An economic view of the economy

I'm mostly grown up now. As Muddy Waters says, "I'm way past 21." I've got a family, I'm an employer, I'm going to retire some day. But try as I may, I can't pay attention to the business reports, I don't subscribe to any money magazines, I can't get worked up when the stock market slumps or rallies. For me, the economy is always pretty much the same - as long as you and I have needs we can help each other out with.

I came across Dave's camp along Alaska's Yukon River during an afternoon storm. Out in the Yukon flats, the long hot afternoons can bring on a real blow pretty quickly. Kerry and I were on a recreational paddle and had to duck into someplace protected, and Dave was there cutting firewood. He lived in Fort Yukon and was putting together a raft of standing dead spruce to float downriver to sell. A lot of the forests near Fort Yukon had been pretty well cleared away some years earlier by stern-wheeler crews to fuel the steam boilers. Even though that era is long past, trees grow pretty slowly that far north, so folks have to travel some for their firewood.

Like most white guys in the Arctic, Dave wasn't local-born. His dad had some important marine biology job at the Smithsonian, and when Dave was finished with graduate school, he headed north until he felt the pressure subside. His dog actually brought us together. Having smelled our supper cooking, she felt she needed to introduce herself. Before the introductions could be properly made, she did away with our ham. But Dave was a nice guy and more than made up for the loss with smoked salmon.

Dave had one of the few pickup trucks in Fort Yukon, but it was broken. He wasn't much of a mechanic, and the only fix-it guy in town wanted too much firewood to repair the truck. So he and I agreed that the double-bitted ax he had leaning against the wall behind the front door to his cabin was proper payment for the starter repair. Dave still had a couple of days' work to do before he floated his raft to town, but he gave me good directions to his place so I could get to it when we canoed into town.

Years later I ran into Dave again, in the hardware store in Fairbanks. His kids were older and his wife was anxious, so they had moved into town earlier that winter. I had some fish we had dried for our dog team, and Dave had some windows he had salvaged from a building the Army was tearing down. His dogs ate fish for the rest of the winter, and I got the windows I needed to finish up our new cabin. The economy was doing well.

I always declare barter on my tax return, and pay the appropriate taxes. What would be the point of avoiding them? If the economy is just you and I helping each other out, if I don't pay my fair share of taxes, then I'm just expecting you to do my part of the road work, pay for my use of the airport, do more than is fair to keep us all safe.

I know it's easy to be bitter about taxes and all. I sometimes chafe when I have to come up with cash to pay for my part of the government's tab. But it just seems right that I chip in on the things you and I agree are important, even if I lost the vote.

The next time I saw Dave, his kids were old enough to appreciate the luxuries of city life, and Dave was a full participant in the cash economy. He was playing piano in a fancy restaurant. His jacket was pretty tired, and since I was - after all - eating in a fancy restaurant, I figured a big tip to the musician was in order. We frequented that restaurant for the next couple of years, eager to hear how the kids' music lessons were going, trading dog and broken-truck stories.

Dave looked a little out of place and always appreciated the tips in the jar. I had an auto-repair facility by then, and city prices were tough, so Dave and I kept up our relationship. I always found a use for some thing or other he had to trade for the work he needed done to the family car.

I don't see Dave anymore. I live in a big city that's a very long way from the Yukon. It's mostly a cash, check, or credit-card world here, and that's OK. I've got plenty of employees and pay scandalously high rent. But war or not, Dow up or down, I figure the economy is doing just fine as long as you and I can shake hands and do each other some good.

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