As I finished a book this morning, I happened to notice my bookmark. It was a tag from a six-pack of Guinness draught I bought some time ago. In big white and gold letters it said "Guinness only has 125 calories." Since I have repeatedly assessed my work rate on the farm at 125 calories per hour, I was immediately intrigued.
As you know, I assess my farm work based on a 2500 calorie a day diet. Since I put out as much energy as I consume, i.e. I am neither putting on nor losing weight, my energy output per day is the amount I eat. The national average for men is 2500 calories per day, so I start with this figure. A good average for the amount of calories burned in 8 hours of sleep is 500, which leaves 2000 calories for a day's work. Since I work at a variable rate all day long, including a nap, making food and eating it, doing computer work and doing manual labor, I use an average over a 16-hour day. 2000 calories divided by 16 hours is 125 calories per hour. Simple, easy to calculate AND valid once you actually look at human work with an unbiased eye. Even in construction work, there are times of extreme effort, but also a considerable amount of time in setup, breakdown, shooting the breeze with other workers, listening to the boss blather on about codes and workrates, etc. You might also notice that most people spend as much effort on their leisure time or duties at home as they do at work. Thus, I regard 125 calories as a valid rate for human work over the long haul and across the majority of jobs.
So if my work is worth 125 calories per hour and there are 125 calories in a 12-ounce bottle of draught Guinness, then a bottle should be worth one hour of my time. If I was paid a minimum wage for farm work (which I am not, by the way), then a bottle of Guinness would be worth $8.67 here in Washington state. This is about the price for a six-pack however, so a minimum wage worker is getting 6 times the food calories he is using to work. Another way to look at it would be to ask how many bottles a minimum-wage worker could get in a bar. At current prices, a bottle of Guinness is about $4.50 for a bottle, so a minimum-wage worker can get about 2 times the food calories he is using to work. By the way, this 3:1 ratio comports well with the standard 3:1 ratio a bar owner needs to charge to make a profit, so the merchant, or trade, aspect of Guinness calories fits into the modern business model. However, there is still a disconnect between the retail price of Guinness and the minimum wage. Does this disconnect mean that a minimum wage worker is overpaid or does it mean that the Guinness is underpriced in terms of the energy in the actual product?
It is actually neither. The real disconnect is that price is disconnected from energy value. For most economists, price and energy value are like apples and oranges - not comparable. However, if we knowingly disconnect from price by not using money, then we can utilize energy as our measurement of value. Once we make this "conscious" disconnect, we can value the Guinness at its calorie value or even leverage the idea of this disconnect to look at economics from a different perspective.
So, are you willing to come out to the farm and work an hour for a bottle of Guinness? Probably not. You may object, and rightly so, that we need to leverage the energy value in our "reward" or "wage." After all, we are trying to use human energy calories to produce MORE than we consume. [Sidebar: Even though modern agriculture uses more input calories in fossil fuels than it produces in food calories, one of the tenets of postmodern agriculture is that we produce more food calories than our human and fossil fuel inputs.] Therefore, I should give you more than a bottle of Guinness for your time (let's forget where I get the money to buy the Guinness for the moment). Okay, fair enough. Would you be willing to come out to the farm and work an hour for two bottles of Guinness? Now you might be tempted, especially if you were desparate and did not drink the Guinness but just took them home and traded them to someone. Perhaps you worked for 3 hours and got a six-pack of Guinness and then traded it for two packs of cigarettes, which you then traded for a gallon of gas, and then you used your car to take someone to the store and on other errands, and this taxi service was paid for with a bunch of food either purchased or grown by the person who did not have a car. At the end of the day, you have leveraged your minimal labor input into more than you could get by just drinking the beverage.
So, my brief simplistic scenario above is really a microcosm of how basic economics works - i.e. householder economics. It is also how the "ghetto" economy, or "underground" economy works. It is all about leverage AND it takes interaction. When you see people on the street corner just hanging out, they are really doing more work than you, at your computer in your cubicle, are doing. The key is leverage and interaction.
Okay, can we codify the trade aspect of the underground economy and bring it up aboveground? Yes, and it is tres simple. We simply use scrip. Scrip is just a piece of paper that lists a value for barter transactions. For example, the scrip in Ferndale is the Steiner. A Steiner is worth either 1) an hour of your time, 2) 5 pounds of potatoes, 3) 2 dozen eggs, or 4) 2 pints of beer. The important point in using these 4 commodities is not that they are equivalent, but that they give you four frames of reference for your transaction. You could come up with your own similar scrip scheme. When you make a trade you are engaging in a bilateral contract and you need to have a way to compare your product/service with the other product/service. Money usually serves for settling the transaction BUT money is politically loaded and for many people it is hard to come by. Time and interaction however, are what the poor have in abundance. Thus the trade aspect of the underground economy.
As wages go down and unemployment goes up, dealing with the money system becomes harder and harder. Embracing the underground economy and bringing it up for air by using scrip is a viable way to get an edge AND build community. Community-building is really an offshoot of human interaction. Trade, not just purchasing, is an easy way to build community.