I’ve been thinking a lot about money lately.
I really kind of hate thinking about money. I’m not good at it, there’s a lot about economics that I just don’t understand and, frankly, the entire idea of money fucks with my head. Think about it; money and everything about it is an ENTIRELY MADE UP CONCEPT. Everything about how we’ve decided to order money and monetary value is essentially pulled out of our collective asses. Sure, you can argue that this thing – say, a computer – is worth more than that thing – say, a cucumber – because of engineering and assembly and materials costs, blah, blah, blah, but someone explain to me why, say, a diamond is worth more than, say, a garnet. Someone explain to me why a science teacher should be paid more than an art teacher (or why a man should be paid more than a woman) or why we think that some professions “deserve” more money than others. Seriously; given the choice between a bank CEO and my garbage guy, I think my garbage guy should be getting the cushy salary.
So, I posted this article on facebook the other day, and it started a conversation about whether or not we can even begin to upend the way we think about money and society. At one point, a friend asked this:
“What would you do if your were guaranteed that your needs for food, clothing, shelter, and education would be covered?”
I keep hearing people tell me that there’s no way that this model would work; that people require motivation – and in this stage of our evolution, that motivation is largely economic and competitive – in order to actually DO anything. Without some sort of competitive motivation, people keep telling me, we’d just sit around mooching off the system.
I wonder if that’s really true, though. That may be the case now, and for some people, but not for everyone.
Take ME, for example. I WANT to be a teacher, despite the shitty pay (and no exaggeration; it’s really bad, especially in the environments – small charter schools – where I do best) and the crappy working conditions and the utter contempt that our society seems to have for teachers lately. I LOVE teaching, and it’s what I WANT to do, and I do it with little consideration for how I’m monetarily compensated for it.
Now, if my husband weren’t an engineer who makes decent money, I wouldn’t – I couldn’t – BE a teacher because there’s no way I could afford to support my family on a teaching salary. If my husband were to die tomorrow (and we didn’t have life insurance), I would have to consider other ways to make a living; my teaching salary would be insufficient to maintain our house and to send my kids to college (both things that I consider essential to maintaining our current standard of living). Failing finding a job that could meet my current financial needs, I’d have to adjust my standard of living “downward;” certainly to a different living arrangement, and likely to adjusted expectations about what kind of support my girls could expect from me as they begin their own lives independent of our family as a unit.
How many people get that freedom, though? I’m going to argue that precious few do, and here’s were I make the point that my husband didn’t feel he had that freedom; he became an engineer because he saw it as more fiscally lucrative than doing what he REALLY wanted to do, which was become an architect or a toy designer. Working, as I do, with high school students, I’m constantly exposed to kids who are making choices about their continuing education based almost solely on the expected financial return of certain career choices. My own daughter summed it up today, in fact, while we were out walking. “I’m going to go to college eventually, probably for 7 years, and I’m going to come out with a pile of debt and no guarantee of a job to pay down that debt (and probably doing a job that I don’t really love, anyway).” I hear people discourage people ALL THE TIME with lines like “what kind of JOB are you going to get with an ART/English/Philosophy degree?!” I’ve heard freshmen in my writing program tell me that they’re in their major because they’re more confident about job and money prospects with this degree than they would be with a degree that would lead to a career that would make them “happy, but poor.”
So, here’s my question. Have we come yet to a stage in our evolution – whether as a species writ large or as a culture in the U.S. (or elsewhere; Holland, for example, or Canada, where some places are also flirting with this idea of basic minimum income for everyone) where we’re ready to start ensuring a floor through which no one can fall and giving people the opportunity to find the work that they REALLY WANT to do? Do you think these experiments are going to work, or are they going to collapse on themselves?