and helping an incredible endowment inject millions of dollars into the nonprofit sector of the Pacific Northwest. Now, as my time here ends and I start facing the job market in earnest, I am beginning to feel the pressures of the so-called Great Recession.
And, of course, we are in the middle of the blackberry harvest.
Adam Smith (a man of great genius and regardless of what you think about his legacy, should be commended for putting something as utterly incomprehensible as “the wealth of nations” into manageable language) used the insights of physics, particularly Sir Issac Newton’s, as the stepping stone to explain what he saw happening in and between the factory, home and marketplace.
If Smith used a branch of science to write a book on the economy, I feel totally legitimate in using a blackberry metaphor for a blog post.The singular most important thing to note about blackberries are that they are delicious. Lately, as I have been coming back home from runs in the afternoon summer heat, I spend my “cooldown” walking around the backyard munching the blackberries growing along our fence. Friends and family are making blackberry pies, cobblers, salads. All the extra blackberries get thrown in the freezer for jam-making. And of course Burgerville (the Pacific Northwest’s answer to In-N-Out) is offering its seasonal blackberry shakes, smoothies, lemonades and ice cream sundaes. There very well should be a harvest festival downtown, where people parade down the street dressed as blackberries. It is, after all, a good time of year.
So it is with the economy. Sometimes we overburden the economy with the sour feelings we get from hearing about downturn and unemployment on the news, but ultimately the economy is what brings us good things. Better than you or I could have produced out of our own willpower and isolated resources anyhow. If you think this is untrue, think about the computer you are using to read this post. Pretty sure that came from the economy.
But there is a shadow side to the blackberry, something that not even Burgerville, with all of its emphasis on corporate responsibility and buying local-organic, will dare mention.
Wanna know the secret?
You are going to have to lean in close. Come, get closer to that computer you got from the economy.
The blackberry is not from around here. It’s an invasive species.
“Whaaat?” That’s right. Our prized blackberry is actually a “himalayan blackberry”, and the last time I checked, Mt. St. Helens does not belong to a mountain range called the Himalayas.
This is why a horde of blackberries grow on the fence by my house, why there are always extras left over to throw in the freezer. When a blackberry bush is left to “grow naturally”, without any human consideration or care, it becomes a weed. Those long, prickly vines grow and coil and choke out the other species more finely-tuned to the balance of the Cascadian ecosystem.
Just like how the blackberry is at once as natural as any plant and as unnatural any alien, so it is with our economy. Our economy operates seemingly by a nature all to itself, to the laws of supply and demand and principles of monetary flow. But if we look at our cities and factories and even our cultivated farmland, what we see are tracts of land quite different from what they would have “naturally” been tens of thousands of years prior.
Even though every season the blackberry grows, that growth does not necessarily mean more blackberries are available for picking. A tall blackberry bush might grow so tall that maybe only Nicolas Batum can reach the new berries on top. Even worse, when a blackberry bush grows in towards some sort of wall or barrier, we lose access to an entire part of the perimeter that is ripe for picking. Pro-growth and pro-berry usually go together, which is why it is all the more important that we draw attention to those occasions that they do not.
Like taking care of a blackberry bush, when we think about our economy, the first question should not be maximizing growth. Rather, we need to make sure we can translate growth into something that we most (or perhaps all) of us can access and benefit from. Do we have the growth capacity? Sure, there may be some legitimacy to trickle-down economics, but if the rate of growth outpaces the rate of trickle something is bound to get waterlogged.
I can’t omit the thorns. As every kayaker who has been caught in a creekside bramble knows, a poorly-placed blackberry plant can be an absolute killjoy. It is bound to happen from time to time, but nobody is going to excuse the blackberry as an innocent bystander that should just be left alone. Similarly, any glance at a news headline declaring layoffs or new pollution recordings should tell us that our economy, fruitful or not, still has plenty of thorns. Especially nowadays it seems.
Some of you may remain unconvinced, and I suppose that is alright. It is only a metaphor after all, and no matter how useful every metaphor is limited. But I challenge you to consciously consider what are the metaphors or other mental aids you commonly use to think about the economy. Do you think of it a machine, something that “the government should rev up”? Or maybe like a building, needing a good “foundation for future growth”? Do you think of the economy as a person, prone to fits of “depression”? How about as water, where “investments will flow” and “assets could evaporate” and “culmulative successes should spillover”? And I would be amiss to not mention that for many who are facing unemployment and overwhelming debt and the like, the economy is straight “hell.” All these too are metaphors, and like my blackberry metaphor, they have limits to their explanatory power.
For the more convinced, a final note about the blackberry. While the invasive himalayan blackberry is what conquers our backyards and our farmers markets, there is actually a variety of blackberry native to the Pacific Northwest. It is called the rubus ursinus, or “bramble bear.” A native plant in tune with the ecosystem, the bramble bear blackberries are difficult to grow and to harvest, and have a sort of “explosive tenderness” to them that makes shipping impossible. If you are up to the challenge, you can grow them at home, although you might have better luck finding them in the wild.
I have never had one, but rumor has it they are some of the best tasting around.
But the bramble bear blackberry does give me one more important lesson about the economy – sometimes the things that taste best in life are the things that cannot be delivered by means of economic prosperity.