Beyond Sweat For Bread: A New Vision For Work And Money

At a recent party here in Cambridge, MA, I met a guy who wants to pay everyone around the world enough money to live on, just because. He’s an economist, and claims we have more than enough resources to support this; everyone could easily have food and shelter if we just created valid money for them to use. He and some colleagues are creating a new currency, and they’re looking into getting it supported by appropriate banks and into circulation. This is not charity: they want every single person to get a check, regardless of financial circumstance. In other words, you’d get paid because you exist in the world.

I was riveted because I’d had similar thoughts to this economist for many years. Poverty seems to stem not from insufficient resources, but from insufficient money to pay for them. I’ve often thought that if only someone could forge me a check for 10 million dollars, I’d have enough money to live comfortably in Manhattan for the rest of my life with no need to support myself. Yes, it would buck our current system, but nothing would collapse. There’d just be one more person buying a fairly nice condo and enjoying the restaurants in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

While U.S. currency used to be backed by gold, that stopped in 1971. Today, the major international currencies are backed by nothing concrete: they simply reflect a widespread understanding of their value. In Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman’s words: “The pieces of green paper have value because everyone thinks they have value.”

I’m no economist, but the observations of the economist I met made complete sense to me. We have resources. Why not open access to them through a currency widely accepted by fellow humans? Why not allow everyone around the world a basic level of comfort?

I was so taken with this conversation that I began sharing it, both in person and online. More people than I would have expected bristled — not because they doubted we have the resources, but because giving out money not tied to work just seemed wrong. “I guess I’m old-fashioned, but I believe in bread coming from sweat,” one woman said during a Facebook thread on this topic, summing up many of my conversationalists’ reservations.

So here’s the thing: I have a huge problem with the notion that bread must come from sweat. I believe in both sweat and bread; I just don’t see why they need to intertwine. Where did we develop this notion that survival and physical comfort must depend on specific kinds of work? I have so many fabulous ideas regarding how I could spend my time, but I need to nix most of them immediately because they’re just not practical — meaning, they don’t pay, or don’t pay enough.

Perhaps my all-time favorite literary character, Holden Caulfield of J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, responded like this when his sister asked him about his career goals: “…I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

Is it crazy? When considering Holden’s peers at his elite all-male boarding school, it must seem that way. Presumably, most of his classmates want to emulate their fathers’ success in pursuits like law and business: fields that, when pursued the right way, yield a substantial financial payoff. But think about what Holden wants to do. In essence, he wants to save kids’ lives and avert major accidents. Who could quarrel with that?

Some might say: “Well, Holden, if that’s what you want, maybe get your PhD in clinical psychology and work with kids who need help. The hourly fees are not half bad.” But Holden doesn’t want to sit in an office and write detailed reports about his clients to satisfy insurance companies. He wants to be outside, be active, save kids on the go. School doesn’t engage him; it seems unlikely he’d succeed in college and graduate school so he could fit his interests with his society’s expectations. Yet he’s a super-bright, sensitive guy who would probably bond with all kinds of kids if he were allowed to pursue his passion for helping them, freed from the need to get a “real” paying job.

I have similar fantasies. I spend a fair amount of time in cafés, and I’ve had the bizarre notion that I could offer my services as a sounding board for people who want to open up. I’m not talking about ongoing psychotherapy. Miserable people hang around in cafés all the time, and they could use someone to chat with right now, even if they’d never take the step of finding a long-term therapist. I could go to a café, make myself comfortable, and put up a sign that says: “Want to talk about your problems, your triumphs, your fears… anything at all… with someone outside your usual life? I’m happy to listen.”

Another rich possibility: I could hang out in cafés and ask people about their spiritual lives. “How do you define your innermost self? Do you believe it will survive in some form after you die? Do you have a sense of anything supernatural, something operating beyond natural law? Does your life have meaning and purpose, and, if so, why?” I’d put a sign up inviting people to discuss their ideas about spirituality, and then see what happens, and which topics come up. I could encourage openness, healing, and deep exploration around issues that many never get to share with anyone else.

But it’s hard to take the time for these pursuits when I need to focus my energies on making money. Some might say: apply for a grant. But grants only work out if your interests happen to match an institution’s. When you have a seemingly crazy but actually rich idea, usually, it must remain in the realm of ideas, because you lack the time or the resources to pull it off. Believing in yourself isn’t enough; you have to align with something the world thinks it wants. At bottom, this means the idea has to be a money-maker, either in the classical capitalist sense of convincing people to pay you for your services, or in the ostensibly more rarefied sense of convincing grant-givers that they want to pay you.

What if the new currency proposed by my economist acquaintance could help? I see no problem with giving everyone around the world a barebones living, freeing them to pursue the interests that grab them, regardless of practicality. As far as we know, no one in this world asked to be here, in this place that currently requires us to sweat for our bread. Existence in itself is hard work. You have to keep yourself clean and well fed, navigate complex relationships, face your own mortality, and ascribe some kind of meaning to your life so you don’t face existential despair. Slapping on a requirement to work for your bread must push some into unbearable turmoil. It squeezes enormous amounts of time away from the pursuits that could have brought them happiness.

