A Lesson in Economics

Published on 22 March 2024 at 12:27

A Lesson in Economics - Not Everything is About Money


Throughout much of my professional career as an architect and urban planner, I was involved in many endeavors that fall into the category of Micro-economics. That is, they were policies, programs or projects that benefitted a community through improvements in infrastructure or public buildings. Examples would be a civic center, a transit station, or creating a package of incentives to encourage private investment. I was fortunate to be able to draw strategies from a cadre of colleagues, educated in economics, who I worked with.

From time to time during my career, I would brush up against people working in the larger scale of Macro-economics. Those people addressed issues at a state or national scale, through tools involving taxation, interest rates, money markets, financing, etc.  It was another world, with terminology and techniques well beyond my realm of understanding.


Recently I discovered another form of economics, one that I had never heard of before -- Nano-economics. This is a system of economics centered around a myriad small transactions by individuals --  people who often know each other. Sometimes the transaction is monetary, sometimes it comes in other forms.  It is ancient in its origins, dating back to time before physical currencies were invented. It sometimes goes by the term “bartering.” But that suggests a deliberate discussion of the value of an exchange. I’m talking about a broader concept of trading goods and services but not necessarily expecting a specific compensation, if any at all.


Coming from a culture of rampant capitalism, in which monetary value is placed on almost every transaction, this economic model came as something of a shock. My wife and I often found ourselves bewildered and wondering if we needed to return a specific gift with another specific gift. As the recipient of many unexpected gestures from people in our village, we were confused. Was something reciprocal even expected? A cynical American perspective might see these through a nefarious lens. That is, a favor but with a return expected in he future. When that never happened, we were puzzled.


Perhaps a few examples would explain the cross-cultural conundrum.

During the first three years after moving to Italy we purchased a used car. One must wait until one is a legal resident to be able to own a car. Until then, you must rent or lease a car. But that is another story. At any rate, on the sixth month after receiving our residency cards, we bought a small black Kia Picanto with 150,000 km mileage. It served us well for day trips, longer trips, and for monthly forays to IKEA -- whether we needed anything or not. Great fuel efficiency; minimal comfort level. Plus, the vehicle needed some maintenance or repair work a couple of times a year.


We therefore got to know the village car mechanic rather well. A rough-hewn, muscular man of a certain age, Gabrielle has an auto repair shop on the ground floor of his house where he lives with his wife. Strewn outside the shop is an array of cars, trucks, and farm vehicles, some obviously cannibalized for parts. Or perhaps awaiting parts.


One day on a drive in the countryside, we got lost on a winding country road we had never traveled on before. We had no idea where we were. Worse, the car suddenly ground to a dead halt. No amount of coaxing could get it started. We backed it into a lane leading to a famer’s house, asked him permission to leave the car there, and called an Italian friend who somehow managed to find us. Before leaving the car, we managed to lock the only keys we had inside, dangling from the ignition. It was not a good day.

We immediately called Gabrielle for help. He dropped everything, went out, found our car, got into it somehow, brought it back to his garage, ordered the necessary part (the alternator), and repaired it. The next morning, he showed up on our doorstep with the vehicle, good to drive. He asked for a surprisingly modest sum, which we gladly paid.  My wife was so thrilled to have what seemed an insurmountable problem solved with ease, she baked banana bread and took it to their house. From that moment on, Gabrielle took us under his wing.


Flash forward to this Summer. Passing by our garden he noticed that none of our vegetable plants were doing well - mainly due to my erratic watering routine, coupled with the unusually intense heatwave of July.  There were visibly sad specimens of brown tomato vines and other vegetative disasters (my wife was sad). The next day he brought us an enormous basket of vegetables and fruits including a huge watermelon – all from his own, apparently thriving, garden. We were astounded. Apparently, he was worried we might starve.  Or that at least my vegetarian wife might be missing fresh veggies out of the garden, which was true enough.

Another example. During the pandemic, when lockdown periods were so strict that you could not leave your own town, save for work, I found a way to keep myself occupied. Over the course of six months of spring and summer, I went out for walks with my sketchbook and a packet of pencils and pens. I sketched, in an impressionistic form, my take on shops, restaurants, cafes, and houses. Upon completion of each, my wife would make a scan and a good copy on stiff paper, so that I could present the drawing to the owner of the business or house.


One restaurant owner was so delighted that a year later she showed me what she had done with my drawing. Not only had she framed it by the cash counter, but she is now using it as part of her logo. During the pandemic, we had ordered food to go frequently from her restaurant, as we wanted to ensure its survival as we could. We also gave the delivery person, who was the owner’s father, a 20% tip for his trouble – something typically not done here.


So now, whenever we go into the restaurant for a meal, I see my drawing everywhere, as they are printed on the little paper packets that hold the tableware and napkins. I was flattered to no end by this nice gesture. Since then, I discovered that each dinner check we get includes a significant discount. But at no point did anyone discuss money.  Nano-economics in its most gentile form.

A final example. Down the street from us a couple of hundred meters is a small food market – one of three in the village. It is owned by a woman in her 80’s named Ivana. She is friendly, sweet, and very helpful. But she speaks only Italian and mostly in the local dialect. I have needed to improve my Italian so that I can make my shopping needs clear. Purchasing food from Ivana is always a treat because she approaches me with a big smile and offers to help me find anything I need.


Every few weeks we buy brown eggs from Ivana. She gets them delivered from a nearby farm and they are the kind with bright orange yolks – a delightful visual experience to eat, as well as a splendid gustatory one. I watch her as she carefully selects each individual egg from a stack of carboard pallets. I bring my own egg container with recessed pockets that she gingerly fills, lest any break. She charges 3 euros for ten eggs and has not raised her prices in years. So far, I’ve described a typical shopping transaction, quaint though it may be.


But one night, around eight, I answered an unexpected knock at the front door. It was Ivana, with her usual big smile. She had brought us a bag full of brown eggs.  I was momentarily speechless. I had never in my life had a shopkeeper hand-deliver eggs to my doorstep. I imagined that she had just received a delivery and wanted to be sure we got the best eggs – she knows my wife and I especially like her eggs above all others. I thanked her profusely and dug out three, one-euro coins, from my pocket. The price was well worth the thoughtful, personal gesture.     

My wife can easily cite dozens of other examples of this personal, face-to-face form of commerce. During the pandemic, before masks were easily obtained at the shops, she spent weeks sewing cloth masks for everyone who wanted one in the village.  Piles of them, she cut up old sheets and shirts, and any fabric she could get her hands onto.  The pandemic restrictions required everyone to wear a mask while going out, but so many people simply didn’t have one.  She labored 10 hours a day, week after week, until everyone did – no payment required, but donations for materials were given in plenty.


She also provides herbal medicines to local people and lets them decide what to pay, based on their financial situation. She also grows a massive sage plant in the garden, and frequently cuts a bouquet of leaves to give to the chef at another local restaurant. The chef, Daniella, promptly fries them in a feather-light batter as antipasti. Sometimes, we are served our own harvest, which is the best kind of meal to enjoy.

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