Column: Money Has No Smell

The Wild Hunt is exclusively supported by readers like you. No advertising. No corporate sponsors. Your support helps us pay our writers and editors, as well as cover the bills the keep the lights on. We cover the community because of your generosity. Consider making a one-time donation – or become a monthly sustainer. Every amount helps. Thank you for reading The Wild Hunt!


A few years ago, I started to make bread, almost daily. It didn’t work out. Think vile baked rocks. Then, after some time, the loaves just became baked rocks. And finally not rocks; actually pretty good loaves with complex flavor, good crumb and some were even quite the lookers when they left the oven. Some have been handsome enough that I subject my Facebook friends to my continuing series: bread porn, sexy loaves up close.

I learned to make bread partly for health reasons and partly because I married an Italian who looks at our grocery store bread with a compassionate mix of curiosity, embarrassment, and horror. Schadenfreude might work its way in there as well. I was determined to get as close to Italian loaves as possible here stateside.

While I could get a basic loaf after some practice, I committed to learning tricks from family members in Italy through observation, supplication, and coercion. Through them, I learned the right mix of flour, water, yeast, salt, and time. I even grew my own starter, which I was certain would lead to hospitalization, but it was guidance and ultimately practice that made the difference between vile baked rocks and close-enough artisanal(ish) loaves from levain.

It took a good deal of time, effort and burns to get bread-baking skills. When a friend suggested that I think about selling some bread, the answer was no, quickly and for several reasons. It’s one thing do something because you enjoy it, and quite another to have to do it to make money. More importantly, my skills aren’t worth much on the market.

To clarify, my bread making skills are meaningful to me and I try to keep them honed. I enjoy bread making, and I enjoy baking for friends and family, and even teaching it. But the truth is that no matter my effort in making a loaf of bread — no matter how much training I have or how hard I try — none of that is related to the market value of a loaf of bread.

Just some BreadPorn. Image Credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno

Just some bread porn. [Photo Credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno]

It’s a lesson in basic economic theory, and this idea has a name: the labor theory of value (LTV). This theory suggests that the value of goods is an inherent property and derived from the labor or cost exerted during the good’s creation. It’s also not true. The amount of worked you put into making a product does not guarantee that the market will pay your asking price. There’s simply just no evidence to support that assertion.

It certainly raises some ethical issues about living wages and pay. As an economic ideology to strive for — the idea that effort involved in production will commit others to pay that desired price and thereby promote egalitarian wealth distribution — is wholly unproven. Though it was espoused by famous economists like Adam Smith (yes, the capitalist), the LTV really gained traction under Karl Marx, and its utility for manifesting wealth, social stability, or even personal industry has resulted in economic disasters.

This economic approach is a devastating failure from 19th century thought (see critique 1, critique 2 if interested); even Albert Einstein got into it: “It is important to understand that even in theory the payment of the worker is not determined by the value of his product (see here).” While we can approach the LTV as promoting important ethical stances to better understand historical realities and social inequities, and while LTV’s desired outcomes continue to inform the social sciences to better appreciate their own philosophical underpinnings, support for it as economic model is barren.

This is why: markets determine the value of goods, not the other way around. We each decide if we want to sell a good or service as well as whether we want or can compete in the market. It’s just that simple. You don’t get $25 for a loaf of bread because you worked really hard when you made it. You get about six dollars for a loaf of bread because that’s about how much a good loaf costs from a good to high-end bakery.

Now, this has nothing to do with the paid-what-you’re-worth argument.That’s another whole issue. This one has to do with a notion that keeps popping up in our Pagan circles that we must rise up against market economies and bring about the downfall of modern economic practice. It’s all too common, the spectre of LTV haunts those halls as do other economic theories that have no basis for strengthening us as a community.

Sure, in the Star Trek utopia where replicators make everything and as much of it as you want for free while machines take care of our needs and chores, we might be able to get along in an anarcho-syndicalist commune of our choice and rage against the machine of economic domination. I can’t wait. I’ll replicate some popcorn so we can all watch.

In the meantime, we live in a mixed free-market economy based on pragmatism, flexibility, and dynamism. While it’s great if we want to rampage against it, I’ve yet to see that rage infuse wealth into our community to found and support the desperately-needed institutions like Pagan elder care, Pagan pastoral support, and a Pagan parochial system of education, even Pagan-centered health care. Unless our voice is backed by wealth, we are forever at the mercies of the state — or sympathetic allies — for our social infrastructure.

I worry that we zealously and needlessly distract ourselves from engaging our economy with the objective of creating practical and powerful infrastructure for ourselves.The theological virtues of anti-capitalistic anarchism may be glorious to ponder, but they won’t be happening soon. We may choose to embrace models like the LTV as promoting a functioning economy, underpinned by social anarchy or communal Elysium, but it’s a belief, not a plan.

