Sunday, June 11, 2006


Direct Deposit Considered Harmful Part 3

Let's wrap this one up!

A hunter who kills a wooly mammoth finds himself with currency. When we (unfortunately) consider currency as a store of value, what matters is interest minus inflation. We have been conditioned to assume positive interest rates with money. So, we're generally satisfied if interest outpaces inflation. However, the hunter notices his mammoth has a high negative interest rate (the mammoth is rapidly decomposing). So, the effect is similar to what would happen in a high inflation environment. His best bet is to gift the mammoth meat before the shelf life of his currency runs out.

Since negative interest rates appear to be good for a community, a little educated guesswork suggests that the Flinstones had it good. Instead of hording money, people can earn social recognition. Think of the social recognition earned by the protagonists in the movies Godfather II (Vito Corleone), Groundhog Day (Phil Connors) and Rushmore (Max Fisher) when they realize that generosity isn't a bad business. It's worth rewatching Godfather II just to see the transaction between Vito and the landlord develop from one which required money to help the evicted widow to a transaction that occurs solely through community reputation.

However, the promise of interest on money creates an incentive for selfishness. School (Rushmore) further conditions us to be selfish and government approved media's main function is to exploit that conditioned selfishness. It's no surprise that we tend to forget about the value of the ancestral gift economy.

In seventh grade, I was fortunate to study the book of Matthew with Jim Killen, the pastor of a small Methodist church. A few days ago, I smiled as I read this from the church website:
I remember the planning meetings we had when we thought through the unique character of the church we were organizing. We decided that we wanted it to be a church that would live in service to the world, not just one that would live to oil its own machinery. We wanted it to be like a small church in which everyone could feel that his or her contributions were important.
One of the parables we read and talked about was the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. What I remember was Dr. Killen's focus on the parables. I remember how genuine these discussions were and that these parables were particularly important. I mention this experience because it was where I was first introduced to this parable, not that I remember any interpretation. What follows is my own relatively shallow understanding of a parable I first learned from a much wiser man.

Before exploring this parable, it is useful to read this article. It is an interview with a 30 year veteran of IBM, Jack Reilly. He talks about using the methods of Fernando Flores for action. Without action, there is no trust. Check out the diagram for the atom of work. When this process is corrupted, when either the customer or the provider attempts to dominate the process in a hierarchical way, we get into trouble. The cycle the diagram represents is a building block to hang our experiences on and assess where our relationships have gone wrong. The cycle is not designed by anyone. It is human nature.

The standard reading of the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) doesn't seem to account for context. Without context, the meaning of a story can be completely reversed.

What is the standard reading? The standard reading assumes that the vineyard owner is a God figure. The justification seems to be the introductory verse:
For the kingdom of heavens is like a man, a householder, who went out early in the morning to hire workers for the vineyard.
So, it seems the meaning of the parable (and, to a certain extent, our understanding of who Jesus was) hinges on this one verse.

The phrase "Kingdom of Heaven" is a construction of the author of Matthew. The authors of Luke and Mark use "Kingdom of God" throughout their respective books while Matthew uses "Kingdom of Heaven" in his (perhaps to avoid the use of the divine name). Is it possible that all of this verse is a construction of Matthew? Perhaps the ambiguity of this parable is largely due to the ambiguity of the meaning and origin of this opening verse.

If this first verse is ambiguous and this first verse is the justification for endowing the vineyard owner with Godlike status, then it seems it is worth our time considering the parable without this assumption. There's 15 other verses in the parable. It seems out of order to allow one interpretation of the first 1/16th of the parable (at least partly of which we know is a Matthean construction) to dominate how the other 15/16ths of the parable is interpreted.

The first half of the parable (v2-7) describes the offers made by the vineyard owner. The second half (v8-16) describes the payment. Well, this seems like a good opportunity to apply our friend, the unit of work!

Where is the cycle of work corrupted? The corruption begins during the negotiation phase with the second batch of workers in verse 4:
and to those he said, "You also, go into the vineyard, and whatever is just I will give to you."
The vineyard owner continues to make deals throughout the first half of the parable, skipping the negotiation phase until, finally in verse 7, the owner simply commands "You too go into the vineyard." No matter how you interpret the parable, what is crucial to the plot of the parable is that the owner does the negotiation with the first group of workers but skips the negotiation with the subsequent batches of workers. What subsequent workers earn is not transparent.

In verse 8, the owner is asking for a conflict when he tells his manager to pay wages starting with the last workers first. Since the late workers already conceded the negotiation to the owner, they don't need to be payed anything but this would alienate them. The smart play for the long run is to surprise them by paying them equal to the first group and make an example of anyone in the first group who complains. Only through corrupting the cycle of work can workers be paid for their subservience instead of their output. The owner robs the workers of the gifts they offer.

The money economy is a relatively new invention compared to the tens of thousands of years the gift economy operated. The unit of work is similarly older than the money economy and may be as old as the gift economy. During the negotiation, instead of receiving money, you receive social credibility. In general, people offer good gifts when they anticipate they will be recognized. I don't see anything wrong with that. What's wrong is when you are made to think you have no gifts to offer. What's important is transparency. In particular, the provider needs to know what he is providing in the unit of work transaction. When he doesn't, it's too easy for him to become a cog in an amoral system (see Milgram experiment). Furthermore, if the work in the transaction is transparent to others, then the work can be acknowledged. How can there be any trust if we don't see any action? Perhaps it is the opaqueness of national currencies that tends to subvert communities while the transparent exchanges of complementary currencies and gift exchanges help communities.

Here's an alternative meaning to the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. Don't be intimidated into thinking your gifts are worthless. Remember the quote from Hoover's Vision:
People need to know that their work matters.

Some of the interpretation of the parable is based on writings of William Herzog and thanks to Kevin Koym for introducing me to the work of Fernando Flores.

Interesting analysis. I've long said that commerce once existed to benefit the tribe but now the tribe exists to be fed to the god commerce. But it's not just currency that's the problem, it's how we continued to abstract from that point into the stock market economy of today. Value has been turned on its head and only catastrophe can get us out of this mess.
Thanks. Always love reading your comments.
Hi Tom:

Long time no talk. I vow to read your topical blog more often.

I'm doing the daily blog thing myself. Good exercise, keeps my mind ticking.

Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?