Saturday, May 03, 2008

Paying to Work for Them

A friend recently found out that he was not offered a job he had interviewed for and dearly wanted. The job was far below his pay scale, but this didn't matter to him given the other considerations that made it eminently desirable. Trying to temper the disappointment with some humor, I said, "you should call them and tell them there's been a serious misunderstanding. You were under the impression that the salary figure was what you would pay them to work for them... that, in that sense, you had thought the low figure was a pretty good deal." He laughed.

But it got me wondering, could an economy function inversely to the current arrangement - that is, an economy in which each of us pays to do various kinds of jobs of our own choosing? People would want to pay more for the cool jobs or easy jobs or whatever their preference. I could, say, offer a job doing nothing but hanging out at the beach (at the worker's own expense, of course) for the terrific price of one million dollars per year. The most menial and degrading jobs would, on the other hand, cost you very little to do. In fact, the cost of being hired for these jobs may actually fall underneath zero and ultimately entail the employer paying you the worker to do the job.

In the case of my million-dollar job offering for a paying Beach Assessment Consultant, I, in return, could pay someone else to do a less costly, but still desirable, job for them - say $500,000 per year - and pocket the rest. Or even less. I could try to pay as little money as possible by doing more menial tasks for, say, the price of $100 per year. As I saved money over the years from payments from a package of high-end to low-end jobs, I could eventually take the savings and seek out a new employer offering a position of Rainforest Wonders Analyst at the cost to me of, say, $800,000 per year hiking in tropical rainforests and sipping local rums on lush ecolodge verandas, the skies rich with macaws and toucans.


MT said...

I think the state would then have to pay taxes to citizens or else invest each with an inheritance, either of cash or title over a job position to fill, which would represent an asset and potential source of income in this economy. Would jobs have to be accredited by the state? Could that be efficient? I doubt it. Land title or real property seems to be the asset on which our economy traditionally based. You can charge others to pass through, you can build, harvest and/or horde and sell or trade the surplus. I think we'd need to do away with the very possibility of that economy under your scheme,helmut, or else watch it rise in parallel to eventually supplant the one you had in mind. That would mean no private property. Supposedly there are gift economies and cultures that don't seem to have our concept of private property among indigenous peoples. It might be that something like what you have described is in effect in one of these places. I myself have theorized bloggily about prestige and influence together (perhaps in a way we could equate with "soft power") being the fundamental currency of society--why teaching and journalism pay less in money (because they pay more in prestige and influence). So I'm inclined to see our money-based economy as makeshift and wouldn't be surprised if there were other socially stable ways of spending it.

helmut said...

Maybe you don't necessarily need regulation - in the simple version of an economy of pay-to-work. Treat it truly as a market economy (rather than our sort of actual market economy in which the state does subsidize its favorite industries for reasons of political expediency and, less cynically, real market failures). Not that market failures and the need for regulation wouldn't occur. I just don't have the energy to think that part through further.

There are ways in which various entities pay other entities not to do things. I teach a grad seminar on international environmental agreements. Nearly all big enviro treaties since the 1980s involve payments, transfer of financial and technological assistance to low-capacity countries so that they can participate at the level of compliance with the treaty and so that they cease doing things considered harmful according to the shared norms and agreed rules of the treaty.

This pay economy is basically in a utopian vacuum. How it could work as a side development to the actually-existing economy is a very difficult question, as are most utopian approaches. But... to attempt an answer by way of a question, couldn't we view job-holdings (as in, my possession of the Beach Assessment Consultant position) as the creation of our own labor (basically, our imagination), and then a form of intellectual property to be bought and sold as long as others view it as desirable enough to pay for? We could even trade the positions, rather than hold them as revenue-earning property.

MT said...

I think there have been patents issued for "business models," and of course actually businesses are bought and sold all the time. The buyer gets the name and the business's contractual relationships with employees, suppliers etc. Unless we're talking about a coop, the employees own nothing, and why would coopers sell if not to earn a guaranteed wage? How about if we think about producing a play? The lease holder rents the playhouse from the title holder for the right to charge a production company to perform on certain days and times and/or for the right to negotiate for some portion of whatever others pay to sit and watch the performance. Some actors will perform free, supply their own costumes and get themselves trained to speak Italian, if necessary. A famous actor from Hollywood might demand a high wage...unless it's to work for a famous director of plays, in which case they might pay work for nothing. A "community theater" production may be paying nothing to actors and performing on city property for no rent, whereas performers and ticket holders may pay, with the money going to the director and/or administration, marketing, props and incidentals. So in theater production it looks like we have one social phenomenon that works with payments going any which way. But it all depends on the externals--who owns the land on which the venue stands, and who has how much of what kind of fame/prestige. Not to rebut really. Just another 2 cents I think must be germane.

Lorraine said...

It is already happening. As fewer graduate students are 'supported,' the increasingly independently wealthy (or alternatively, debt-indentured) student body ends up paying for the privilege of TA-ing and RA-ing. Unpaid internships have always been around. Now the possibility of future 'altruistic' 'avocations' are being promoted as a reason to accumulate wealth for 'retirement.' You see it in all the yuppie-oriented financial sector commercials if you watch golf on TV. While menial and degrading jobs should remain among the paid jobs, I wouldn't expect them to pay much. In a 6.7 billion person world, the 'low-end' labor market will be very glutted for the foreseeable future, ensuring a race to the bottom and pre-empting any dreams of a different world being possible. Assuming the manual labor can be automated, the paying jobs will be the 'dirty work' in the other sense. Payment will be for willingness to be a team player (which is to say a ball player), willingness to agree to non-disclosure agreements, no-compete clauses, willingness to be implanted with RFID's, whatever.