Humans tend towards material desire and competitiveness, so I predict we’d have no problem convincing enough people to keep necessary services afloat, even if they received basic sustenance from some other source. Most people would want more than subsistence: a bigger home, the chance to indulge in expensive pursuits, whatever. And, honestly, many people thrive under the current system. They like being corporate lawyers, or neurosurgeons, or police officers, or hairdressers, or plumbers, or whatever… and they’d happily pursue these fields in order to boost their comfort level and buying power.

I’m not proposing that we turn the whole world inside out. Most things would stay exactly the same. We’d all just get a little check each year, to make sure we can survive. There would be no stigma: it wouldn’t be like welfare. We all deserve basic sustenance.

But there’s more. What if this new currency could pay some of the eccentric but passionate and hardworking souls of the world to pursue their dreams — provide them funding beyond the basic check that each human being would receive? If this economist is right and we have enough resources to provide subsistence levels of his currency to everyone in the world, I would propose a tweak: Find a way to encourage those who are truly wealthy, or even financially comfortable and happy with their jobs, to forfeit their cuts. Perhaps those who do so could be honored in a public ceremony and have their names published: some people seek recognition every bit as avidly as money, and forfeiting your cut of the new currency might become de rigueur in some circles. The freed-up funds could go towards encouraging enthusiastic, motivated souls to pursue interests that don’t normally find support.

Grants for idiosyncratic projects are so hard to secure mainly because funding is scarce. If an organization can afford to fund 8 projects and 302 people apply, the math is daunting. What if some of this new currency became “dream money”? People could be hired as “dream givers” — they could read applications and pay people based on their passion and their likelihood of following through with effective and interesting work. Perhaps this would be an arm of the government, or perhaps the people working towards making this currency a reality could hire employees as part of a private enterprise. The key would be to reward some of the people who aren’t reaping much reward right now — but who could leap into wonderful work if only they were given the chance, the confidence, and the motivation.

I believe in the dreamers of this world enough to believe that this plan could be eminently practical. If I chat with distraught people in cafés, I’m betting at least a few over the course of the year would become more productive, less abusive to others… less likely to end up needing major public funds to avert a crisis. Especially if I could get enough financial backing to go to the same cafés regularly and spend lots of time, attracting repeat chatters: people who would never set up appointments with psychotherapists, but might take the less threatening step of talking with a friendly soul many times over the course of a year.

If I had my way, there would be no money, no relationship between bread and sweat. Amazing experiences would exist around the world, and we’d all have access to them. The logistics would get sorted out somehow, and we’d all have time to explore, learn, and grow according to our talents, enthusiasms, and needs. But no one has died and made me God, so I’m playing around with what is, speculating about how to make it friendlier and more amenable to some of the people who now feel quashed, who might not dare even to consider exploring their deepest interests.

The possibility of receiving money for nothing… or for passionate effort divorced from stark financial viability… offends many on a deep, visceral level. But so many in our world receive money from sources beyond traditional paying work. People (usually but not always women) with highly paid spouses often have the freedom to pursue interests like art and community work with little regard for pay. Most children and adolescents with financially comfortable and relatively indulgent parents can do the same. And then there are those whose inherited wealth generates substantial enough income to eliminate the need for traditional jobs. All of these people live outside the system that so many tout as necessary for proper motivation, purpose, or some such.

Admittedly, some of them struggle. I show my college students a film called Born Rich, a 2003 HBO documentary about the lives of extraordinarily wealthy young heirs, directed by Jamie Johnson, whose great-grandfather cofounded the Johnson and Johnson pharmaceutical company. Some cast members, including Johnson himself, wrestled with the question of what to do with their lives, given that they had more than enough money to live lavishly for the rest of their days even if they never earned one paycheck. Today, most of them seem productive in one way or another — some in traditional, high-powered jobs in business or finance, some in more artistic areas, like Johnson himself, who made another film about his social set and has written about relevant issues.

After I show them the film, I ask my students to explore two questions: “What is work?” and “Is working necessary?” Their responses vary tremendously. Most deem some form of work necessary because they feel that humans crave a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Almost all believe, in one way or another, that work can include a huge range of activities, as long as they involve productivity. Some stress usefulness or enjoyment for people other than the “worker”: some kind of contribution to the larger world. Almost none say that work must involve pay, and most emphasize that it doesn’t.

The angst expressed by many of the young heirs in Born Rich seems linked to the worldwide engrained association of bread and sweat. It appears somehow wrong, or inherently lopsided, or something, to be in a situation where the two are unrelated. Deciding which projects or efforts to pursue feels odd because none of it is economically necessary.

Meanwhile, as I watch the film, I feel jealous as hell — not because I want fancy clothes or the ability to fork out a thousand dollar bar tab (though I must confess to pining after the cool Manhattan condos) — but because of the protagonists’ freedom to work at whatever they want. If I were in their situation, I could pick up and write about people anywhere in the world. I could plunge myself into a quirky project just for the joy of it, with no regard for payment and no guilt at the prospect of not getting paid. In other words, I could work in a true and even spiritual way, following my inner promptings and gut motivations.

I’m not sure whether the economist I met has a plan that could actually be implemented in positive ways; I am no expert on economics. I do know that large numbers suffer under our current system. Many thrive in the world as it is for most of us. The need to sweat in order to buy bread brings them structure and purpose. Others crave something different, maybe without even realizing it. This big, resource-rich earth should be able to accommodate us all. It hasn’t happened yet. Maybe it’s time for a shift, and maybe — hopefully — some kind of change is possible, if the right minds work towards making it happen.

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