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Ognen Duzlevski

Senior tinkerer.

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I spent a few weeks at the beginning of August visiting my family in Macedonia (for you who don’t know, it is a small, developing country that was part of former Yugoslavia). The population of Macedonia is around 2+ million, it is tiny in land size, the average salary is in the $400-500/month range, so considered poor by our standards in the West. Yet, this small place has found a way to have free healthcare and free college education and there is abundance of locally grown food available to people everywhere they live. Before you say anything about the healthcare part, there are also private clinics where people can choose to pay for services (and these days some of those services are also covered by the government-run healthcare system).

My parents live in Skopje, the capital of the country - a city of about a million people. From their apartment they can find a dozen or so bodegas (small shops with outside stands selling fruits, vegetables etc. that are in season) within about 300-500ft walking distance. Besides these bodegas, they have a few mid-sized and large grocery stores and chain supermarkets selling more food, from fresh to processed, also within five minutes walk from home. Then, within about 1-1.5 miles walking distance (yes, they have sidewalks everywhere and everyone walks) - there is a large farmers’ market active and open EVERY DAY. You can find anything you can imagine at the market - from veggies and fruits in season to electronics, cheeses, milk, home distilled brandy, cigarettes, tobacco etc. etc.

My parents vacation in Ohrid , a tourist town of about 50,000 people, situated on the beautiful, ancient Lake Ohrid, surrounded by mountains and national parks and forests. Here too, the choices to purchase food and other items are the same and many. Bakeries line the streets, a large farmers’ market is active and open every day - local peasants (notice I do not call them farmers) bring produce, teas/herbs, baked goods etc. to the market every day. The town is surrounded by small villages where these folks grow food as part of making their living. The environment is clean and for the most part, untouched. Everyone walks and from my own observation - vast majority of people are skinny and fit. Contrast that to America where most people you see are fat, many morbidly.

What else have I observed during my visit? Well, everyone walks everywhere, that’s one. Two, things are simple - you want your oil changed in your car? There are a myriad of mechanics available and you just drive up to them and watch them do it in front of you (they will also do any quick repair in front of you and you can talk to them while they do it). Contrast that to America where we have to call ahead, make appointments, talk so service advisers, drop the car off, pick it up. Of course, forget about seeing the mechanic do any work around here. Why is this important? Because here in America all these things have basically added layers of complexity and expense to the equation - you have to pay the service advisers, these advisers need managers and of course, you have to deal with paperwork and most of the time these setups remove the mechanic from interaction with the client - an important external pressure in doing a job well. Yes, I know that we have small mechanic shops in America too but even there you do not have the access to the people doing the work anymore and the small businesses are, well, going out of business at increasing rates.

Here in America we also make a big deal out of farmers’ markets - just to start one is an effort, especially in smaller towns. Then the farmers that supply it live in an expensive place, they have taxes to pay, health insurance is exorbitant in cost, mortgages, car loans, tuitions for their children - these all add up. To be a farmer here in the States (notice I do not use the word peasant!) means Facebook accounts, PR and marketing, websites, bringing people on tours of your farm and hoping to “make it” into the world of writing books and teaching how to grow food - if you want to make any kind of decent living off the land. (I am not even getting into the cost of equipment, seeds and the myriad of other things that even a small farm needs.)

My conclusion from all this is that life here is just generally complicated and expensive (remember those layers I spoke about above?). For the most part, what I observed “back home” was that the system was leaner and more efficient (and it is nowhere near what the much prized American capitalism (or should I call it Corporatism?) touts to be). We have so much cruft here and so much procedure, we actually resemble bureaucratic communism in many ways, where someone has to decide on your right to access a service timely (I know, it is paradoxical!). For example, back home my mom could call her doctor and get in the same day and then go to one of the many local pharmacies and get a medication for next to nothing (most of them are subsidized by the government). Here in the States if you need to see your doctor quickly, well, good luck (it is even worse in small towns which are under served - around our area it takes up to six months to get in with a new GP!). At best you will get to see his nurse (don’t know about you but if I am sick - I want a doctor, no offense to the nurses) and at worst, you will have to go to the (very expensive) ER. Or, you will just have to sit home and suffer until God, pardon, the doctor can see you. This is even when you pay through your nose for health insurance. Tough luck, eh? The system seems to be made for the providers, not the consumers?

