Someone asked me recently how I knew I wasn't being a total waste of space. I think his concern was that I'm not earning currency. If I'm not earning, how can I be contributing, to my marriage, and to the public good?
This seems to be at, or near, the heart of the recent ruling by Ofsted that two police officers, who have entered into an informal arrangement whereby each cares for the other's child when the other is engaged in shift work, are somehow doing something illegal.
The story is well covered by the BBC, and is also to do with registration and child protection, but I want to leave that to one side. About the financial aspects of the case, Ofsted says the following:
"Reward is not just a case of money changing hands. The supply of services or goods and, in some circumstances, reciprocal arrangements can also constitute reward. Generally, mothers who look after each other's children are not providing childminding for which registration is required, as exemptions apply to them, for example because the care is for less than two hours or it takes place on less than 14 days in a year. Where such arrangements are regular and for longer periods, then registration is usually required."
The general consensus by children's charities and government ministers is that this is a failed ruling. Their advice is to continue with childminding arrangements until the mess is sorted out. They are recognising that to a significant extent, the work that keeps Britain going - indeed, that in this instance allows two people to earn money - exists outside our formal economic structures.
In other words, it is an example of wild money.
Britain runs on wild money. Banking and business are formalised, and their money is tame - pegged internationally and bound into institutions. But surrounding the official economy is a much larger unofficial one. Eight hours a day a woman may work for cash, but that leaves sixteen hours in the company of others, many of whom are looking out for her. Some of that care she (or he) may pay for in cash, but much is rewarded in kind. This extends far beyond the immediate family, into friendship networks, village communities, groups with shared interests, nationally and even internationally. When the formal economy crashed last year, what sustained us while the pieces were picked up? The informal economy, in which the formal economy is couched.
It works small as well as large scale. That guy who picked up the scarf you dropped today? You'll never meet him again, much less reciprocate (though the smile was appreciated!). But it did cost him to stoop and pick the garment up. That was work. Also work was the vigilance with which he had been reading the street in advance, which enabled him to spot the dropped item, and link it to a retreating figure, and be prepared to bother to contemplate running after you with it.
More sustained (of course), more nearly formalised, is the childminding entered into by the police officers, the charitable work, the concerted engagement with a local community.
I am hearted by the response of the Government minister, who has asked for Ofsted's ruling to be reviewed. Though there is one niggle.
That's that the mistake was made in the first place. It suggests, like the question of my friend, that many people are getting muddled about what the worth of our official currency actually is. I don't mean worth in pounds and pence, I mean, what it is actually for.
Several movements are gaining huge ground in the UK which rely on money being wild. The Transition Towns project, for example, is reliant on local goodwill and the unpaid graft of, let's be honest, the kind of people (like me) who are not that concerned with shareholders or the bottom line. If Transition Towns create for the UK the kind of resilience which enables the country to withstand the vagaries of resource depletion, even without climate change on top, would it not be foolish to undervalue what they have achieved? Conversely, if legislation and institutional expectation limit such movements before they get the chance to achieve anything, would it not be foolish to describe such limitations as anything but valueless and destructive?
If we've learnt anything from the past two years, surely it is that it is time to set our monetary systems free?