Monday, March 7, 2011

Problematic Fundamentals

Paul Krugman's recent column puncturing the myth that education is the key to jobs put in to words something that's been bugging me for a while now, a sense that our fundamental terms of discussion on economic issues are missing the point, over and over.

First, the use of "jobs" to mean "earned income." We're used to wage employment being the primary source of sustenance for most American families, but this is pretty new, globally speaking. The move by more and more friends and acquaintances to grow at least some of their own food is striking, and I think points to a broadening sense that wage labor is not the only way to go in terms of providing for oneself. When we say "we want everyone to have a job" what we ought to be saying is "we want everyone to work such that they can sustain themselves and have time and energy for the pleasures and joy of life"

Second, the sense that money is the fundamental unit of economic measure. It is certainly the most easily quantifiable measure—maybe the only easily quantifiable measure. But in the end, it is a measure, not the thing itself. A dollar is a unit of exchange. As has been pointed out countless times, you can't eat gold. The focus on money also means we ignore non-monetized parts of the economy. There are fewer and fewer of these to find, but if you look at the heart of the economic system—the household—most of the work is unpaid in financial terms. The οἰκονόμος (the "householder," the root of "economy") is paid in kind.

The core economic question is not "how much money do we get for our work?" but "how should we spend ourselves?" because whatever we earn in cash, when we work we are spending time out of our lives. The product, whether it is fungible or not, is what we should pay attention to. Not everything needs to be exchangeable on the open market.

Finally, what Paul Krugman said: equating formal education with jobs is not a good long-term, fundamental principle. Education is good, because it provides a framework for learning about the wider communities we live within. It makes church members more deeply resonant with their churches. It makes citizens better able to be active citizens. It makes humans able to be part of the whole species. It makes Earthlings able to be part of this planet. Well, anyway, it should do all these things. And, sure, the better you can be part of the larger wholes you are part of, the more opportunities you have for productive—and paid—interactions.

But school is just the simplest way to get there, and it isn's the easiest for everyone... a friend was recently telling me how his middle-school kids are struggling with the cookie-cutter bureaucratic nonsense they are starting to really feel impinge on their deep pulls and pushes and passions in life. They are in a pretty well-off family, so I believe they will have the ability to pull through with some creativity and work. Not everyone has those resources. This is a problem, exacerbated by our insistence that the school is the key, always and for everyone.

Thanks, Paul, for inspiring me to get this off my chest.


Hystery said...

This post really speaks to me. I'm educating my children at home and I'm also helping to educate older adolescents and adults in a community college. I feel strongly that an emphasis on education as a tool for "getting a job" impoverishes our entire approach to education. Of course, I want my kids and my students to find employment that will help them toward financial stability, but I also want them to see education as an entire lifestyle enriching their lives and relationships. Skills training, while certainly useful, can only be one aspect of an education that we see an ongoing and diverse, and often occurring in unexpected times and places. Additionally, I am concerned that "work" is too narrowly defined to mean work that one does for a paycheck. Parenting, homemaking, community work, advocacy and spiritual work are also critical to the success of our communities. By focusing so narrowly on "skills training" for "meeting the needs of a changing economy" we seem to be ignoring the great need our economy and culture will have for people who can work together to create just, humane, and sustainable societies.

Joe Banks said...

Marx's analysis in _Kapital_ still buzzes in my head, particularly when I think about "value." The value you are describing, Nat, is certainly the one I'm most accustomed to, and believe is most ultimately "valuable."

But what Marx pointed out so well is that while other people are looking to exchange their time or goods for other things they value, through the medium of capital (wages), the more powerful aggregations of capital are playing the game differently. They are seeking to exchange their capital, through the medium of almost anything else, for more capital.

That shifts the game for those of us playing the game in the way you describe it.

The second thing that occured to me was after reading "The Millionaire Next Door," a facinating study of a failed marketing research study on people worth a million dollars or more. It failed because these folks never actually buy anything, they keep reinvesting in their business, their investments, whatever.

But what became clear was that these folks didn't actually EARN a lot of money, from a wage standpoint; they just figured out how to grow their wealth without being so tied to a wage. These folks usually thought outside of the "box," often didn't have a lot of school, and were willing to work hard and smart without a lot of trappings of wealth.

Both good foils against "jobs" as a holy grail ...