Thursday, June 16, 2011

Will Work for Money

John Michael Greer has recently written and published The Wealth of Nature, which explores and addresses the problems we're facing as a society with our money-centric focus at the expense of the natural world. He explains that wealth and money are not the same thing, and that wealth comes from something other than an accumulation of lots of zeroes following dollar signs on our bank statements.

On the New Society book forum he asks the question "what's the difference between money and wealth" to you, the reader? And for those of us who have an answer, to discuss when we came to the realization that they were different.

For me, it's a very complicated issue. I know that I've always known there was a distinct difference between a "rich" life and a life that included large sums of money. I don't know when, exactly, that I figured it out, but I can recall saying as much when I was as young as twelve (which is also, ironically, the year I knew that I wanted to be a writer "when I grew up" :).

That year was a really tough for my parents, because my family was significantly and negatively impacted by the 1970s recession. That year, my dad took a significant cut in pay, and it really hurt us - to the point that one day my mom sent me into the store with four rolls of pennies with which I was instructed to purchase a 2lb package of corn meal. I grabbed, what I thought was corn meal, but by mistake, bought flour. It was a HUGE mistake, because I spent her last $2 on the flour, and it was no longer possible for her to cook what she'd planned for dinner as the corn meal was a key ingredient (my mom, being an incredibly creative and versatile person, however, rebounded, and I had my first taste of homemade crackers ... delish!).

Christmas was rather sparse that year, but being the optimistic child I was, after we'd shared our few gifts and had a lovely breakfast, I told my family that we were rich. My father disagreed and said that we were definitely *not* rich. I countered that we were all together and that we had a nice house and that we had food, and because of those things, I felt rich.

Unfortunately, things changed as I got older, and my belief that it was possible to be rich without money was replaced with the typical American attitude that the only way to succeed in life was to have a "good" job and earn "good" money, and I worked very hard for a lot of years to do just that.

What no one ever wants to say, though, is the fact that the more money one earns, the more money one spends, and the more money one spends, the more money one needs to earn. It's a vicious cycle, and nearly everyone I know is either caught up in it now or has been at some point. I have never met anyone who completely escaped that trap.

The problem is that we never have enough, because the more time we spend working for money, the more money we need to spend paying people to do the things we could do for ourselves if we didn't have to earn so much money.

In reality, there really are not that many things that we *need* money for. The one thing that comes to mind is housing, and while there are ways to get around the need to pay for housing, for those of living here in the US, paying a mortgage or paying rent is the reality.

But the other stuff we work so hard to have aren't "necessities", and frankly, we could live without paying for them.

Like what?

Well, cars, for instance, which means we also don't have to pay for insurance or gasoline, which knocks off about $500 per month of expenses we think we "need." Yes, having a car is very convenient, and for my family, if we didn't have a car, we would be having some very different life experiences.

We have a car now, but I can say with perfect certainty, having been there, done that, that it is possible to live without a car.

We don't have to pay for food, and we don't have to depend on the grocery store. If we have the one item that we do need to pay for - housing - then it's possible to grow some substantial portion of our own food. For things we can not grow, foraging and barter are options. I posted a commentary a few days ago about the difficulty some farmers are having in finding people to help harvest the crop. Perhaps some of those farmers would be interested in trading some portion of the harvest for labor. In fact, some local farms here in my area offer a work option to their CSA members. In addition, some farms allow gleaning, which means that after the farmer has taken all of the produce he needs to sell, he will allow people to come into the field to take whatever might be left. Sometimes the vegetables and fruit are damaged or overripe or just not "perfect", but most of the time it's completely usable.

Many of the things we take for granted in our society as being "necessary" really are just luxuries that have been afforded to us by cheap energy. People lived for thousands of years in very complex societies without electricity, without refrigeration, without a Wii. The problem is that cheap energy doesn't mean "free", and we have sold our freedom, our independence, and our self-sufficiency so that we can have all of this luxury.

