9/28/2007 6:48

The Value of Work

Until the recent minor downturn in the loan business (a few bankruptcies, a little panic by the lenders) one of the major tasks of that industry was to convince people to switch lenders. Also, to convince lenders to swap customers. So the whole effort of many loan workers consisted in zeroing out balances in one set of books and adding those amounts to another set. In some mysterious way, this activity is believed to keep the economy going.

When Comenius looked at careers in the 1600s, he pointed to a number of observations. He noted that people put in long hours and structured their whole lives around the demands of their employment. The work they did, like that of modern loan officers, often seemed to accomplish very little and not infrequently actually hurt the people that were involved in their work. On top of all that, the larger benefits which were claimed for all these occupations - claims at the level of "keeping the economy going" - couldn't be supported by the evidence.

Comenius had a strong pacifist streak, but his problems with the military weren't based entirely on theological grounds. He noticed that soldiers and sailors suffered a lot in their own lives and spent the rest of their time and attention in creating suffering for other people. All of which is bad enough, and reason enough to become anti-military. But, in addition, Comenius pointed out that military action wasn't very successful.

At the end of the Thirty Year's War (the period when Comenius was writing) nothing much had really changed, except perhaps an awareness that nothing much had changed and of course the decimation of the population. J.P. Somerville writes for a class at the University of Wisconsin: "The Peace of Westphalia did not involve any major territorial losses or gains. However, it entailed the Spanish conceding that they could never recapture the United Provinces, the Hapsburgs acknowledging that they would never be absolute rulers over a unified Germany, and Catholic admission that Protestantism was here to stay. The recognition of these obvious facts of life was very important to future peace and stability in Europe."

One has to laugh at the naivite of our grandparents for fighting a war to end all war, until you consider peace in our time, making the world safe for democracy, and winning the war on terror. It's still funny, but not quite as easy to laugh at.

When I go to work, all 25 hours a week, there is some consolation in knowing that I don't personally kill anyone, nor do I directly take their money. What I do, for the most part, is make it easier for my colleagues to direct our computers to churn health data to invent (or discover) problems for which other groups create expensive mailings for the post office to carry to physicians' offices where (we suspect) they are most frequently dropped into recycling bins for employees of other companies to cart away to paper companies to be churned (more literally this time) into new paper on which new letters can be written.

In the meantime, however, other employees of my employer are engaged in finding ways to prove that our letters improved the care of enough sick people that the health plans which pay for the care saved so much money that they should share some with the company that employs me and my colleagues. The money paid compensates my employer for having paid us and so justifies their insistence that we should churn the data in new ways so as to invent (or discover) still more health problems to be put into still more letters to keep the cycle going.

From the inside, it is harder to see how funny this is. Trying to be objective while working in the 21st century is a little bit like enjoying the performance of a juggler while serving as one of the balls the juggler is keeping in the air.