One day, while at the farmers’ market back in Macedonia and while talking to an old lady (yes, it is common for grandmas to sell things at the market!) who was selling various teas/herbs she collected in the mountains around Ohrid - it occured to me - back in Macedonia people have many, many choices when it comes to many things and services. Let’s look at food, for example. Local tomatoes, imported tomatoes, aquaponically grown tomatoes, peasant supplied organic tomatoes, cultivars from Ohrid, cultivars from Skopje, cultivars from anywhere. What this means is choice - plenty of it. Contrast that to the town we live in here in the States - we have the choice of Kroger, Food Lion and Walmart Supercenter. We do have the farmers’ market that is open once a week for whopping 4-6 hours but the prices are much higher than the store (which is OK I suppose) but worse yet, it is not immediately obvious how the food is grown and by whom. In general, the stuff sold at the grocery store is either processed junk or produce that has zero taste, even when organic. Just by sheer force of circumstance - the produce has to be picked unripe and then ripened using gas or whatever they use these days, it has to have thick skins to withstand transport, so on and so on. The consequence of all this is that taste is usually the last thing on the list. Now imagine you were born in the last 20-30 years - all you would have been exposed to is this “quasi produce” and all your taste buds know is cardboard-like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. If they were to disappear from the shelves one day - would you really miss them?

Oh yeah, Roanoke, which is about 30 minutes from where we live and is twice the size of Ohrid population wise, has less variety and choice of locations to purchase food-stuffs. How sad is that?

Bottom line, big corporations and consolidation of power and economy in the hands of the few large suppliers only mean one thing - less choice for the consumer and ultimately loss of things that the corporations are not interested in making or selling. At the very least it means changing things they offer to suit their production and supply chains. The idea of supply and demand is a misguided one in my opinion because it does not take time into the equation. How many times did I wish there was a blacksmith around or even a local market where locally made things were sold? But, all those have been phased out by with dwindling demand (supposedly) although it is more likely they were lost due to the fact that someone found a way to make something cheap somewhere else across the pond and bring it here, displacing and destroying local producers and, in the process, damaging local consumers.

Because, let’s face it - once a choice has been taken away, it is not coming back. Not only that but this becomes a part of the culture. Americans today simply do not demand quality food, for example. They do not demand open markets for food, access to their car mechanics, so on and so on. This has all been erased from the collective culture. In addition, we are also getting slowly conditioned to shoddy work, low quality products that do not last more than a year, for example, it is now normal that a new vehicle should be in the shop six months after purchase.

The gradual change of choice affects demand gradually and insidiously - the tomatoes did not go from succulent and tasty to cardboard-like and thick-skinned in a day, it took a few years to get there but it happened “on the down-low”. The intricacies of this process have been debated and deconstructed in many places and by more competent people, so I will not attempt to stray into that territory here.

What I really wanted to make a point of was this: with all its problems (and there are many!), I think Macedonians live better lives than Americans. While visiting there, I realized - most Americans live like animals (sorry to say), in daily struggles to survive, no access to quality healthcare, no access to higher education, with no real food to eat, getting ripped off left and right by businesses large and small that have created layers of complexity just so they can charge more for what could be a basic service provided by a few individuals. The small businesses are forced to play the same game in order to survive and make a living in a dog-eat-dog dehumanized world, there is really no choice on their part today. On the other side of the equation, the government is increasing taxation (at local, state and federal levels), land and dwellings are more expensive and not easy to come by, laws are getting more stringent, to own a business today there is a real need for expensive insurance in the lawsuit-happy world - all of this is putting pressure on people to survive and driving them to cut corners, be dishonest and not put in real work and effort into their jobs. Quality work is hard to find, for the most part it has turned into “hit and run” kind of situations where bare minimum of work is done for higher and higher cost to the consumer.

If there was some kind of hope that basic, bare-bones capitalism supply and demand would fix all of the above - well, they aren’t - is my practical observation.

P.S. On the topic of food - it is actually more expensive in Macedonia than it is in United States (as % of monthly consumer basket). This is because the peasants are actually expected to make a living growing food over there. This is a topic probably for a different article but bear in mind that food in America is cheap because it is NOT FOOD essentially - most of the consumer basket is processed junk or chemically-grown “food” not fit for human consumption, or, rather only fit for human consumption because agencies like USDA and FDA have said so.