Commiserating about the one percent, the stacked deck and evils of Wall Street is bluntly an easier road: however, “Misery loves company but she will never foot the bill.” We spend far more time talking about the evils of our economy than engaging to change it. Reforming it takes power, power takes wealth, and we don’t have that.

Let’s be blunt: we have no financial might to buttress our community from the forces that disemploy and discriminate against us. That’s where wealth comes in. It creates shield, sword, and sustenance at the individual and community levels. It’s not about greed, it’s about defense, and that is ultimately why we need Pagan banks, Pagan investment funds, and Pagan capital.

As distasteful as it may be to accept, in the modern times we live in, money is voice. That voice builds community centers as well as hires lawyers. I suggest we leverage our current economic system to our benefit.

Before I go on, let me preemptively agree that there are many social failings with our mixed-model economy. Wealth is complicated and bound to sexual, ethnic, racial inequities. Those are facts. You don’t really have to look much further than the Housing Act of 1934 and the creation of the United States Federal Housing Administration to see how institutionalized racism made it harder to be both black and wealthy.

Despite calls for U.S. gender equity, women still have collectively less wealth than men. So yes, that superhighway of wealth creation has as many on-ramps as shortcomings. Who you are dictates which ramp you can use: some are longer, some are shorter, and that’s not fair. I’m also deeply skeptical that any economic system will abolish inequalities. They are the result of human nature, not the mathematics of finance.

It’s also true that none of those on-ramps I mentioned earlier are permanently blocked, unless, of course, we block them ourselves. I suggest that our community must take a serious cue from the bank black and buy black movements. Those movements are simple: build our economic power by investing in our community. It’s worked before. Look at any number of immigrant communities in the U.S. and Canada.

Artwork Credit: Manny Tejeda-Moreno

[Image Credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno]

Community self-investment has been used to change the directions of local economies for decades. Community wealth-building is not a straightforward thing. By dedicating ourselves to the challenge of building Pagan wealth we can create a more equitable economy that is consistent with Pagan values. There’s no mystery in getting that job done. We begin with the simplest of things: starting more Pagan-owned businesses and buying from Pagan-owned businesses.

Pagan entrepreneurs — most running small businesses both for and not for profit — undergird the Pagan economic landscape. They intimately and expertly understand the financial strains and strengths of our community. We should support them. They should be the first place we look for the magical as well as the mundane, not online retailers or big box stores. They should be the first to receive our support and the first to be called for services. If they cost more, its not because of the LTV, but because our community’s economic might does not permit them to offer their goods less expensively.

The success of Pagan businesses and Pagan entrepreneurs leads to our community’s success. They have steadfastly invested in the Pagan infrastructure like our nonprofit organizations, the few community resources we have as well as the environmental and the civil rights movements. They do not fear money; they simply use money.

Money has no smell; it does not stink. It’s just a tool. We can learn from these entrepreneurs just as we learn from our teachers, priests, shamans, and sages.

Lastly, I am no fan of prosperity theology, especially those that equate material wealth with spiritual gain. Frankly, I think connecting the two can quickly become perverse, and some of our teachers fall prey to that entanglement forgetting the social ills those connections can birth.

I also think it is fair to say that our gods and ancestors wants us to succeed, and that can mean materially. They want us to abolish poverty as the social ill it is, not lionize it as a symbol of spiritual success. We have gods of commerce, gods of wealth, and gods of abundance to turn to for guidance on how to accomplish such an objective as well as administer our riches. We have pantheons that endorse our developing wealth and wisdom together. They should lead us to proudly bank Pagan and buy Pagan.

At the same time, I think we can also gift ourselves the permission to abandon our strained relationship with wealth as well as money. Greed is the scourge, not wealth. Abandoning that relationship can lead us to manifesting one of our most prominent and universal values: hospitality, which itself implies the sharing of wealth through the generous reception of guests and extravagant demonstration of welcome.

We are in need of those institutions that often get taken for granted by other religions. We can build them with our common wealth. In doing so, we highlight that wealth brings an independence, opening new opportunities for us to serve others. That is the noble goal of hospitality. Creating wealth is not a badge that you have lived selfishly, it is another opportunity to live selflessly.

 *    *    *

Author Note: Wealth and money are not interchangeable terms in the administrative and financial sciences. Wealth is the accumulation of assets the value of which is described in some currency (money). Money is one kind of asset, one way of measuring wealth and a medium of exchange; a currency. More importantly, wealth is an indicator of the ability to survive economic hardship; and, at the community level, an indicator of the ability to create robust and lasting institutions.

*   *   *
The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.