For many years, Provincetown has been our favorite place for Christmas shopping. The stores are stylishly stocked, it’s never crowded, the summer prices have come down, and talking with the salespeople is always interesting. Often, the person behind the counter is the owner of the place.
Corey Robin, a political scientist at Brooklyn College, explains what it is that makes Provincetown shopping so rewarding — and why that quality is endangered — in the current issue of the New York Review of Books. His essay, “Empathy and the Economy,” describes a philosophy of economics articulated 250 years ago.
“Commerce was seen as a source of sociability, pulling solitary selves out of isolation, drawing far-flung communities into contact with each other,” writes Robin. “The multiplication of needs and the expansion of markets bring increase — not just of products but also of perspective, conversation, and views. The more developed the economy, wrote David Hume, ‘the more sociable men become.’ ”
But the social attunement that comes with commerce is a double-edged sword, says Robin. “It can be a cause of elevation, whereby we address the needs of others in a spirit of cooperation, mutuality, and collective labor,” he writes. “It can also be a source of misery.” In Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776), the source of misery is the transition from a barter economy to a money economy, in which the goal is no longer to acquire the goods and services one needs but to amass the largest possible fortune and the power that comes with enormous wealth.
In recent decades, the misery has come from financialization, that is, as sociologist Ruth Milkman puts it, “the economy switching from producing things and offering services to companies profiting from financial manipulations.” Examples of the disastrous effects of financialization abound: everything from the implosion of Toys “R” Us to the subprime mortgage meltdown of 2008. Not to mention private-equity companies like Alden Global Capital and GateHouse Media squeezing hundreds of newspapers to death.
The effects of financialization on housing costs and the resulting economic and human suffering have been especially disturbing.
“Housing and real estate markets worldwide have been transformed by global capital markets and financial excess,” wrote Leilani Farha, the United Nations special rapporteur on housing, in a 2017 report. “The financialization of housing … occurs when housing is treated as a commodity — a vehicle for wealth and investment — rather than a social good.”
The ballooning cost of real estate and the loss of places where workers can live make us worry about the future of our local main streets. Who can afford to rent or buy space for a store? How many hours can exhausted shopkeepers put in without workers and apprentices to share the burden and stick around to create new opportunities?
While we wait for more enlightened leadership and financial regulations that aid and abet a healthier economy, we’re going shopping on Commercial Street.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article, published in print on Dec. 1, 2022, misspelled the name of Corey Robin, the author of “Empathy and the Economy” in the New York Review of Books.