For most of our history, humans have had to work in order to live. For the vast majority of that time, the work was varied, involved natural materials and was directly connected to survival. Hunting, gathering or growing food, preparing it for eating, building shelter and raising children provided stimulating challenges as well as connections to community and the environment.
In this century, work has become increasingly abstract. Even the important survival benefits of health care and retirement are disappearing for an increasingly part-time and temporary workforce.
Rather than human survival, work is now mostly designed to meet the needs of corporations to expand profits or market share; that is, to produce more new cars, sell more cigarettes and alcohol, fill more cruise ships or create even more outrageous clothes, movies or TV shows. The economy is considered to be strong as long the Gross Domestic Product (or GDP) increases steadily.
It's time more of us understood just how out of touch with important realities this economy actually is. Its basic premises are deeply flawed. This is especially true in terms of the work it rewards and the work that it totally ignores.
For example, the farmer in the midwest drives her tractor over hundreds of acres, plants expensive hybrid corn, fertilizes and sprays to control bugs and weeds, and then harvests the crop. She's done a lot of what is recognized as hard work. The economic numbers which include the cost of pesticides, fertilizers, seeds, tractors and harvesters, all contribute to the GDP. This year, however, many farmers who've done all this work will not be able to sell their crop for what it cost them to grow it. Yet, this cheap corn will stimulate profits for grain traders, corn-sweetener manufacturers, large livestock feeding operations, and on down the food chain to soda companies and burger franchises.
Meanwhile, the work of millions of folks who turn their labor and composted waste products directly into fresh food using home or community gardens, remains largely outside the current economic system. Although the GDP rises slightly with purchases of seeds and hand tools, it doesn't value that labor, or the benefits of exercise, fresh food and a positive example for children.
Many young children are now placed in day care so that their primary caretaker can get "a job." The economists add the cost of child care and the parent's wages to the GDP. In reality, costs and wages for the parent may almost cancel each other out. A car to drive to the day care facility on the way to and from work, its fuel and maintenance all boost the GDP.
In contrast, if the parent stays home to care for, and perhaps nurse a young child, the GDP doesn't move. The parent's provision of food, companionship, stimulation and guidance to a growing child is totally outside our economic system. He or she performs some of the most important work for any society, yet it adds no value to the GDP. It is not recognized as work because no money is exchanged.
The recent autoworkers' strike provides another example of the current economy's shortcomings. We sympathize with the economic pain suffered by workers and their communities, while others (especially shareholders) cared only for the large financial loses suffered by the automaker. However, it was hard for us not to cheer at the reality that tens of thousands of new cars were not being made each day workers were on strike. Which road, city or town in this country really needs more cars? Because their negative effects aren't taken into account, more automobiles are seen as positive, even when the manufacturer loses money on them.
These examples demonstrate a whole universe of values and actions that economics has chosen to exclude from consideration.
This economic system won't lead us to a sustainable future because it has gone so far beyond supplying our basic needs. Now, its basic need is for ever-more growth, and finding consumers for increasingly enormous quantities of low-cost, subsidized goods that pour off the production lines all over the world.
Without the uncounted work of literally billions of people, the global economy is completely unable to care for humans or the planet.
This Labor Day, if we want health and happiness, we should realize the severe limitations and narrow scope of "economics" as we know it and appreciate the importance of unpaid real work.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
This page and its contents are copyright © 1998 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.