Editorial: Made in Rappahannock

You lose money on every unit sold, but you make it up in volume. So goes the old joke, which perhaps encapsulates what was wrong with the “old” economy – the same globalized, mass-production, industrial-scale, high-volume, scaled-up, low-margin economy that ground to a virtual standstill four years ago.

Now that this economy appears to be finally moving again, however, it is in many respects a very different economy. More and more, it resembles what’s been going on here in Rappahannock for years: low-volume, high-margin niche businesses and products.

Here, in Rappahannock, yesterday’s moonshiner is today’s microbrewer or distiller. Instead of processed food manufacturers, we have chutney and other artisanal-food makers. Rather than commodities whose primarily value is their cheapness and marketed in the vast distribution webs of Target or Wal-Mart, we have individualized pottery and other handcrafted products.

Craft businesses like these are not just another fad, appealing to people like foodies. Rather, they mark the beginnings of what economists are calling a new era of hyper-specialization. It was, after all, none other than Adam Smith, that patron saint of capitalism, who pointed out the economic efficiencies created through specialization.

Hyper-specialization is the natural evolution and next new thing. Making as much money as you can make is not necessarily the summum bonum. Entrepreneurs, like the ones here in Rappahannock County, are less motivated by dollars than by the intangible satisfactions that come from creating and building something.

And people not unlike themselves are precisely their target market: less price-sensitive and more interested in unique quality. They know that what is branded cheap is really not so cheap when you factor in all the environmental and social costs associated with its manufacture and distribution. This knowledge is part of what is being called “happiness economics.”

If your purpose in painting a picture is to sell it, the saying goes, you’ll never find a buyer. But if painting that picture makes you happy, buyers will likely pay a premium.

Walter Nicklin