Twin Oaks and economics

from Keenan’s Twin Oaks blogApril 14, 2014    (pictures from the Twin Oaks photo gallery)

It seems to me that Twin Oaks is thriving, but I don’t want to believe that Twin Oaks is doing well when we are not.  The Farm in Tennessee went bankrupt in the eighties because they thought they were doing fine, when actually they were  sliding deep into debt. So is there some sort of accurate empirical measure of the health of a commune?

Twin Oaks doesn’t have any debt—that’s significant—perhaps the most significant economic indicator there is.  Twin Oaks’ Dun and Bradstreet rating is as high as it can be for a “business” our size. So Twin Oaks is unlikely to fail due to debt. Maybe that’s all we need to know. But I wonder…

Using other economic indicators, Twin Oaks is doing rather poorly.  For instance, everyone at Twin Oaks lives below the poverty line.  Twin Oakers could get food stamps since we qualify, but we really don’t need food stamps, we can grow our own food, thank you very much.

Cold frames

Twin Oaks is larger, at 500 acres, than a handful of countries; if Twin Oaks were a country what would our GDP be?  [From Wikipedia: Gross domestic product (GDP) is the market value of all officially recognized final goods and services produced within a country in a year. GDP per capita is often considered an indicator of a country’s standard of living and is one of the primary indicators used to gauge the health of a country’s economy.]  If Twin Oaks were a country, economically we’d be at about the same level of  GDP as Armenia, Swaziland, and Guatemala. That’s not good.

Collectively, Twin Oaks’ bank account might seem large, but divided out among 110 people, it’s not that much.  Why is it since Twin Oaks has no debt, we own 500 acres, have a dozen buildings, run a handful of successful business that we don’t rank better using standard economic indicators?

There are some other economic indicators that can be measured at Twin Oaks, e.g. Unemployment: current unemployment in the United States is just above seven percent.  [This is actually falsely low, since there are many people who would like to have a job, but who have given up looking; they are considered employed, or at least, they aren’t counted as unemployed–OK, that’s bizarre]  Twin Oaks has zero unemployment.  Everyone works, unless  they are elderly or sick.  That is, if you can work; you work; if you can’t work, you don’t work.   Twin Oaks has always had full employment.  By that statistic Twin Oaks is doing great.

Sawdust corral

In the mainstream economy a worker cannot casually try out being a teacher, a farmer, a mechanic, an accountant etc. Students must pick a career path early, expend lots of time and money getting the required certification, and only then see whether the work is suitable. Additionally, it does not pay to be a dilettante in the mainstream culture. Work security comes from working full time, and work satisfaction comes (if it comes at all) from getting promotions.

Twin Oaks does not have protective barriers around jobs. Anyone can try anything that they want to try. The outcome is a labor scene that is far different from the mainstream labor scene—immeasurably different. No one works at one job at Twin Oaks; people easily switch jobs. People, we discover, are happier not having to work 40 hours at one job.  And still the work of the community gets done. There is no work sabotage, or sneaking off with inventory.  Twin Oaks wins on worker satisfaction.Because there is no unemployment at Twin Oaks, there is no class stratification. Because there is no class stratification there is no poverty, no crime, no need to hire a police force, or live in a state of constant fear.  The crime rate is, essentially zero. Twin Oaks wins on crime statistics and, of course, income inequality.

Twin Oaks is hardly outside of the market economy in our businesses. Twin Oaks’ hammocks business has been thriving for over thirty-five years while other hammocks businesses in the United States have gone out of business. Twin Oaks’ tofu business and East Wind’s nut butter business demonstrate that a communal society can successfully start and operate a capital-intensive business.

When Pier One Imports dropped Twin Oaks hammocks, which accounted for 75% of Twin Oaks’ income at that time, there was no desperation or impetus to start making a shoddy product, do false advertising, or other strategies common for mainstream businesses undergoing stress. Workers switched to other work, the community expanded smaller businesses, and everyone took an equal pay cut, metaphorically speaking. The other businesses grew.  Within two years, Twin Oaks’ income was back to where it was. And, of course, no one was laid off.

Hammock inventory

During this time , a well-established and well-known leisure goods company approached Twin Oaks to make cotton hammocks. Twin Oaks had, at that time, slack production capacity. The offer sounded very profitable for Twin Oaks. but we turned the offer down. Why? Because cotton rope is hard to work with; the rope is heavy and would have contributed to wrist injuries. Also, cotton hammocks don’t last as long. We would be selling an inferior product at a higher price. None of the workers wanted to work with cotton hammocks. If the order had been accepted, it is likely that workers would have found work elsewhere in our community.

Health, happiness, and ethics won out over mere profit. How do you measure that decision? Literally, how can you measure happiness?   How to measure an un-hurt wrist,  or a happier workplace?  Doing work that is aligned with your own ethical compass? Those considerations don’t have much of a place in the mainstream economic model.

Swimming pond and beach

The goal of mainstream economics is to atomize society into individual consumers and to monetize every transaction so that they can be more accurately measured.  People re-using stuff, and people sharing stuff all lower global GPD. Growing a garden lowers GDP.  Sharing a car with a neighbor lowers GDP. The goal of Twin Oaks is to bind people together in a strong, mutually-supportive group.   The by-product of these structural decisions is that lives at Twin Oaks are de-monetized;  being de-monetized, Twin Oakers lives don’t measure up.

Boom and bust cycles, unemployment, class-stratification, planned obsolescence, poverty, crime—these are the logical, predictable, and inevitable outcomes of mainstream economic measures.  Not the system, not inefficiencies in the system, not poor implementation of capitalism; the very yardstick itself causes these bad outcomes.

Maybe the yardstick itself  is wrong. 

Maybe the yardstick itself is wrong…Imagine that building materials weren’t measured in inches and feet (or centimeters and meters), but, let’s say, by weight.  So, the only thing we would be able to measure on a building is its weight.  Obviously, a bigger house would weigh more.  Wealthy people would want to live in a house that is massive.  The wealthiest people would compete to have “the heaviest house in the world.”  Building trades would quickly adapt and start using materials by weight and clamoring for heavy materials.  Developers would want to appeal to the upper class by advertising how much heavier their homes are than other similar homes.  You can run this bizarre fantasy out yourself, everything in the building trade would get distorted, and, more to the point, houses would not be better in any sense of the word, in fact, many houses would be worse.

Llano office

Mainstream economic measures give rise to a fundamental short-sightedness that we at Twin Oaks would do well to avoid. At Twin Oaks we are not bound to an irrational economic philosophy. When asked what ideology or philosophy Twin Oaks uses in guiding our decisions we can only gesture vaguely in the direction of our collective judgment.

Mainstream economic models measure something, but that something is not really relevant to Twin Oaks.  Twin Oaks uses a more nuanced—human-centered, ethics-based, long-range decision making model.  This makes the comparison of Twin Oaks as an economic entity with other economic entities essentially impractical, if not impossible.  What Twin Oaks does doesn’t often make “economic” sense, but it makes “sense”–sense in the human-scale, ethical, sustainable way that people typically mean when they use the phrase “makes sense.”

Each year Twin Oaks is doing better at being communal, that is, we put up solar panels, develop hydroelectric power, share more with each other, and provide more of our own entertainment. Each of these steps in the direction of more communalness makes us slide ever downward in our economic indicators. Until there is a widely accepted measure of happiness, of sustainability, or of ethical living,  Twin Oaks won’t be able to come up with an empirical analysis  to demonstrate to the world how effective and sensible what we are doing is.

I’m Ok with that.



Twin Oaks and economics