We find ourselves in the strange situation of having a shortage of jobs, but no shortage of work. While the pundits and the president wonder about the job numbers and what to do about them, offering up proposals of corporate tax breaks and public projects, classrooms are over crowded, local food markets are underserved, and empty lots go untended. There is work a plenty but the problem comes in paying people to do it. We don’t have the money to pay enough teachers to make class sizes small or to pay the true cost of good produce. But somehow we find a way to pay executives half million dollar salaries and million dollar bonuses whether their companies actually perform well or not; we have money enough to make lobbying a lucrative industry and fame a career. There is an obvious disconnect between value and money, pay and performance.
I have struggled with this disconnect as I have seen friends and family unpaid and underpaid, and in my own life as I support my work writing and farming with “off-farm” jobs. My first reaction is to dream up a new system, an economy in which farming is economically viable for more people and where work that needs doing always earns a paycheck. But I have begun to wonder if the money economy is always doomed to be disconnected from real value and if we might begin to think in a different direction about our work.
If we ask what work should be, our best thinkers from Peter Maurin to St. Francis say that it is a gift to the community. Good work is giving our time and energy to the building up of the good—it is raising children and growing vegetables and schooling the unschooled. Perhaps we should stop trying to make it “pay” and follow Wendell Berry’s call in his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” to “Love the World. Work for nothing. / Take all that you have and be poor.” Perhaps we should give up on making a living from our work and simply do it because we are called to it and offer our work to our neighbors as a free, gift just as we have received freely. Sure we will still need to earn money here and there so that we can negotiate our way through the money economy, but that will not be the economy we live in—we will live in God’s economy, the economy of the gift. And maybe, as we offer our gifts others will offer us theirs and the need for the economy of false value will subside from our lives. It is with this hope that I now live and work.