I’m starting to suspect that the proper way to think about the the economics of production is not in terms of the exchange of one’s labor for wages, but rather the exchange of one’s time.
We labor for a lot of things, paid and unpaid. In fact, if we were secure in our circumstances, many of us would continue to labor anyway - we would just direct this labor towards different ends. What we give up when we enter into an exchange of labor for wages is not so much the labor (which we are likely to do in some shape or form anyway), but rather the direction of that labor. Since this redirection does not, in general, change the things we would rather be doing, but rather deprive us of time in which we can do them, what we have fundamentally done is exchange some amount of our time for wages.
In this sense, all capitalist production is a form of mining.
If you’re resource constrained, this isn’t necessarily a bad deal. Often the things we’d rather be laboring on require resources themselves, so sitting around with a lot of time in which to labor but no resources to work on doesn’t do us any good. Moreover, if we’re starving, or sick, or lack shelter, or live in an unsafe environment, then keeping body and soul together will obviously trump our other desires. Exchanging some of our time for wages, which can then be used to procure food, health care, shelter, safety, and resources for other projects isn’t a bad idea.
But at some point the exchange becomes a raw deal. We may be getting more wages, but we no longer have enough time in which to direct them at the labor we desire.
I think it’s possible to work towards a sense of what this break-even point is by asking yourself what you would do if someone just gave you some amount of money every year. Clearly, at low levels of income you’d be scrambling to keep yourself fed, or worried what would happen if you accidentally injured yourself. But at some point things begin to smooth out. You might not have a lot, but you can survive. You maybe even have a little you can apply towards the things you want to do. Maybe you can’t afford everything you need right now, but you make enough that you can save up what you’d need in a reasonable amount of time. (Moreover, with extra time, you might also figure out ways to do what you want with fewer resources.)
That’s your break even point. If you’re making more than this, you’re almost certainly time-constrained, rather than wage-constrained, in your ambitions. Basically, you’re working too much.
(I’m not going to speculate as to what this break-even point is generally, but will say that thinking about it in the context of my own life has revealed that it’s remarkably low, especially if you assume that things like health insurance are not financial worries. Which is, frankly, not a bad assumption in a scenario where we’re talking about someone just giving you thousands of dollars a year, no strings attached.)
The really sucky thing about our society is that we provide no practical opportunities for people to pursue this route. There are no good-paying jobs that provide an option to trade back wages for time. No one who’s making $20,000/year gets the opportunity to choose between getting a raise to $25,000/year or staying at $20,000/year and reducing their work week to four days. And certainly nobody comes along and just offers you $20,000/year for just being you.
Our social conventions around work are structured in a way that conspires to keep us time-constrained.
If you are reading this, you will almost certainly never realize the labors you desire. You will instead attempt to substitute your desires with knick-knacks and gadgets and movies that give the impression of being things you want to labor towards, but are not. Because they are fundamentally someone else’s things.
You will die without ever having realized who you could be.
You will not do this because you lack the wages you require.
You will instead do this because you do not have the time.
…And this is almost certainly by design.