They talk of the dignity of work. Bosh. The dignity is in leisure.
- Herman Melville
The year of my life I felt wealthiest, I made 8500 dollars.
When I say “made” I mean “received for free,” as I was on unemployment, so I did nothing and received a check every week anyway. Of course, that breaks down to less than two hundred dollars a week. Many people might define this as abject poverty, which is technically true, but I have to say I felt like a rich man. After all, when we envy the wealthy, it’s not their yachts and Gucci bags we covet as much as their ability to indulge whatever ridiculous impulse enters their mind. Essentially we envy their freedom; what’s wealth if not the freedom from trivial concerns and responsibilities and stresses? Or, to put it another way and to paraphrase Ben Franklin, being wealthy means having control over one’s life.
I may have taken a 75% pay cut when I went from employment to unemployment, but on the other hand, I now had freedom and time. When I worked, I had neither. As most recent college grads discover, the eight hour workday is a lot like those “FREE TRIAL MEMBERSHIPS!!” you seen on internet banner ads – not technically a lie, but there’s a lot of pretty pertinent details that they leave out. For starters, it’s not just the eight hours you spend at your desk – there’s the lunch hour, which, let’s face it, isn’t really yours (who wakes up on Saturday and thinks, “you know what I’d like to do today? Go downtown and eat a ten dollar salad while looking at the USA Today pie chart. Maybe I’ll even call up a coworker I have nothing in common with to go along and talk about her husband’s sleep apnea”?). Then there’s the commute – let’s say an hour each way – spent either biting your lip in gridlock, or crammed into the backseat of your carpool trying not to dry heave at the mingled colognes, gels and shower products of your overly groomed coworkers, or swaying on the train as you try in vain to convince yourself that you are a unique individual despite the fact that nine people in your car alone are dressed exactly like you and are likely headed to identical cubicles to shuffle figures around spreadsheets, just like you. And when you do finally make it home, after that twelve-hour round trip, you’re utterly shot. Not just physically tired but demoralized by what you’ve had to do just to make a living, so even the few hours you now have for yourself are useless. All you can do is collapse onto the sofa and watch some stupid hour-long crime drama before shuffling off to your bedroom for five or six hours of unconsciousness. Well, there’s always tomorrow, right? Oh wait, tomorrow is going to be exactly the same. Well, there’s always … death?
But then I was fired. And my god, everything changed drastically for the better. I slept ten hours a night, and looked and felt ten years younger True, I had no money, but I soon realized that aside from rent, I didn’t really need much. After all, once I stepped off the hamster wheel, I found that my formerly near-pathological compulsion to buy things pretty much disappeared. I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground with the observation that when Americans are unhappy, they buy shit, and so it was with me and probably you. After all, is it physical or existential fatigue that propels you out of your office on your hourly Starbucks runs? Are you really hungry or are you just eating that cheese danish because you hate your life? Do you really need that flat screen tv/jetski/iPad? Of course not, you idiot. But it’s weird how money burns a hole in the pocket. I think this is because before you worked (think back), you were essentially pretty happy. Master of your own time, etc. But then you traded that happiness for a job. And now that you’re unhappy, the logical move is to try and trade some of that money back for happiness. Unfortunately, the only thing you can get in exchange for money is crap. So where do you go from there? Hmm, perhaps if I had more money …
Well, no. In fact, less money (i.e., less working) is the real answer here. When I worked, I always wanted more, more, more, and since it was all just displacement, I never got even the slightest bit of satisfaction. (Could that Rolling Stones song really be an incredibly prescient analysis of late capitalism?) But now that I had escaped the crushing anomie of the 9-to-5 hamster wheel, I found that I suddenly had fewer needs – and they were rational, concrete needs that were easily filled. And what is wealth if not being able to satisfy one’s needs?
God, I felt like a rich man during that year of poverty. I could (and did) do anything I wanted to do. I answered to no one. I went out six or seven nights a week (regulars don’t pay for beers) and had more sex than every other year of my life combined. (Another huge quality of life thing that we often overlook.) I even felt better physically. In theory having money equals organic locally-grown kale and personal trainers and fine restaurants with small portions, but more often it just means eating a bunch of shit, plus dessert, and then getting a car home, and no one will tell you your body is starting to resemble a trash bag full of warm water because they don’t want to risk getting cut out of your will. Not coincidentally, the richest person I know, a half-billionaire, is a dumpy pear shaped bastard who has to wear a special boot because his gout has gotten so bad from a nonstop diet of veal and wine and cheese. Whereas when I spent thirty dollars a week on groceries, I couldn’t afford meat, sweats, or processed food, and ended up living on whole grains and farmer’s market vegetables. In no time, my office bloat had melted away and I could’ve passed for an Olympic swimmer.
I will say, however, that it’s not as easy as just quitting your job, filing for unemployment, and entering a nirvanic state of enlightened liberation. If you’ve been raised in the US, there are serious psychological hurdles. Very quickly, a sort of panic sets in, that you’re not “producing” or “contributing to society” or some such nonsense. This to me is the worst sort of hubris, to think that the world actually needs your individual contribution. Fact is, most workers are actually making the world a shittier, stupider place with their contributions.
Friends and family who watch too much television may also berate and nag you about “living off the government.” But really, who’s not a dependent in some way? What’s praised as “maturity” or “independence” in our culture is really just transferring your dependence from your parents to an employer, whose approval you must chase and whose wrath you must fear, just as when you were a child. Everyone’s suckling on the teat of an institution – if anything, I should have the moral high ground, because I compromise nothing for my check, while you have to sing for your supper.
Of course, unemployment didn’t last forever. Eventually I was faced with the reality that although I didn’t need a lot of money to support my lifestyle, I did need some money. I knew I could never work a regular job-type job again, though, not after I’d gotten a taste of freedom. So one day I sat down and thought to myself – what did I know a lot about? What was I good at? And the answer came to me like the touch of the Lord Himself – not working! I was arguably the world’s preeminent goddamn expert on not working. And like they say, if you’re the best at something – anything – you can make money at it. And believe it or not, that’s what I did. I wrote a book about it (now in bookstores everywhere) and I freelance, basically spreading the gospel of how not working is the new American Dream ™. Best of all, it’s meta! It’s clever! And it’s got street cred in spades! (You should see the faces of my girlfriends’ parents when I tell them about my book; they’d be less crestfallen if I told them I was a recruiter for al-Qaeda.) I now spend a few hours a week writing up diatribes like this one to support my debauched lifestyle of minimal consumption, and though technically it is “work,” I feel like the fact that even my most limited audiences probably feel so demoralized after reading one of my articles, their collective nosedive in productivity and motivation easily cancels out any effort I may have put into writing said article. Green people talk about reducing their carbon footprint; I like to minimize my work footprint, and I think at this point that despite the hundreds of hours I’ve spent writing on this subject, I still have a comfortably negative work footprint. Between my book and my articles, you could make an argument that a percentage point or two of our elevated unemployment rate could be attributed to my urging people to milk those checks. I don’t use this term lightly, but you could make a strong argument (and I often do, after five or six beers) that I’m a goddamn American hero. Where’s my medal?
But yeah, I have serious doubts that anyone on earth feels wealthier than me. I hate to use the cliché “rich in spirit” but let’s face it, that’s what I’ve become. I’m like a hung-over, oversexed, unemployed Buddha. If you’re a woman, I’ll even let you rub my stomach for good luck. … yes, right there. It’s great being enlightened.
OOTS on Wealth is a new series on what it means – and how much money it takes – to feel and be wealthy in America. Read previous pieces from the series here.