Relational Economics

"Money and friendships don't mix." "Work and life don't mix." "Don't go into business with a friend", "don't loan money to friends", "don't make friends with your employees", "don't bring your work home". "It's not personal, it's business." You'll hear all these nuggets of advice, and more like them, in today's fractured world. But I argue that intermingling work and life, while complicated and challenging, builds strong friendships and communities.

I live with my boss, Jeff. (He doesn't like the sound of it when I call him my boss.) I don't pay rent, and I eat dinner with he and his family almost every night. During the winter I haven't worked much, though I do drive the farm truck around to pick up compost ingredients (e.g. coffee grounds) three mornings a week, for which I don't get paid. When people ask what I do, sometimes I say I work a little bit in exchange for room and board. Sometimes I say I don't work, but I volunteer. Or sometimes it's not "volunteering", it's just a favor for a friend. The truth is too nuanced to be reduced to one specific model: Jeff is my boss, my housemate, and my friend; and our interactions can't be neatly sorted between those roles.

Last summer at the beginning of August - a very busy time on the farm - I had an emotional breakdown. Jeff, who is my boss and friend, gave me as much time as I needed to sort things out before I came back to work. I ended up missing a week - in which he probably worked at least eighty hours - and my paycheck showed no change from any other week. (Jeff, by the way, took no paychecks for most of the summer.)

All Jeff's employees are also his friends. He knows what their needs are, what stresses them out, what their families are like. He has them over for dinner. He calls them up in the off-season to see how they're doing. When one of his employee-friends is out of work, Jeff pulls any strings he can to find them another job.

All Jeff's customers are friends, too. No one he deals with is dehumanized or reduced to an "economic agent". And so, with employee-friends and customer-friends, Jeff never even considers how to squeeze more profit out of them. Consequently, he doesn't make much profit at all.

Now, through the eyes of an economist, Jeff does not run a very successful operation. He is not one of the savvy entrepreneurs politicians praise for growing their businesses, reinvesting their wealth, jumpstarting the economy, and making America competitive again. But economists and politicians have tunnel vision: they see an unprofitable farm, but they don't see that the unprofitable farm is one integral part of Jeff's fruitful life - and of an increasingly vibrant, cooperative local community.