What we could do (if we wanted to)

I feel like I’ve been pretty negative lately, and I wanted to write something a little more constructive. From an economic standpoint, I think one of the big things we could do here in the US (and what people all over the world could do also) is to pay people to do useful things. In the US it would actually be pretty easy to develop a coherent program to do just that, and it would also be easy enough to keep prices from getting out of whack while we went about implementing such a plan. Because that is something macroeconomics does tell us. One of the most important contributions of Keynes was his management of the British Treasury department during World War II – most people wouldn’t think about the economics of waging war, but if they did, they might realize that a) prices (in particular wages, which are prices for various sorts of labor) are intimately caught up how one organizes people at a very large scale, and b) if you want to fight a war efficiently, you need to know how to arrange prices so that people don’t waste time bickering over whether or not the distribution of goods and services as organized by the authorities is fair or not.

Anyways, if the Federal government wanted, it could make up a list of useful activities, and then go ahead and pay people to perform them. State governments can’t do that, because they can’t print money, or issue debt certificates representing that money. The Federal government, however, can totally do that. Moreover, it really ought to, because interest rates are quite low. If they created more debt, that would push up interest rates, and banks could go back to making money by loaning it out to worthy business investments, instead of wasting time and resources competing over the all too scarce high-quality interest-bearing assets presently in existence. What follows is a list of what I would have the government invest in, work wise, if it were up to me (which it is most assuredly not).

  1. Construction. Its a pretty well established fact that infrastructure in the US is rapidly deteriorating. We could employ a lot of people fixing that infrastructure. We could even make improvements to it. Imagine what it would be like if we built high speed railways all over the country, and attached them to local public transportation systems. It would be catastrophic for the automobile industry, but that wouldn’t matter to the people working for them, because they could just get jobs building the railroads, trains, buses, roads, bridges, and so on.
  2. Organic Farmers. It should come as a surprise to no one who knows me that I would say this, as my partner is an organic farmer. What makes it really hard to be an organic farmer is partially that people don’t want to pay the prices that would make it financially sustainable to be an organic farmer in the first place. Also, good farm land is super expensive, because its basically a high quality interest bearing asset (an investment good of sorts). If the government decided to pay people to farm organically, and then also build up infrastructure to distribute organic food (grains, vegetables, meat, etc) from rural areas to urban ones, we would end up with better, tastier food, grown more sustainably. The thing is that organic farming is way more hands-on than conventional farming is nowadays, so you need more people to make it work well. But I think there are a great many people who would really like to be farmers, if there was any money in it. Being a farmer would mean spending most of your time working outside, living much closer to nature. Many people long for just such an existence. The only thing that keeps them from it is lack of funding.
  3. Culinary workers. I used to be a cook. Its hard, physically demanding work, but its kind of great, because its honest. A lot of the way food is prepared now is heavily industrialized. I think we’d all be way better off if we had more folks whose job it was to not only cook food, but to think about how best to do so. And to help everyone understand better how food is prepared, and how to make it nutritious. Meal time should not be a break in the day, it should be a centerpiece. And it could be, if we paid people to make it that way. We don’t need fancy things – we just need thoughtful people focused on doing useful work. Paying people is a great way to focus their attention.
  4. Explainers. This is an idea I’ve had for years. I think the modern world can be harrowing and intimidating and downright confusing. We ought to hire people whose job it would be to help people through stuff like going to the doctor, paying their taxes, or finding a good plumber. People whose job it would be to advocate for their clients, full time. We could cut down on all kinds of negative crap in the process: scams, exploitative pricing, and all the distrust of the outside world that comes with feeling like everyone is just out to take advantage. Also, people would be way more likely to get appropriate medical help at the proper time if they knew someone would be there to explain what was going on. Some of us have a support system of some sort, but we’re lucky. It would go a long way towards building a prosperous society if we had people to literally navigate that society for those of us perplexed by it (which is almost everyone at some point).
  5. Counselors. There is an epidemic of loneliness out in the world today. Besides having people around to explain how to get from point a to point b, it would also be super useful to just have an army of psychological counselors on hand. Anybody, any where should be able to talk through their problems at any time. For free. There should be group counselors, and individual counselors, with clean, well appointed facilities.
  6. Teachers. We already have lots of teachers, but I think we could probably use more of them. We could pay them more, too.
  7. Artists, musicians, poets, etc. In some sense, I think it would be useful not just to have more people who spend their days alone working on some craft or another, but to have those people interacting with the world around them constantly. Poets should be writing, but also performing. Artists should be constantly transforming the way the world around us looks. We should all be able to see live performances every single night of the week, for free, in perpetuity. Everywhere. I mean, if you just want a nice quiet place to relax, with minimal art, that should be available too. And we could still have television and the movies as well.

The thing about work, and getting paid for work, is that its tied in with the modern sense of self. It drives folks crazy when they see people get money for doing nothing. Conversely, people love it when they get paid to do what they want to do in the first place. If we paid people to do useful things that helped other people, society would be way better off. We would, however, have to get over that whole balanced budget, fear of debt, distrust of money thing, and just embrace capitalism as a useful way to organize ourselves.

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