On the Meaning of ‘Buying Time’

Dust in the Wind” by Kansas, a popular song from the 1970s, became my earworm this week. I’d heard it on the radio often as a kid. But this line from the lyrics never made sense to me:

“…all your money won’t another minute buy…”

Now that I’m older, however, that line makes perfect sense.

Every time I set aside the (unpaid) work I love to do in order to do wage labor I don’t want to do for the sake of earning money, a familiar resistance arises within me. It takes a lot of energy to push myself past that resistance and shift gears into “grindwork mode” so I can get the paid work done. The lyric focused my attention on the difficult truth that’s always lurking in the background of my daily awareness: when I sell my time for money, I can’t ever get that time back. It is gone forever.

That time? It is my life. Day by day, wage labor is stealing my life.

My eyes welled up with tears.

Someone Is Stealing Your Life” is the provocative title of a brilliant and eye-opening essay penned by Michael Ventura in 1990. He wrote:

“It was during the years of office work that I caught on: I got two weeks’ paid vacation per year. A year has 52 weeks…it would take me 26 years on the job to accumulate one year for myself. And I could only have that in 26 pieces, so it wouldn’t even feel like a year. In other words, no time was truly mine. My boss merely allowed me an illusion of freedom, a little space in which to catch my breath, in between the 50 weeks that I lived that he owned. My employer uses 26 years of my life for every year I get to keep. And what do I get in return for this enormous thing I am giving? What do I get in return for my life?

“A paycheck that’s as skimpy as they can get away with. If I’m lucky, some health insurance. (If I’m really lucky, the employer’s definition of “health” will include my teeth and my eyes – maybe even my mind.) And, in a truly enlightened workplace, just enough pension or “profit-sharing” to keep me sweet but not enough to make life different. And that’s it.”

That’s what “earning a living” means. It means we must sell our time – our very lives – to survive. Our culture has normalized this basic form of structural violence to such an extent that many of us don’t even identify it as what it is: a violation of the spirit. Instead, it’s typically framed as “the way things are,” or hand-waved away because “everyone has to work.” If we dare to question it, we’re often reprimanded for being “entitled,” or told that we should feel lucky to have a job at all.

Well, sure, when my choices are wage labor or eventual homelessness, I’ll go with wage labor. That doesn’t mean the wage system of allocation is fine.

It’s painful to live with the day-to-day awareness that your talents and gifts are being wasted because exercising them in service of something you believe in doesn’t generate enough money to live.

When do we get to live our own lives, I wonder, instead of the lives we get paid to live?

I was once asked: “What’s one thing you wish more people understood about what you call the fundamental injustice of earning a living?”

I answered:

“The need to “earn a living” means that people who don’t have much money lose sovereignty over their own time. They must sell their time to those who can afford to buy it. I consider that a fundamental injustice. If you can’t find paid employment, or you aren’t getting paid enough through “bread labor” to meet your basic survival needs, then you must figure out some other way to feed, clothe, and shelter yourself. This consumes a great deal of time. Even applying for benefits and proving you continue to qualify for them can be a full time job of its own; you have to prove to the agency’s satisfaction that you are looking for a job and are willing to take any job offered. Nobody cares what you actually want.

And if you want to do work that’s unpaid? Too bad. Your survival depends on your capacity to sustain economic relationships, whether with employers or with people who have resources you need. If you can’t meet your financial needs sufficiently through employment (or proving to government agencies that you’re looking for it), then you must access the resources you need to survive through your relationships (family, friends, neighbors, community groups, crowdfunding pledgers, etc.), or suffer the consequences of not doing so. This makes leisure time difficult to access for people with little money. It also creates a climate ripe for abuse, because it weakens their ability to say no. People in this position typically become quite skilled at performing emotional labor to obtain access to resources. They have to, in order to avoid food insecurity and homelessness.”

