Why Work? [Repost]

In her essay entitled, “Why Work?” Dorothy L. Sayers writes a scathing critique of the West (specifically, England). Her words were written during the Second World War when all of England was experiencing what might be called drastic shortages of certain food stuffs. Sayers points out that all industrial capitalist economies are based on consumption. That is to say, there is no market for goods and services except that there are parties who wish to consume (i.e., use) these goods or services. I might attempt to go into business as a physic advertizing that I can achieve wonderful results for sufferers of the gout by treating it with leaches and blood-letting. Not have consulted the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I am fairly willing to say that there is not a strong market for this sort of thing. There are no consumers.

The central point of her critique is that consumer capitalism erodes the Christian doctrine of vocation. Why? Sayers claims that the advent of modern capitalism has produced jobs rather than vocations (“callings”). The industrial revolution provided massive increases in the efficiency of labor. By dividing labor tasks (i.e., conveyor-belt) the production of goods could be radically increased. The problem? Increased efficiency in production is negligible apart from a similar increase in demand for said goods. If there is no corresponding increase in demands then the price of the goods falls.

The result of these advances was the removal of the worker from the creation of an item/product. In other words where once the same wheelwright was responsible for the creation of a wheel from start to finish, now one person treats the wood, another steams and shapes it, another makes the spokes, another forges the iron band, another markets and another delivers it. The division of labor here can drastically increase the number of wheel produced, but at what cost to the worker?

Sayers critique is based upon a couple of presuppositions. The first is that each individual is called to a vocation and that this vocation must be morally good, creative, constructive, and provide fulfilment to that person. [By this logic, no one is called to the vocation of tele-marketer.] Second, this vocation is one of the chiefest purposes of this person’s life and therefore, in Sayers’ mind, “we live to work rather than work to live.” She has no time for, indeed she claims it is sub-Christian, to work simply for the purpose of getting a pay check.

At the time of writing this essay, massive amounts of money were being spent on the war in Europe. Sayers poses the question, will the material sacrifices made during the war endure when the war ends? If anything, the war proved that “man does not live by bread alone.” Even with very little affluence, comfort, or luxury, the British people managed to live good lives. Of course, the war itself was serving as the chief consumer at the time, and the majority of businesses (public and private) were directed at providing products useable in that market.

Of course, we know now that the Post-War Western hemisphere has plunged headlong into the type of consumption that Sayers decried in Pre-War Europe. Does capitalism then actually improve lives? Does technology actually make humanity more contented? This is, of course, difficult to gauge. However, I will concede the point to Sayers that the world would be a better place if there were more artists–those who work because they must, not simply to get paid. Of course, given that I am writing this in a coffee shop on a notebook computer with a wireless card shows that I enjoy consuming plenty of goods and services!

There are many people who work simply to get a pay check. Perhaps they need not do this. Perhaps they grow accustomed to the comfort of a certain (or at least relatively certain) amount of money coming into their checking account each month. They could do otherwise, but over time they give up on their dreams. It is, perhaps, here that Entrepreneurs can teach us (and Sayers) something. At the start, the only reason to start a company is because you believe in it (unless you are a fraud). When you’re working 60 hours-a-week for next to nothing, you are building the character and discipline that will regulate you when the profits begin. Entrepreneurs are artists. We can quibble about whether the services they provide are truly necessary/good/worthwhile (or whatever justification you might require for the consumption of a good or service), but most entrepreneurs believe in what they’re doing. And they are the financial bedrock of their communities.

It’s encouraging to know that from a Christian perspective, entrepreneur can be a virtuous vocation. Once upon a time I would have agreed with all that Sayers’ wrote. Now I see the wisdom and limitations of her words. It is, after all, the same moral compass that creates wealth both by fueling wealth-creating businesses and precluding mindless consumption of unnecessary or overly-wasteful goods and services.