The irony is that we have less time to engage in really meaningful activities (because we're so busy working to pay for all of these luxuries - many of which we never have time to use) than we would if we would realize what Mr. Greer discusses in his book that money and wealth are no synonymous, and in his words, wealth in the broadest sense consists of real, nonfinancial goods and services that people can actually use in their lives.

As an engineer, Deus Ex Machina designs very complicated machinery used in the manufacturing industries. These machines must be built and tested in the facility where he works, and so we've often been able to see the machines in various stages of completion, and it's always really cool to see the machine doing what it was designed to do. Many years ago Deus Ex Machina asked Big Little Sister what he made at work to see if she understood what it was that he did. Without hesitation, she answered, "Daddy makes money."

It was a really funny moment, but also not so much, when we realized that she was right. When we boiled it all down to what it actually was, what Deus Ex Machina did for a living was 'make money' and all of the other stuff that comprised his day was to achieve that singular goal.

If it weren't for the money, how many of us would keep doing the jobs we do?

Perhaps, as we slip down this slope of resource depletion, we'll discover the answer, and if we're lucky, we'll find work that doesn't have as a final end goal the making of money, but rather that enriches our lives in ways that paper bills never can.


  1. "If it weren't for the money, how many of us would keep doing the jobs we do?"

    I tell people the only reason I do what I do is because I'm hooked on money. It's almost like a drug. YOu can live without it, but withdrawal is hard.

    I just wish I had a job I enjoyed. I didn't dream of becoming a legal secretary as a kid and was quite disappointed when I was pegged as one on a career test in 8th grade.

  2. You need the money to pay the taxes. There are economic-financial theories -which I don't agree with, but they have a point - that pretty much state that the whole rational behind money and why it has value (whether as gold or paper) is because the government accepts it as taxes. If it were not for taxes, particularly poll taxes (a tax on everyone regardless of income/means), a number of sustainable life styles would be possible.

  3. @ russell1200 - Ah, yes ... taxes. Here in Maine it's kind of like the opening scene in the movie Popeye (with Robin Williams and Shelley Duval), where the tax man accosts Popeye as he climbs up on the wharf and starts taxing him for simply being there.

    While the poll tax you mention was actually abolished nationwide by 1966, a great deal of the money we earn goes to cover taxes, and, like Popeye, here in Maine we're taxed for just about everything from the water we drink to the air we breath.

    That said, there are ways around having to pay most taxes (with the exception of the property tax, and if one wants to have a house, one will pay property tax) - even income taxes. The minimum income requirement for a married couple filing jointly is $18,700. If my husband and I made only that much each year, we'd have more than enough to pay our property tax, but we would not be required to pay a tax on our income. And if we limit our buying of consumer goods and don't have a car, we would be paying even fewer taxes.

    I guess I wasn't trying to say that money is never useful in our world (or necessary for some things, as you point out), but rather that working for money to build our bank accounts is not the same as accumulating "wealth", and that, perhaps, if we're simply to "make money", we might be wise to reevaluate our priorities.

    I think a sustainable lifestyle is possible, even with the tax burden.

  4. We do without many many things so that we don't have to work to make money....and have never regretted it for a minute...the amount of money people spend that have better than average jobs astounds me. Even when building was at its peak in 2006-07 we saved saved saved...we are the only builders in our area left standing and that is because we never borrowed and we always lived below our means. Hopefully, we have enough to outlast this economy crises....I don't see it getting better in the future. Our main concern now is property taxes and health insurance...

  5. it took me years and years to realize that the issue with cars isn't having or not having a car - it's whether you're dependent on the car. When we didn't have a car, we learned we didn't need it. Now that we have it - if things get tight, we'll ditch it. If it needs repair, and i don't have the cash, it will sit until I do (or I will sell it.) It won't be a crisis. And *that's* the freedom I was looking for.

  6. Now, you know I must disagree with the statement that a mortage or renting is a certain relity. It is not. Yes, I realize that not everybody is a carpenter like I am but everybody can save their money like I did and build a house out of pocket. Even if you have to hire someone (a professional) to help you can do it. So, yes, you are paying for it but not in a life- enslaving way. And yes, it may take a while but that instant gratification of a house being finished in 6 months is something people just need to get over.