Many years ago, I was struck by the ambition of a character in James Clavell’s “Noble House”. That ambition was to have “drop dead money”. To explain this, the idea was to have sufficient money that, when asked to do something, you had the freedom to say “drop dead”. This is rather similar to the formula adopted by a friend in the recovery community about 10 years ago, who had a problem saying “no” when asked to do something – she was a “people pleaser”, and had a fragile sense of self-worth which was bolstered by being able to please other people, who would then like her. In recovery, she realised that rather than pleasing people, she was giving them licence to exploit her. Her standard answer to “Will you do this for me?” became “No, fuck off”. Over time, she has been able to relax that somewhat, but I suspect it still lurks at the edge of her thinking.
I am currently in the happy position of being able to say “drop dead” to anyone who asks me to do something, though I would be unlikely to be that forthright, far less to say “fuck off”. I can afford to be polite to people almost all the time – but I do reserve the possibility of saying something like that to anyone who won’t take no for an answer, particularly if that’s accompanied by any threat. In fact, I adopted the position of wanting “drop dead money” for around nine years, during which I was (due to PTSD) terrified of doing the job I was in; I conceived that I needed a really major influx of funds, at which point I could stop doing the job. I also conceived that there was nothing else I could sensibly do to make that money than stick with what scared me witless.
As it turned out, I didn’t make the huge windfall. In fact, I lost pretty much everything which I’d built up over the years – but I found, having hit rock bottom financially, that actually I didn’t need nearly the amount I’d envisaged, and in any event trying to get that via practising law was something which would harm my health to an extent entirely disproportionate to the benefit of a large degree of financial freedom. Scared people make bad decisions, and scared people who self-medicate with alcohol make even worse decisions, and I therefore lost nearly everything as a result of not telling some clients to drop dead. Which, in hindsight, I should have done.
Circumstances have now arranged themselves without my having to make a “killing” on some contingency legal matter; I haven’t got the amount I envisaged 20 years ago, but I have enough to make it possible to refuse any action which people want me to do for them, dangling the prospect of money in front of me. Partly that’s because the government still maintains a safety-net for those who are disabled and an old-age pension system (into which I paid a lot of money for a considerable number of years), partly it’s because I made one spectacularly good decision in buying a property many years ago, partly it’s because my wife and myself have inherited from our parents. The net effect is that neither of us needs to work in order to live, albeit fairly modestly. I do work at a couple of part time jobs, as well as being primary carer for my wife, but I can refuse any work without fear of penury and starvation. Yes, I feel a certain amount of guilt at not following Matt. 19 (which would not be a concern if I didn’t seek to follow Jesus), but I am liberated from the tyranny of making money, and enabled to spend a large slice of my time helping others and a smaller, but healthy, slice of my income on charity. And I regard myself as holding the bulk of what we are living on in trust for my own children; just as inheritance saved us, I feel I should as much as possible pass it on. I think it possible that that might be what Jesus was getting at; not being a slave to ones wealth.
The vast majority of people I know, and particularly those significantly younger than me (a member of the much maligned baby boomer generation) don’t experience this kind of freedom. Neoliberal economics says that they are all free agents, able to contract to work or not depending on whether the terms of employment are acceptable to them. Neoliberal economists actually regard unemployment as being a choice people make when wages are too low to interest them in working (even during recessions), a claim I consider laughably stupid. Of course it isn’t a “choice”. Statistics show that the vast majority of people in most of the developed countries of the world (including, in particular, the UK and the USA) are only one or two pay cheques from financial ruin. Those in that position cannot afford to bargain for a job unless the safety-net of unemployment or other benefits is generous (and it isn’t generous in the UK, at least not these days, and is paltry in the USA).
There is no level playing field for bargaining, because the person seeking the job is desperate, and the employer is not. (Indeed, some economists in the USA at the moment are complaining that the unemployment rate is too low, and wages are going up as a result. They fear the awful spectre of inflation – against the background that wages in real terms have been static or dropping for the last 20 years or more.)
In addition, the job seeker is terrified, and as in my case, terrified people make bad choices and can’t be regarded as “rational agents”. Very few people would (or could afford to) “choose” to be unemployed before they reach pensionable age, and increasingly not even then, as pension returns diminish. Unless, of course, they happened to have “drop dead money”…
For those significantly younger than me, things are made worse by the fact that young people are told they need qualifications in order to get a job. However, higher education is not (as it was in my day) free, but saddles them with a mountain of debt to start them out in life. Having debt just ramps up the fear of financial ruin. Instead of having “drop dead money”, they have debt. They can’t afford to make bargains the way the “free market” enthusiasts say happens. I do note with interest that when people arrange for migrant workers to be permanently in debt, and thus desperate, it tends to be called “debt slavery”.
Thus, the jobs on offer tend to be low wage, often with no security (as in the “gig economy”), and are very often inimical to health in and of themselves, creating levels of stress just as a result of the job conditions (constant monitoring, frequent raising of targets and limited or no rest periods, for example) which destroy psychologies. Only the adrenaline addict can be comfortable in such jobs (and, as an admission, my first and dearest addiction was adrenaline, but eventually a high-stress job and intervening circumstances demolished my tolerance, to the point of my being, as far as I can tell, allergic to adrenaline – otherwise diagnosed as a Generalised Anxiety Disorder).
I suppose there is reason to hope that economics will soon come to the conclusion that, at least under governments affected by neoliberal ideologies, there are no free markets (I’ve written previously in various places about the lack of real freedom in consumer markets). After all, the “gig economy” seems to have spread to university lecturers these days, and I read recently that the long term unemployment rate was highest not for liberal arts degrees, but for those with business degrees… This might just mean that those writing with authority about economics will soon be people who actually know how unfree labour markets are…