Have we lost touch with the reality of making ends meet?

I saw a headline float past me recently. I vaguely remember something similar to "Can a gig economy survive with minimum wage?" It flew past as I flicked my screen in a different direction and all I caught was that question, begging me to answer it. Is a “gig economy” really any different than what we as humans have done in the past? Or is it just a buzz word that we’re tossing around because the employment situation looks grim and there’s technology to help facilitate the process?

What does minimum wage even mean to all the parties involved in negotiating it? It certainly means different things to each person. For some it's how they feed themselves, hand-to-mouth and barely squeaking by each month. For others, it's a baseline for what labor costs their company.

Is minimum wage a concrete enough construct? Considering how it means different things to each person involved in paying and earning a minimum wage, it is divorced from what it entails. It is so abstracted from anything in reality that it’s easy for businesses and governments to look at balance sheets and say, "Oh, that sounds like a great price to pay for labor." Additionally, a minimum wage means nothing without knowing what hours someone is going to have or if one will continue to have a job. In a depressed economy, a minimum wage doesn’t help because no one will be employing enough people to make difference. Minimum wage removes the connection between businesses, labor, wages and needs.

What really matters to anyone as far as living goes? If one thinks about it a little bit, what matters is necessities and whatever one needs to enjoy life -- nourishment for mind and body, a roof over one’s head, clothes to wear, a method of transportation, and a few other items for entertainment and causes. We can attach a monetary value to that, but it lacks the visceral effect of saying I need 730 eggs per year for breakfast for each person eating at my table everyday. Saying one needs to be paid $30K/year is very different from listing out each and every item one needs to live each day and the changes one wants to contribute towards in their community and world at large.

Money became great because it abstracted value apart from what we valued and let us transfer that value to more centralized hubs consisting of banks and corporations. It let us create our gigantic systems of farming and distribution centers and large investments in infrastructure. It lets us get around the problem of needing mediation for brokering deals between many people.

How does one pay for land or even begin to understand the concept of rent without the concept of money? How does one run an apartment complex when all one deals in is services and goods? One person can’t possibly require all the services provided by an entire apartment complex in one month (though you might live like royalty if the mix was just right). One has to become an intermediary in a larger network of people and take an active role in the market. If not, the amount of additional labor to manage bartering and redistributing 30 chicken breasts and 2 dozen eggs per month for each unit might be unmanageable (going by June 2016 prices in the Pearl district of Portland, OR).

Nobody could store any of these items away unless they were nonperishable goods (and a chicken isn’t, unless it’s still alive — and even then it has a lifespan). The game becomes about velocity -- how fast can one get what one has to someone else who needs it in exchange for one’s needs or wants. No hoarding 200,000 organic chicken breasts in one’s bank account for tens of years (approximately $1M worth of food).

What does this this mean for our economy as we know it? Our current system of free market capitalism gives us the miraculous computer on which I write this, but how could that have happened outside of our existing system of currency and building capital? What does it mean for those of us who want to explore space and the intense amount of capital it requires? It means for the large issues that surround us, we need capitalism or at least certain forms of the principles currently in operation in some form of another. On the other hand, it also requires us to balance what we’re doing to the Earth and each other in the process of making everything we do.

Bartering is fantastic in how it realizes the value of what we do by tying directly to the things we need to live and want to have. Currency is fantastic in how efficiently it transfers abstracted value. Capitalism is fantastic in how it allows wealth to be pooled to create fantastic large scale (or super small scale) things we’ve never seen before. A free market is perfect for allowing large numbers of people using a currency to agree on supposedly equitable prices.

However, we are imperfect and how we wield things like capitalism, currency, and regulations around a free market rarely ever benefit all people. Capitalism and currency are riddled with a colonial mindset — even if it is just an inscrutable and inherited kind of mindset. Like a ghost of ages past, it lingers on, haunting us.

Capitalism also tends to be extractive in nature. We charge for basic necessities, ensuring those who cannot make a living wage do not live. We find ways, like Amazon, to extract money out of large swaths of people in new ways to pool it to do “our” bidding. The word “our” is rarely “us” writ large. It represents those who have the redistributed wealth.

This leaves us in an interesting place. A crossroads of sorts. How do we proceed? There’s a trail were on and we know where it goes. There’s no turning back, but we don’t want to continue down it. Either we stop, or we make a new path through the wilderness we’ve avoided for so long.

  1. Heesun Wee. Almost 90% of Americans don’t know what ‘gig economy’ is. CNBC. 19 May 2016. <Accessed from http://www.cnbc.com/2016/05/18/almost-90-percent-of-americans-dont-know-what-gig-economy-is.html>
  2. “Gig Economy Reduces Lower Quality Entrepreneurial Activity, Study Shows” NPR. 24 May 2016. <Accessed from http://www.npr.org/2016/05/24/479274199/gig-economy-reduces-lower-quality-entrepreneurial-activity-study-shows>
  3. Katy Steinmetz. Exclusive: See How Big the Gig Economy Really Is. Time. 6 January 2016. <Accessed from http://time.com/4169532/sharing-economy-poll/>
  4. Rick Wartzman. Working in the Gig Economy Is Both Desirable and Detestable. Fortune. 27 April 2016. <Accessed from http://fortune.com/2016/04/27/uber-gig-economy/>
  5. Joel Kotkin. A $15 Minimum Wage Is A Booby Prize For American Workers. Forbes. 5 April 2016. <Accessed from http://www.forbes.com/sites/joelkotkin/2016/04/05/a-15-minimum-wage-is-a-booby-prize-for-american-workers/>