Gotham Diary:
27 October 2011

“It’s a living.” People who say this about their lines of work are usually doing pretty well. That would include having enough to set aside for retirement and so forth. Everyone’s idea of “a living” is idiosyncratic, but the range of incomes that gratify everyone’s sense of sufficiency, at least in any given place, is probably not so great that we can’t wrestle forth a concept of the “living” as a basic economic metric. As the basic economic metric.

My curious line of thinking was prompted by an entry at Felix Salmon’s blog that I won’t go into; the point that shocked me was that he, and The New Yorker‘s James Surowiecki, whose column Felix was referring to, measured the size of companies in dollars. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, I suppose, but I can’t see why you’d bother, when the far more important thing about businesses is how many people they employ — and, I quickly qualified, employ at a living wage. How many livings does a company support? This isn’t the same as “jobs” — not, especially, in today’s sharply downsizing world. There are lots of jobs out there, you’ll hear, but they don’t necessarily provide the people who take them with the wherewithal to support themselves. (Which, in the case of a full-time job, is simply slavery.) Conversely, there are, in Felix’s sense, a lot of big companies out there, but they’re pouring heaps of money into not very many pockets.

I leave the calculation of the living, and its component parts, for another day. It’s complicated, obviously. But it covers the costs of a reasonable, health-standard-informed provision of food, clothing and shelter, and it’s adjustable to meet the needs of parents and children. (It occurs to me, off the top of my head, that money not distributed to childless people would be allotted, in their name, to public purposes.) A living would also include, directly or indirectly, coverage for health care, retirement, and more general civic services such as education and public transport. We can crunch the numbers some other time, and we can be assured that earning more than a living will not be prohibited. (Earning a larger income at the expense of others’ livings, however, would be something else — as I say, it’s complicated. But it’s not unfathomable.)

What’s important now is to attach the concept of the living to environmental problems. When people voice concern about population increases, they’re usually worried about overconsumption of food and natural resources. That’s not what worries me, though. I’m afraid that we face a future in which there is nothing for a lot of people to do. Forget the question of supporting them; you can’t have a world of permanent vacationers (see WALL*E if you harbor any fantasies on that front). People need meaningful work along with livings. Well, they do now, now that we’re rightly squeamish about sitting back and letting peasants struggle with the elements. We need to have a better idea of how many livings our economies can support.

The word “economy” itself points in the direction of a livings-based policy. Wikipedia:

The term economics comes from the Ancient Greek οἰκονομία (oikonomia, “management of a household, administration”) from οἶκος (oikos, “house”) + νόμος (nomos, “custom” or “law”), hence “rules of the house(hold)”

Let’s think about it.