Re: Work or Pay Systems
From: Tim Mensch (
Date: Thu, 31 Jul 2008 12:32:45 -0700 (PDT)
melanie griffin wrote:
I'm thinking it would be a good idea for those of us not yet living in
cohousing to total the hours and money we spend on caring for our houses,
apartments, and grounds, including  shopping, repairs, maintenance, and
When living in an apartment for five years, that time was, since it's only relevant to talk about how much time I spent outside of the unit. A traditional condo would likely be the same, unless one wanted to be on the HOA board. Buying things to improve my house--that falls under "fun" for me, so also wouldn't count, unless I only needed to buy things to improve the community. See, that's one place I'd donate time with no regrets--as long as I didn't need to track the hours spent to try to get credit for them. I love working on projects to improve things--it's the repetitive tasks that count as "work" for me, and that I try to avoid.

When living in a house, I didn't have enough time to keep up with the gardening, so I hired a gardener. Maintenance took some time, but usually only a few hours of sitting at home to meet the workers, during which time I could still be working at home on my day job and/or reading. And I prefer management to doing the work, so it's a job I'd rather be doing--at least when I know the parameters, and I have the authority to direct them. So why would I want to start doing the work myself now that I'm in cohousing--or worse, why would I want to pay MORE to do my share of the work than I had to pay to take care of my entire yard when I lived in a single-family home? We're talking negative economies of scale somehow?! That was the situation I was facing in my last community.
Is a person who works with computers
worth more than someone who cleans toilets? Certainly capitalism has decided
that question one way, but do we need to agree?
Is the person worth more? No. Is the skill worth more? Yes, because in part of the training involved, and because in part of the aptitude and ability. Anyone can be taught to clean toilets in minutes.

If you believe there's no value to a specialized skill, then what books do you read? Just any book that you happen to find--because the skill of the author has no value? Do you take the lowest bid from anyone who offers to have them build your house, or do you look for the contractor with positive references that verify he's skilled? Would you want some random person off the street performing an operation on your or a loved one and handling the anesthetics?

Skills have innate value, whether you like it or not, and the more you can focus your time on the areas in which you are skilled, the better off society at large is. It's true whether or not capitalism "decides" it. Capitalism is one method of determining how to reward and encourage value--and it happens to be particularly good at optimizing production in such a way that everyone benefits. Compare the living conditions (and percentages) of the poor in the US to that of the poor in China, especially before 1978, when Xiaoping stared letting in capitalistic ideas, if you don't believe me. It's simply good sense to have the people who are good at a task work on it rather than, through some form of central planning, assign folks randomly (and inefficiently) to tasks. How would your favorite author have time to write their next book if instead they were assigned to clean toilets, because after all, everyone is equal? How could we, as a country, afford to have a welfare system, if we weren't creating surplus value? Not to say we couldn't do better, but that's another discussion...

There are problems with the current implementation of capitalism in the US, but the fact is that capitalism is what enabled the creation of 99% of the wealth (and probably several more nines after that) on the planet today (see The Origin of Wealth, Beinhocker). Without it, you wouldn't have the privilege of being able to live comfortably while criticizing capitalism on a home computer, on the Internet--which also wouldn't exist in its current form. Corruption--and pathological greed--is focusing that wealth far too much to be healthy, but the existence of that wealth is a direct result of capitalism.

It may not be perfect, but every other system that's been tried has failed. Read The Soul of Capitalism by William Greider for ideas on how to help improve capitalism. A point I made in the previous email--that I could be donating expert time instead of cleaning toilets--is an example of how cohousing would actually prevent that skill from being applied in a way that would improve the world, and instead waste that expert time and energy working on a task that you could pay $15/hour to quickly dispatch. And in the latter case, you're helping someone who likely needs the work, so how is this a bad thing, exactly?

Another way to think about it: Spending an hour doing menial labor means I'm donating $15 worth of labor to the community. Spending an hour doing expert labor as a donation to a non-profit could be worth $150 to them (I've billed higher rates than that in the past, so this is not an exaggeration--and attorneys frequently bill 2-3x that amount). As has been pointed out recently, there are only so many hours in the day. So by donating my expert time where it's needed instead of cleaning a toilet, I've just created an additional $135 of value in the world and the larger community compared with spending that same hour cleaning bathrooms. By allowing everyone to focus on what they do best, you actually are creating value.

On the other hand, if an entire community wants to handle getting work done this way, far be it from me to stop them. When my previous community predominantly wanted to go pay or play, I just resolved to leave ASAP rather than block the decision. Many folks who stayed ARE happy with the decision, and more power to them. I'm just trying to speak out for the folks who, before recently, have been quiet with respect feeling there must be a better way--that joining a community shouldn't be like taking on a part-time job. There were about a dozen of us who felt that way--and a significant fraction of that dozen has left the community.

I'd like to suggest that a strong community can be built on the premise that I've outlined recently. My advice may only apply to communities in development, since it's so hard to change existing culture. But I still think it's the best idea, best being defined as the idea that keeps the most people the happiest, while taking into account a diversity of income.

Tim Mensch

Currently at Wild Sage (Boulder, CO):

Moving out! Our unit is for sale!

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