In praise of normalcy [Repost]

Ours is not a culture that praises and extols the virtues of normalcy. My reason for writing on this subject is that this morning over coffee, Anna was telling me about Frederica Matthewes-Green’s article in First Things, “Against Eternal Youth.” I have not read the article (yet), but Anna has read parts to me. One paragraph was especially resonant, Matthewes-Greene writes of the fate of a young woman upon graduating with a master’s degree in flute performance. The options for such a highly-trained person are, to be certain, somewhat limited in our day and age. You can imagine the scene. The door to the employment agency swings open. A young, cheerful woman strides confidently to the counter. “I’m looking for work.” To that statement, the reply, “What training or experience do you have?” The rejoinder (with some pride), “I have a master’s degree in flute performance.” With dropped jaw, the equally over-qualified reciptionist at the agency (probably a Ph.D. in English) replies, “Great! Sam’s Club is hiring. Down the street, second turn on the left. Bonne chance!”

I know the feeling. When I first left seminary, I did not waltz into a glorious parish. I actually ended up spending a year-and-a-half doing work that barely paid the bills (not the least of which was the expense of re-paying the cost of my education plus interest). Now, another year on, I am settled and working in a position that I love and toward a cause that I believe in. It feels good.

However, look at the culture around us and observe the myriad of messages that it sends to us. Anna and I watched HGTV last night. Through some fluke, it is the only channel we get on our TV even though we don’t have cable. We were watching a show that detailed the search of a couple to find that perfect house. LIstening intermittently to the conversations between the purchasers and their realtor as well as the those uniquely contemporary “spots” where the subjects get to “share their hearts” directly with the camera, I was seriously dismayed.

“It has to have a pool.” “The garage has to be big enough to fit the Escalade, and the two Harleys, and the wave-runner.” “We really need sub-zero refrigerators to store the beer and the microwave meals we eat when we don’t have the energy to go out and have our meals prepared for us and served to us by under-paid short-order cooks at Chili’s or wherever else.”

Call me bizarre, but is this normal? Is this the life that we are supposed to be aiming for? If so, I’d like to put a request in to move to some other country. Why? It’s not because I am an anti-capitalist. I am not. I think that the free market provides the greatest chance of success to the greatest number of people and is the only system of economics that actually provides and encourages freedom. My problem is that what lingers in our contemporary culture is the mechanics of the free market stripped of its moral compass and guided by unenlightened self-interest. Can it be any other way? Capitalism bereft of a moral order that constrains and limits it, morphs into greed and into a greed that is ultimately self-destructive to the individual and to the system itself.

Why are personal bankruptcies at an all-time high? Why is it that the Congress is considering legislation to curtail the remedies of bankruptcy to individuals thereby limiting their freedom to escape crippling debt? Why is it that after the Enron, Healthsouth, and Worldcom scandals the passage of Sarbannes-Oxley has actually made it significantly more difficult for small, regional businesses to bear the increased cost of complying with new regulatory requirements. What Congress meant for good in Sarbannes-Oxley has, in reality, created a full employment act for lawyers. Lawyers cost money to businesses, they do not create money.

I don’t know what the solution is, but it might help if major corporations took seriously the only half-joking suggestion of the Wall Street Journal (made about a week ago, I think), that they ‘out-source’ their CEO positions to European and Asian executives whose cost would be lower by a factor of ten than their American counterparts.

But more than this, what is required is some constraint on our sense of entitlement. More than that, we need to learn about contentment. It is possible to be content with what you have even as you save toward buying a new house. The key here is saving rather than stretching with 100% financing, interest-only (or sub-interest) loans, or any of the other new “products” pushed by the mortgage industry.

What actually will make the change is uncertain. But some sensible teaching from America’s churches would go along way. Beyond that, I am afraid that the biggest lessons will be learned when the economy constricts and those who have stretched too far find they cannot keep the pool, the Harley’s, the wave runner, the Escalade, and the new platinum grill built into the back yard.