Why do we so rarely decry the cruelty and coercion built into a system for which the main motivation to accept a job is the ever-present threat of food insecurity and homelessness?

Or, as Yonatan Zunger puts it:

“When we weaken people’s ability to say “no,” we take power from them and put it in the hands of people who can demand things from them; we take wealth from them, we take time from them, we take the very energy of life from them.

“If you cannot afford a few extra days or weeks of unemployment while you look for a better job, it doesn’t matter what exists on the market; you will take the conditions you are offered. If you cannot get transportation from where you can live to where a job is, it doesn’t matter what kind of job is there; it is not available to you. If you have obligations of child care or elder care, if you have people depending on you and nobody else to do this task, then it doesn’t matter how much value you create by doing it; jobs which don’t allow you to do that are not open to you. If you do not have the opportunity to negotiate or to get any better deals, you are living in an effective monopoly, no matter how notionally “free” the market is to others. The benefits of free trade are not for you; instead, you trade for what you can get, or die. The difference in value between what you could have gotten in exchange for your labor in a free market, and what you will actually get in this unfree one, is captured entirely by those who have made the market unfree.

“…when we hear the language of free markets, it’s almost invariably to talk about their virtues, and the very real fact that most of the most important trades the average person makes are not even remotely free gets papered over. The fact that some people can walk away from a deal, while other people can’t, is covered up with words about “job markets” which hide the fact that buyers and sellers of labor aren’t having even vaguely similar conversations.”

As long as I’m in a position to enjoy my time, as I am right now, then time is the most precious thing I have. Time is true wealth of the most primal form. Money is not real wealth…but it is a claim on real wealth. All my life I’ve protested compulsory wage labor (“earning a living”) because it steals my real wealth (time) from me and corrals it into the service of economic growth.

Yet in a world without unconditional basic income, there’s no opting out. Some of us can manage to minimize our participation in wage labor, but we can’t avoid it entirely because we need money – or access to the resources it buys – in order to live. And to get that money we need in order to live, we must give our time to employers, or to whoever it is that controls the money or resources we need. That skews the balance of power greatly in their favor.

A Faustian bargain indeed.

That’s one layer of the story. Money buys our time. But the line from “Dust in the Wind” also points to an inescapable truth: when our time to die arrives, no amount of money on Earth will buy us another minute.

I’ll illustrate with an example.

In a few weeks, my mother will arrive in my city for a visit. We have a great relationship, but we don’t see each other often. She’s getting on in years, and I’d like to spend some good time with her while we’re both in good enough health to enjoy it. Because of her advanced age, we’re both well aware that any time we see each other could be the last. I’ll probably be doing wage labor during her visit. But because she’s much more financially comfortable than me, she can literally buy my time if she so chooses. I’m a self-employed freelancer, so if I didn’t need the money I could theoretically take time off from the paid labor anytime. That means if she wanted to free up more of my time to spend with her, all she’d need to do is pay enough of my bills so that I don’t have to do wage labor for the duration of her visit. The money is simply a means to an end: freeing up time for what’s most important.

For low-income people, more money can indeed bring more happiness, because it can free up time from having to do the bidding of employers or resource-holders to survive. But for those who are financially comfortable, more money does not necessarily bring more happiness. This is one of many reasons I support unconditional basic income. It gives low-income people the freedom to act on our desire to give the gift of our time, whether or not what we do with our time results in money.

While I need money to live, I don’t need financial incentives to work. In fact, I do my best work when money isn’t an issue. I want to live in a world that frees us to act on the desire to devote time to things we consider worthwhile, whether they’re paid or unpaid. I want to live in a world in which the work we do is an outgrowth of love, care, and interest rather than a function of poverty and need.

When it’s truly my time to go, no amount of money will buy me another minute on this Earth. That makes my time immensely precious. Yet money does, in fact, buy my time.

How do I hold these contradictions? How do I grapple with such paradoxical truths?

I don’t have any answers. I have only endless questions, and a desire to write.

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