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A Thoreau Of the City

IN the first issue of his newsletter, the Little Free Press, Ernest Mann recalled a Flash Gordon movie of the 1930s. The workers in a fictional city were moving around like robots. The hero tried to talk with them, but they wouldn't respond. Then he noticed that they were all wearing helmets. He removed the helmet from one, and this worker seemed to come out of a trance.

The worker explained that while they wore the helmets, they were slaves, who had to do the bidding of their masters. ``It has occurred to me that I have worn the helmet,'' Mann wrote. ``Except my helmet was in my mind.''

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For 20 years, Mann had fought his way in the business world. At first it was rough going, but then he started making money. Soon he found himself wanting the things he had seen on TV.

He was also consumed with a desire for more money. He gave no thought to how his business affected the environment or others. In business school, they taught the wisdom of charging what the market would bear. ``I didn't stop to realize that everyone else would be using that same rule on me,'' he wrote.

Finally, Mann decided to pull the plug - literally. He gave away the TV, and then he unplugged himself from the life modes it promoted.

He retired from business, sold most of what he had, and became a sort of urban Thoreau, determined to live a sane and purposeful life. ``I asked myself, `What is the highest and best use that I can put my mind, heart, and body to? What kind of work needs to be done the most?''' He decided to start a newsletter, and to try to design an economic system without the money trap that he had fallen into.

The Little Free Press is a kind of serial journal of Mann's experiments with sanity. Most people believe freedom lies in having money. To Mann, it lies in having little need for money. He buys clothes at rummage sales. He eats simple foods he gets at small local markets, to avoid the behavioral engineering of large supermarkets. He walks most places, and when he can't, he takes the bus. He and his friends share skills to cut the need for buying. Things he no longer needs he puts into a ``Free Box'' for friends to take.

Mann avoids the mass media, though he does confess to an occasional movie. (``Nobody's perfect,'' he says.)

Having withdrawn from the planned stimuli - ``programming,'' he calls it - of the commercial marketplace, Mann doesn't feel deprived. Avoiding the goads to constantly want more, he's more clearheaded about what he really needs. ``I can walk through any of the big stores and never get a desire to buy any of their stuff,'' he says.

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The incessant desire for more, Mann thinks, is the root of most social ills. Take divorce. There's no real effort to stop it, he says, because there's so much money in it. When families split up, builders sell more condos, appliance makers sell more microwaves, and so on. Lawyers thrive on domestic turmoil, not on peace.

Mann is a utopian and makes no bones about it. His solution is not state socialism, but the opposite: a ``priceless economic system'' in which everything is free. People would do the work they wanted, and they would take what they needed as his friends do from his ``free box.''

It sounds hopelessly naive. And yet, there's something worth thinking about here, which is rare in economics today. In a priceless economy there would be no reason to stir up desires through advertising, because there'd be no profit in it. Many important things would get done because most people like to produce - cabinets, for example, or garden vegetables. Buckminster Fuller once estimated that only about 10 percent of Americans are engaged in producing life's necessities anyway.

Priceless economics could hardly be more naive than the conventional belief that the economy can ``grow'' forever without eventually turning to blubber.

Mann's loyal readers reproduce the Little Free Press and leave copies in laundromats and in library books (priceless circulation). Naturally, subscriptions are free, though he does ask for postage. The address is 2714 1st Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55408.

His real name is Larry Johnson. But he is an Ernest Mann.

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