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We don’t work for the money

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In response to my last post, commenter Mike had a few objections to the basic idea of working for the money:

Money is a place holder, it represents something else, namely your life.

There’s more to that, as I’ll explain below.

Mike continues:

You go to work and give up your freedom, trade your liberty, and do as you’re told in exchange for a wage. This wage is the value that you and your employer agree is closest to the value of the time you’ve spent at work, and your overall productivity.

The problem is: Life is beyond value. You can trade your life for money, but the reverse doesn’t work. You cannot trade money for more life.

Actually, money is a placeholder for everything. That’s what makes it money. Our economy works because we produce valuable goods and services and then we trade them with each other. But it would be hard to trade directly because we’d need to find people who produce something we want and want something we produce.

Personally, I’m pretty good at writing computer programs, and there are people that need computer programs, but most of them don’t have anything I want. Oh the other hand, people who have things I want — grocery stores, restaurants, appliance dealers, doctors, auto repair shops — don’t need me to program their computers. If I had to live by the barter system, I’d have trouble finding trading partners.

Money solves the problem of finding partners by allowing us to separate the buying and selling aspects of our trades. I can now sell something of value to people who don’t have anything I want, because they can give me money which I can use later to buy things I want from people who don’t need what I have to sell.

We talk about working for the money, and we measure our labor by how much money we earn, but the money is only an intermediate step. We work for the things that improve our lives. What could be better than that?

Scott Stein left a comment that gave a direct counterexample:

…in a real sense money does buy more time, more actual years, evidenced by the increase in average life span made possible by advanced medicine, made possible by wealth, made possible by productivity and the work people do in a society.

When you take an antibiotic that cures you of something that likely would have killed you a hundred years ago, it is work — your own that paid for the pill and the work of others in society, an overall work ethic and wealth that created the advances — that made your life being longer possible. People survive illnesses and injuries and surgeries they more often died from just a few decades ago. Those extra years are many more minutes added to lives, real minutes.

It’s not just about the time, either. Quality of life matters too. Consider that until fairly recently, homemaking was a full-time job. The woman of the house would spend all her time cleaning, cooking, washing clothes, and caring for the children. Now, just off the top of my head, look at all the ways our modern economy has changed housework:

  • Indoor plumbing to simplify the tasks of getting clean water and disposing of dirty water.
  • Non-stick surfaces on pots and pans to simplify cleaning.
  • Dishwashers to reduce the labor of cleaning dishes, silverware, glasses, and cooking implements.
  • Clothes washers and dryers and modern detergents to automate and simplify the laundering process.
  • All the advanced modern fabrics that make clothes easier to clean.
  • Refregeration to reduce the need to continually obtain fresh food from the market.
  • Cars that can carry large amounts of groceries to fill the refrigerators.
  • Indoor air filtration to reduce dust build-up.
  • Advances in materials science that provide easy-to-clean surfaces.
  • Vacuum cleaners and portable carpet cleaners.
  • Television and mass-produced toys to occupy the children.
  • Laundries and restaurants to which homemakers can outsource tasks.

All of these advances are available to any household that can pay for them, and most households buy all of these things as soon as they can afford them. Thus, by making housework take less time, all this technology has given women more time to do other things. If that’s not using money to buy life, it’s damned close.

We may not like working for the money, but we do it anyway, because we like spending the money to improve our lives.

Mark Draughn has been blogging since 2002 at Windypundit, where he rants about legal issues, national politics, economics, and culture. Mark was born and raised in Chicago, which is also where he went to school, works, and lives with his wife and three cats.
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3 Responses to “We don’t work for the money”

  1. @ Mark

    If money is the placeholder for everything, why can’t you buy love, peace, or more life?

    There is a reason the song tells us that “the best things in life are free”. The best things in life are the things so valuable that there is no amount of money in the world capable of purchasing them.

    You only “buy” love from another person by spending your life with them. You only “buy” peace by spending your life pursuing it. Patriots buy freedom with their lives, not their checkbooks. Do you think OJ has been happy ever since he “bought” his freedom after the murder of his ex?

    Now, the question for the individual, as I see it, is this:

    “Is your life more improved by the things you can buy with the money you earn at your job, or is it more improved by the things you cannot buy with a wage?”

    Seriously, do you think these things that you listed make a person happy? Do you think housewives are any more “happy” with their lives made easier by modern appliances? Or have new problems, new unhappinesses, risen up to take the place of hauling water and washing clothes by hand?

    I personally believe that there is a very profound kind of peace that comes with doing repetitive, manual labor. Maybe this explains the continuing popularity of gardening as a recreational hobby?

    What would make me happier? Spending time with my kid, out working in our little garden together, or sending her off to be cared for by another person while I go to work to buy the food that we’d have raised together?

    Obviously, spending my time, my life, with my child. Even though we’re doing something which doesn’t make good fiscal sense (I can earn a lot more money at work, and buy a lot more food with it, than I can get from our garden), it makes perfect sense from a stance where money isn’t the most valuable thing on Earth, but our lives are.

    Just my two cents.

    Do you see my point, or am I just rambling here?

  2. Mike, you got me with that first question. I should have said that money is a placeholder for all economic goods. That’s what I meant. Even I know you can’t buy love.

    As for OJ, I’m pretty sure he’s happier now than he would be in jail. I don’t know of anybody who’d rather be in jail than out in the world.

    You ask, “Is your life more improved by the things you can buy with the money you earn at your job, or is it more improved by the things you cannot buy with a wage?”

    I think most of us want a mixture of both. Personally, I like spending time with my wife. But I also like spending time with my wife at the movies, or eating a nice dinner, or watching a new DVD we’ve been waiting for.

    And yes, I do think that housewives are happier with their lives made easier by modern appliances. Here’s why: Housewives keep buying modern appliances.

    If they weren’t getting something out of it, why would they continue? The only other explanations are that they buy appliances because their happiness is unimportant to them, or they are behaving irrationally. I’m not comfortable with either of those options.

    I think you and I are probably talking talking past each other a bit, perhaps because we are approaching the subject from different directions. I’m talking about some of the economic issues with an eye toward policy, and I think you are talking more about the personal decision making process.

    With that in mind, let me be clear about one thing: If you’re saying that YOU prefer to work less and spend more time with your family, I support and respect your right to make that decision.

    No one knows what makes you happy better than you do, and since you will reap all the benefits or suffer all the consequences, no one is more motivated than you to make the right decision. Thus, no one is in a better position to make that decision than you.

    On the other hand, I feel the same way about people who have time-consuming careers that take them away from their families. It’s their life, they probably know more about it than you or I do.

  3. @ Mark

    On a side note…you said “No one knows what makes you happy better than you do”. If you were just talking about Mike okay. But if that was a universal “you” then I beg to differ. I know a few girls ’round the way that know EXACTLY what makes me happy.

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