An Economic Fable Explained – Part 1

By - Wednesday 6th November, 2013

After her stirring gentrification piece Susan explains the ‘empty building’ scenario and its economic impact

Image by Ewan Munro and used under Creative Commons license

The piece I wrote for the Croydon Citizen, Whatever’s happening, it aint’ gentrification was exaggerative and tongue-in-cheek.  It simply described what the word ‘gentrification’ means to me. But it can also be read as a fable with more meaning than first meets the eye. Analysed symbolically, it describes some ideas about creating value, which I believe is the key to economic success both on a personal and societal level.

In the beginning of my previous article, the building is empty because no one can see any value in it.  It takes the youth of the city to envision how it can be used.  They are willing to suffer physical hardships in order to have the opportunity to be free and pursue their art – like in Pilgrim’s Progress.

The youth are not ‘young people’ but represent a youthful frame of mind. A youthful frame of mind is able to see something out of nothing. It can see potential because it sees things without any pre-conceived notions of what’s valuable. It can forgive superficial appearances – like broken windows – and is willing to make sacrifices on the physical plane – like hauling water – in order to value the spiritual.

The problem is that the owner sees more potential in the building than in the young folks

In this context art doesn’t mean ‘art’ so much as activities people love to do. Parties are gatherings based on having fun.  Papier maché is about using humble elements, like newspaper and paste, to make something larger and more meaningful. Grinding beans is about doing something with care, no matter how small it appears to be. All the little details about artistic endeavours make the point that there are numerous different ways to create value. Notice also that it is human life that brings the building back from the dead, not grandiose plans or financial investment. The narrator represents the populace who take notice and appreciate what’s on offer. People like newness and the ability to create something fresh because the mind needs new perspectives and ideas in order to keep youthful.

Over time, the artists start to make a name for themselves and become more involved in the money-based economy. The music becomes more complex, the drama troupe can create their own stories in a more expansive way, and food becomes less basic. Because of this increasing sophistication, they can charge more for their services. The sum total of that is a rising standard of living for the people involved – why? Because they have something to trade based on a shared agreement that creative work is important.  In short, they have created value. 

The owner starts to realise that having an occupied building is a good thing and makes repairs. He sees that the artists are becoming more financially successful. So the owner smells money. He thinks ‘I’ve got a good thing here’. This is where it starts going wrong. The problem is that the owner sees more potential in the building than in the young folks. He could have either joined them, or worked with them to build their vision, but instead he values the bricks and mortar instead of the renewed life within them. This is interesting because in the beginning, he didn’t even value the bricks and mortar. He’s looking at the building in a new light only because the artists have breathed new life into it.

When the mind equates value with only money, it has difficulty seeing value in much else

On a symbolic level, this reveals the power that belief plays in the economy. The owner was actually quite wealthy – he owned a building after all – but he didn’t make the best of it because he lacked vision. The wider society around him also lacked vision; they had made a collective judgement that the building had no value and for his part the owner did not have the personal fortitude or imagination to question this assumption.

What’s more interesting is that this inability to see value describes a state where the mind sees nothing rather than something, basically an uncreative state, which is exactly the opposite of the youthful mind that can visualise something out of nothing.  That is because when the mind equates value with only money, it has difficulty seeing value in much else. The mind becomes lazy and becomes less impressed with anything except money. The owner disregards the artists’ ability to create value because he’s blind to other merits besides the financial ones.

Another societal impact from an over-reliance on money is that the physical is valued more than the spiritual. The static concept of owning things becomes more important than the active concept of doing things. On a cultural level, having wealth becomes more virtuous than being skilful and creative. Personal acquisition becomes the predominant ethic at the expense of respect for work, vocation, and craft.

Check back next week for the concluding part of An Economic Fable Explained