Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Greater Economy

One of my daughters lives in an upscale suburb of Washington, D.C. She enjoys a spacious home in a lovely neighbourhood, gets a carpool ride in to work most days and on the days her fellow rider is away, she often gets to drive the car herself. She's very well situated, given her entry-level clerical position that is only intended to last a year or two before she heads off to graduate school – especially compared to the cramped apartment in a seedy neighbourhood that she thought she thought would be her lot when she accepted the job.

The best part about this arrangement is that it costs her nothing. Her lodging, transport, and even board is free. She is able to put away most of her meagre salary against grad school expenses, because her hosts will accept no payment for having her.

By now, you're probably beginning to wonder how on earth she rates such a plush arrangement. What has she done to earn such rich benefits, when so many others are scraping to even get by, especially as young college graduates?

Well, she's done nothing to earn it. It's all gift. She's living with a family who are dear friends with my eldest daughter. The husband works for a D.C. law firm and the wife was once legal counsel to a prominent U.S. senator until she resigned for the nobler and more demanding calling of motherhood. They have a toddler who is a handful, as toddlers tend to be. When they heard my daughter had gotten a summer internship in D.C., they insisted she live with them, and when she got a job at the end of the internship, they insisted she stay on.

I call these kind of arrangements “mutual high-leverage” – i.e. one where a relatively small contribution by one party provides tremendous benefit for the other. The family already has the home with plenty of room, so one more occupant is little strain. He's already driving in to work and her office is just a few blocks away. The family is actually saving money on food because my daughter's help with cooking, or tending the toddler so mom can cook, means they don't eat out as much.

In return for what is for them a very small sacrifice, they get experienced and enthusiastic help around the house – something every couple with a young child can use. My daughter is also delightful company for the couple. But probably most important is her loving presence for their little son. This is no strain – for her, loving children just “comes natural” – but it's an immeasurable benefit for the family.

This wonderful and mutually beneficial arrangement got me thinking along economic terms. Many have thought and said much about the market value of things, even to the point of contending that the only value of a thing is the price it can command on the open market. Some even hold that unfettered market transactions are the summum bonum of human existence, and that all human efforts not only can but should be valued this way.

But a market transaction – payment for goods and services – is at the root an expression of simple justice. Insuring someone gets proper recompense for their labor is only fair. To offer less is to descend into slavery and exploitation. But we need to remember that justice is a minimum standard. We dare not give less than justice, but there are greater things. One of these is charity – agapé love, to use the Scriptural term. There is no buying charity, no talk of its market value. It is pure gift or it is nothing.

If we think about it, it is the most valuable things in life that lie in this realm. I write this on Veteran's Day, when we remember those who sacrificed their freedom to preserve ours. Oh, sure, they got paid, but nothing approaching the value of what they willingly offered when they raised their right hand and took that oath. What they risked and sacrificed was pure gift to the rest of us. Another example is marriage. The mutual gift of self that should lie at the heart of the marriage covenant is of such high value that it seems repulsive to even consider market transactions in the same context (this is one reason why prostitution is always wrong – it takes a human interaction that should be pure gift of charity and reduces it to a market transaction.)

Gifts of charity are always greater things than market transactions. When my daughter moved in with this family, she offered to pay what rent she could for the benefit of living there. The husband literally laughed. He assured her that every penny of her salary could barely make a dent in the mortgage payment for the house, and while that was true, I'm sure that was mostly a façade. They wanted to give her the gift of caring for her, helping her get on her feet. In like manner, were they to offer her payment for the help around the house or child care, she'd laugh right back at them. It's all gift.

Their relationship lies above the realm of market transactions. The charity the family is extending to my daughter is making a huge difference in her present and future life. And the love she is pouring into their young son's life could not be purchased on any market at any price. She's like an aunt to him, and her influence will help him all his life.

It's all gift. That's the kind of life the Lord wants us to live. That's the Kingdom we're supposed to be bringing to earth while we wait our King's return. Would that we had the courage to live it more fully, more often – to give and receive the gift we should be to one another.


Lauren said...

My very favorite thing about our living arrangement is that we both feel like we're getting the better end of the deal. When that happens, you know you've got a good thing going.

Seriously, though, we are SO happy to do this for her. We both remember what it was like to be a student struggling to pay the bills. And we adore her, and Nate adores her, and I'm quite certain I'll cry a lot when she does have to leave for school.

The burning question is: When are you going to come for a visit?

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