Integrity Economics

I use to teach economics. Now I’m a professional artist and I teach. Often I spend 4 hours preparing a class that earns $50. My students can do the math. “What kind of an economist were you?”, they ask.

I spend my money at the farmers market, where I chat with the farmers and artisans. I especially like cheese, and was excited today to find a new vendor selling buffalo cheeses. Like many farmers at the market, he’s displaying a laminated newspaper article. His tells the story of a fire that destroyed the fencing around his new buffalo herd and how Ian Massingham (a septic tank salesman) and wife Kim spent days rounding up the animals. They’ve tried to source semen from Bulgaria, but the language barriers were preventative. Nevertheless they have bred and increased the herd.

As excited as me, talking rapidly and straining Ian’s capacity to have two conversations at once while dispensing tastes of his cheese, an Asian restaurateur is trying to organize enough supply to include the mozzarella in one of his salads. The cheesemaker is firm “I just can’t do that right now. We only have 24 buffalo.” And one of them is a bull.

The article explains that the couple are still working full time. I mention my friends Michael and Cressida McNamara selling their Pecora Dairy sheepsmilk cheese a few stalls down at the market. “She’s quit her job but he’s still working.” I remember that Cressida gets up at 4am to sell at one of the other markets and wonder how many slices of cheese do you have to sell standing in the rain so that one of you can quit your job? I’m pretty sure they’re not doing this because they think it’s going to be lucrative.

The new buffalo cheese company doesn’t have an urbane name like Pecora Dairy. They’re calling themselves AusBuff Stuff. The article explains that the couple went on a vacation to Italy, fell in love with cheese, and came back and bought a herd of buffalo. The same story as Richard and Helen Dorresteyn the owners of Clevedon Valley Buffalo Mozzarella. He was an electrician. Now with 200 buffalo they are one of the brightest lights in the fledgling New Zealand artisanal cheese scene.

Later, I go see Michael, intending to take home both sheep and buffalo mozzarella. He whispers to me. “I only brought my blue cheese today, no mozzarella, because I want the new buffalo guy to be successful.”

What kind of economist are you?

This is story is about falling in love with food. It’s about working for something because it’s beautiful, and hoping the money will be enough to keep doing it – a story that I keep running into while distractedly turning a corner. Mike Davis has written about the odd return of wildness to sterile urban ecosystems. (Ecology of Fear, 1999) This story is about the wild return of a romance with sensuality and craft in a world of information overload, where nothing seems to matter for very long, and everything can be had for $.99 from the iTunes store. It’s about a search for meaning in the money, connection in the contract.

Chad Robertson, award-winning artisan baker at Tartine in San Francisco, is a celebrity. He makes 175 loaves of bread a day, and sells out in 45 minutes. Do the math. In an interview with Bon Appétit he explains: “I wanted to do something with my hands.”