Friday, December 26, 2008

Buy It Forward

So, I am sitting here racking my brains about what can be done to get the economy going again. By the way, I hope greater minds than mine are also being racked... Anyway, I think, or at least hope it is becoming clear that the way we pawns have been manipulated into spending our limited resources on things we really don't need for all these years is not only fool hardy but ultimately destructive. Time to move on from the conspicuous consumption model.

Yet it's consumers buying things and businesses investing and selling things that keeps us all employed and well fed. This is basic structure of the world we live in, this is reality and it's not going change anytime soon. We really do not want a world where the government essentially tells us what we need and then supplies it for us. Nothing good will come of a socialized marketplace and economic model. So, we need to remake the world with what we already have - because so much of it is good - we wouldn't tear down a sturdy house just to remodel it.

We have all by now heard the term "pay it forward". It was popularized most recently by a book of the same name by Catherine Ryan Hyde and a movie staring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt. The concept is not so new as this. In 1951 Sci-fi legend Robert A. Heinlein in his book 'Between Planets' popularized the term and personally lived this doctrine. Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Benjamin Webb dated April 22, 1784:

I do not pretend to give such a Sum; I only lend it to you. When you [...] meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro' many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress. This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.

So the concept is not so alien to the human condition as there have always been people in need and those with good hearts able to help without demanding recompense. With this in mind I began fleshing out something I would call "Buy It Forward".

Buy It Forward

Doing a good turn by helping someone out with a favor or paying a debt is all well and good but to revive the economy things need to be bought and sold. As mentioned, buying things we really don't need and drowning ourselves in conspicuous consumption is pointless and ultimately unsatisfying. Why not buy something for someone else? Something they really need...

What I envisioned is a 'CraigsList' sort of thing. While I have not fleshed out any details I see an all voluntary system national in scope but local in practice like CraigsList. Those in need could post up requests including compelling details and those with means could voluntarily fulfill the requests with new "store bought" items after judging for themselves the veracity of the requester. Obviously fraud and abuse would be the major problems with something like this. Fraud and abuse would probably doom an unsophisticated deployment. The last thing I want is crimes being committed and lawyers getting involved.

A second thought would be to try to establish local "Buy It Forward Chapters" through places like Churches and community organizations . The chapters would be loosely bound by standard concepts and completely voluntary for any member of said organization. Again, I don't have specific details - I'm just trying to come up with a concept.

The basic point is there are a lot of people out there who need things and there are a lot of people out there with money and good hearts that really don't need more things cluttering their lives. What Buy It Forward would hope to do is get them together and also drive the economy forward which will be good for all people.

The truth is that the best solution for poverty is prosperity. Strong and rational economic growth is the key, but buying "stuff" just to spend, spend, spend is more destructive than good. However, buying stuff to help someone in need is downright righteous!

I would love to hear some thoughts on this idea - crazy? misguided? brilliant? wonderful?

Please write me at If it is something that could be done - for all the right reasons - then we should put it out there and maybe it will snowball into something fantastic.

Craig Willms
St. Paul MN


TJ Willms said...

Your concept certainly does need polish, I am able to recognize noble intent as it's driving force and laud the grass roots elements. However, I fear it would be exceedingly vulnerable to being corrupted by those with ill intent, (scammers) and those who simply cannot intellectually separate their wants from needs. The later may be an honestly derived by-product of our credit driven “spend like there is no tomorrow” societal evolution. The best strategy I can think of to help any of us break out of the credit-dependency that has allowed our tumble down this financial rabbit hole, is to do more of our personal business in cash. Don't spend it until you have it. But there's a huge rub there as well. With the Fed. and Congress going ape trying to repair the credit markets to little avail, they increase the risk of a monstrous devaluation of our currency. That will make increasing your use of cash vs credit far more difficult and far less attractive to those who do have credit available, despite its risks, and simply cannot make themselves wait until they have the money in hand.

A large part of the “American Dream” has become the fantasy that the credit you can secure is real money. I have fallen prey to that circumstance personally, but far less than many of the people I know. Though I still have lingering debt I'm trying to wrestle into submission. I have to excersize a great deal of personal discipline to spend no more than I earn. Even with that notion firmly in mind, it is still a struggle for me to save for that proverbial rainy day that as adults we all know is a very real possibility. No, I believe the way out of the fiscal malaise we are currently enduring is for all of us to grow up and act like adults rather than over-eager kids in the credit candy store. Using credit is a risk reward proposition, most of us choose to ignore those risks. Lenders certainly don't want to highlight them frightening large numbers of people away from doing business, but those risks are real. The consequences can be devastating.

Many American's have allowed themselves to become more than a little “credit drunk,” over the past few decades. Well the hangover is now upon us. Some will suffer a few symptoms and others will be violently ill that is the nature of the beast. The only way to avoid it is to party a little less or none at all, and do so on a consistent basis. It is an adult behavior pattern that most of us are familiar with, at least I hope it is. If our whole economy is based on buying and selling under a false pretenses, “credit vs real money,” how “real” is all of the underlying economic activity we keep measuring to tell how well we are doing? I still think the way out of the looming darkness staring us in the eye boils down to a matter of personal behavior. We have to stop kidding ourselves that spending too much is O.K. because everybody is doing it. Spend less, save more, and use credit responsibly because the risk can easily outweigh the rewards! That's my personal mantra, now how to get the whole country chanting with me? Now there is another really good question.

As for the increasing threat of the Government making things worse? I think we are witnessing a Ronald Reagan quotation come to life with all of it's ugly implications.
“Government's view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.”

Politicians can't help themselves, and just don't understand getting out of the way. We as voters keep sanctioning their mental deficiency by electing the same kind of fools every election.

Sorry for getting so long winded here, but you've made me “think” about it and you can consider my brain “wracked!”

StaticNoise said...

Thanks for the feedback. I would say the exercise was successful in that it got you thinking. It should be abundantly clear that we can't go on the way we have been. New thinking is required. Greed and profit as Adam Smith pointed out are the prime movers in a market-based system - but something has gone terribly wrong and a correction is needed.