In this time of crisis, when many are sick, grieving or out of work, and the new Administration is trying to address their needs, I’ll resist the politics, and just talk about what we’re worth. Some people define our value by whatever it would cost to replace us at work. That’s the capitalist answer. Whatever someone else will do the work for, that’s what you should get. When people complain about having to help or support others, they seem to be saying people are worth whatever they get, and no more.
That of course is the cheapest way to value people. But there are other ways to measure people’s worth. Economists describe producer’s surplus as the value we create above and beyond our wages – including what our employers keep. That spread, of course, is why employers fight unions – they know our work is much more valuable to them than what they pay us. They pocket the difference to increase their own wealth. To some extent that’s necessary and fair. But the difference gets very large with companies who skim a lot of the value of what workers do and turn the benefit over to the folks on top.
The value of work to society is greater even than the economic benefit. Think of the essential workers, the aids, helpers and drivers who make large differences in our lives. Most of us can’t afford the full value of the difference they make in our lives far above what they ask for or we could pay them.
There’s no clear answer to how much is fair. But the problem with our economic system is that it is stacked against workers, paying people the least possible for their labor. That’s not fair either.
The Supreme Court, a century ago, recognized that people could become so desperate that they’d sell themselves into slavery. The Court responded that the Thirteenth Amendment prohibits such deals. The argument about a living wage is similar – is it fair to take so much from people that they can’t live on what’s left?
In many religious traditions, every child goes through some rite of passage indicating that they’ve reached a respectable mastery of the traditions – whether it’s confirmation, b’nai mitzvot or something else. Since virtually all the kids can do it, a capitalist could say it isn’t very valuable. But we heap praise and presents on the kids. They must have done something of value. The value of what they did isn’t defined by the price one could pay someone else to do it in a competitive market. The respect and appreciation we owe people isn’t the same as what they’re paid.
That leads me to be skeptical of claims that people are only entitled to what they can earn or can pay for. It heaps disrespect on people who deserve our respect and appreciation. I feel morally committed to a safety net and respect for the value of the lives we can make tolerable. Programs to help others don’t leave me feeling cheated. They leave me feeling enriched. As Tom Paxton sings, “If the poor don’t matter, then neither do I.” There’s value in people, value in caring, and it goes both ways.
I hope you’ll think about what people are really worth when we think about bills to provide relief and a livable wage to people who can’t provide for themselves during this pandemic and in more normal times as well. It’s important to add that those who think they owe nothing to nobody need only open their eyes.
Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.
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