Oh, let’s get rich and buy our parents homes in the south of France.
Let’s get rich and give everybody nice sweaters and teach them how to dance.
Let’s get rich and build our house on a mountain making everybody look like ants.
Way up there, you and I, you and I.
— “You and I” by Ingrid Michaelson
Since this pandemic has upset the economic applecart and challenged the actual value of work, maybe we should consider some radical new ideas about how to compensate people. So, following the inspiration of Ingrid Michaelson’s childlike lyrics above — and after being influenced by a week of workaday pleasures with a granddaughter, whose eyes are just beginning to see the magnificence of life on earth — let’s make up a utopia, where everyone lives off the generosity of each other.
Instead of stimulus checks, let’s give out gratuity checks, the catch being we can only spend them on tips and bonuses. Teachers and child-care workers, who are all notoriously underpaid, should get the biggest rewards, way more than they’re making now. And nurses should make at least as much as doctors, since sometimes the care is better than the cure. And the doctors, already used to making the big bucks, should get a nice bonus every time they save a life.
Waitresses and waiters won’t be the only ones motivated to give pleasant and personable service for the tips they receive; let’s treat plumbers the same way. Show up on time, do your job with minimal intrusions and, please, clean up after yourself — then we’ll give you a big fat tip and thank you for your service to the toiletries of our lives.
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The problem with this utopian idea, aside from its total impracticality, is that it’s based entirely on money. Whenever money rules, greed seeps in, as do inequities.
That’s a big reason why the pandemic upset the economic applecart.
The value of work isn’t measured strictly by dollars and cents. It also gives meaning to our lives. It instills in us pride in what we do and how well we do it. Good, honest labor needs to support a healthy and vibrant home life, not take away from family as it so often does.
It’s a sad reality that sometimes people must give up what’s most important in their lives to succeed at their jobs and in their careers. If you live to work (rather than work to live) I hope your job is critical to the greater good, or else you might be seeing deceiving yourself about what “the pursuit of happiness” really is.
Personally, I sympathize with those who are making their living off a modest hourly wage. The federal minimum wage is a bad subsistence-level joke, but what our representatives in Congress can’t do by legislative decree, the marketplace has forced through worker supply and demand.
When McDonald’s restaurant started offering $15 an hour amid our COVID economy, it was a real sign that we had finally reached a “living wage” threshold — and I’m all in favor. If a worker can’t make it on a decent full-time wage, the value of work is sorely depleted.
There’s also value in a strong work ethic, because work itself can be beneficial to body, mind and spirit. Being a productive member of society is a noble thing to do, whether it’s at the top rungs of the corporate ladder or as a go-getter at the bottom. Perhaps you’ve known, as I have, hard-working women and men doing the dirtiest of jobs with their heads held high while lazy people in suits exploit the common good for their own selfish gains. Economic position may look to be all-important, but honor is found in what we do and how we do it, not in how much we make off it.
America has an opportunity at this juncture to redefine work in ways that bring out our better side. Let’s let all who are willing to work benefit fairly from their labors instead of just getting by paycheck to paycheck, and — as the most practical incentive I can think of — let those who work harder benefit even more.
That doesn’t seem utopian to me. It’s just the right thing to do.
Tom McDonald is founder of the New Mexico Community News Exchange, which distributes this column statewide. He’s also editor and publisher of the Guadalupe County Communicator in Santa Rosa. He can be reached at email@example.com.