“Money – it don’t make me happy, but it sure does pay the bills.” – Cree Rider
America’s national relationship to money has become perverse and comical, like some sub-sub-sub-group of the Craigslist personals. You look at what people desire and laugh at how little sense it makes with observable reality, and you wonder what it really reveals about our society.
Lately, my colleagues and I are tracking the terrible proliferation of non-paid and under-paid labor in America’s Permanent Crisis Economy. Sarah Kendzior has been doggedly exposing the plight of academics, who work in a neofeudalist system while getting their degrees, and who afterward are forced to either work for poverty-level wages or leave the field to which they just dedicated their young adult life.
Monica Nixon is relentlessly fisking the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to show that not only are many more people unemployed than is officially reported, millions of jobs are being converted from well-paying full time positions into health insurance-free, unstable, poverty-level part-time jobs.
Joshua Foust was willing to face heat from his Washington DC employers for writing a piece about the unfairness of the pervasive use of unpaid interns in Washington DC, a piece illustrated even more richly in Hannah Seligson’s Washingtonian piece entitled “The Age of the Permanent Intern.”
The theme in all of these articles is the epidemic of adult-age people in America working for amounts of money that cannot pay the bills, a behavior they are expected to continue well into their late twenties and early thirties, depending on the industry.
Cross-reference this with a recent OpEd by the president of Harvard, Drew Gilpin Faust, who penned “Don’t Judge a College’s Value by Graduate’s Paycheck,” as a response to criticism that university education’s pricetag has skyrocketed even as the economy has tanked and wages have sunk to their lowest level in the post-War economic era. After comparing the situation of today’s youth to the economy she inherited as a Baby Boomer – the largest economic expansion in the history of man – she concludes, “Equating the value of education with the size of a first paycheck badly distorts broader principles and commitments essential to our society and our future.”
From every institution in the United States, there is a message broadcast on all channels to America’s educated youth that hopes to enter active economic life, ‘Dude, why are you all hung up on money? RELAAAAAAAX!”
Take a step back, take a deep breath and consider this message in the context of the rest of American life. Are you breathing?
WOW, WHAT AN AMAZING LOAD OF BULLSHIT.
First, let us revisit one of the fundamental tenets of American life, present since Alexis de Toqueville wrote Democracy in America: Money matters in America. We don’t have official royalty, and the whole place is designed around economic growth and opportunity, so we elevate our wealthy to serve as our social and cultural elite. It’s a capitalist Divine Right of Kings, if you will. This country was founded by protestant Puritans, followers of Jean Calvin’s beliefs that God smiles on those he intends to save and gives them position and wealth in this life before granting them eternal paradise. For both philosophical and practical reasons, Americans believe that, in general, if you are rich, it is because you earned it, and if you are poor, it is because you earned that, too.
For the love of Pete, we elevate the Kardashian family to fame and fortune, despite their being about as useful and attractive as a plantar’s wart. But no matter – if you are rich in America, it must be an admirable thing.
Let us take the non-famous. When you go back to your ten and twenty year reunion, your old classmates are wondering How are you doing? What are you doing for work? Where do you live? What kind of car did you drive up in? Are you in a dead-end job or are you successful, prominent and…RICH?
Sorry, I’m laughing as I write this – why even detail the importance of money in American life? It is the most obvious thing about this culture.
And that’s why the official stance of these broken, obsolete institutions is so funny. They are looking at America’s young people and honestly asking with a straight face - hey, what do you need money for, anyway? YOU SHOULD BE FULFILLED JUST TO BE WORKING HERE! YOU’RE LUCKY TO HAVE A CHANCE…
Sorry, as the kids would say, LOLOLOLOLOLOOLZZZ.
Note: NOBODY IS ASKING THIS OF THE EXECUTIVE CLASS RIGHT NOW. Did you by any chance notice this minor inconstency in the messaging? Executive compensation rates have actually increased since the “crisis” of 2008. And what is the rationale behind this?
Oh, we can’t risk losing the talent!
Heavens to Betsy, even though all the money is on fire and people are losing their jobs left and right, we couldn’t possible ask the CEO to receive less than a 10% increase this year! Why, these jobs are so, so, so special, if we asked the executives to receive the same compensation as last year, THEY MIGHT LEAVE! They might go to Belize or South Sudan and run a university there! Or Upper Mongolia could steal them away to run a healthcare company there! So, please, for our mutual future, you must realize that money is very important to these people.
But wait! No! I mean fulfillment is very important! You must be fulfilled by your potential future, not by that filthy, sensuous lucre! What did you need that money for anyhow? You’re only 28. Or 33. You have a long career ahead of you. You can get paid later! After all, we don’t have budget for interns this year. We used that money to increase executive pay at a rate five times greater than the cost of living. Because the economy is terrible right now! And we’re at all time record highs of corporate cash reserves and profits. But it’s terrible! Hey – why are you getting angry? YOU KIDS TODAY EXPECT SO MUCH!
I take it back. That stuff in Backpage and Craiglist is way less freaky.