How Much Are We Worth?
By Alex Magnin
“How much should I be getting paid for this?” I’ve considered it from many angles: minimum wage as a busboy at a fancy restaurant, crawling around in heavy clothes on itchy insulation in a 120-degree summer attic, soulless office jobs, a labor of love, a well-compensated position as a technology executive, and now as a person making not a lot of money. Sometimes the jobs for which I was paid the least were the hardest, sometimes I was paid a lot for seemingly meaningless work, and often, for things I felt most valuable, I was paid nothing. The question feels omnipresent, its implication so urgent: What am I worth?
It’s an exceptionally difficult question. We know how capitalism works: to the victor go the spoils, more or less. Our economic system is premised on competition. It always has been — nature red in tooth and claw. Each individual tries to create as much value as possible, and to capture as much of that value as they can for themselves. We also know the world is very unequal. There are extremely wealthy people and people dying of extreme poverty. Some people are born with much greater access to things that are helpful in the capitalist contest than others. At year zero, in a test tube, the system seems good and fair — a friendly competition that gets the most out of everyone and makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. In reality it is much more fraught.
What I’m worth, what I should be getting paid, and what is fair are questions I’ve struggled with from the perspective of someone quite towards the advantaged end of the capitalist spectrum. In general, when I consider others, I strive to avoid pinpointing specific “identity buckets” as drivers of privilege. This is because, while categorically-speaking they most certainly can be (and changing this is one of the most important challenges of our time), they are not everything, and none are so big as to be impossible to mitigate through some other of a person’s infinite multitudes. Suffice it to say that I fall into a great number of those buckets and I think not much afflicts me. By birth I am a very lucky person.
So I was struck by something TC contributor Leo Han wrote toward the end of a piece about being a doctor and traveling to Africa.
“I always argue that doctors should only feel good about themselves if they believe the work they do is better than that of the average doctor in their field…By similar logic, I’ve always thought that running off to doctor in developing nations was just a way to circumvent this problem of proving value-added in a relatively value-rich society.”
What I find so striking about those two lines is that they cut to the heart of what capitalism, and the measurement of our worth, is all about – “value-added” — while also calling into question how that value is measured. It reminded me of an argument I used to make when executive pay was a hot topic after the financial crisis:
In baseball, there is a statistic called VORP — Value Over Replacement Player. What this statistic measures is how much more (or less) valuable a player is to their team than the exact average player at their position. My argument was that, contrary to popular belief, most Fortune-500-type executives actually have a very low VORP.
Think of a successful big company as a big ocean tanker. It has a set course, a lot of momentum, and in the relative timeframe of a CEO’s tenure, is impossible to turn around. The CEO’s job is to make the tiniest adjustments — like how we adjust the wheel of the car when cruising down a straight highway. The value lies in the momentum of the company itself. Quite nearly anyone could be that steady hand at the wheel.
I don’t mean that the big-company CEO as a human being is incapable of creating value — I mean that the position itself has very little opportunity for above-and-beyond value-creation, so the CEO has a low VORP.
The alternative to the staid big-company CEO is the turn-around artist, or the dynamic executive navigating turbulent markets. Here, a decision — the spinning of that steering wheel — can create tremendous value. But this type of strategic decision is very complicated and subject to unpredictable forces, and so most resembles the dart-throw gambles of a stock-picker (the majority of whom have been statistically proven to have no VORP at all). After the fact, we make up lionizing stories, painting an illusion of control. But nearly anyone, presented with the same set of choices, would have just the same likelihood of success. So, essentially, Fortune-500 CEO is the easiest job in the company. And while they may be paid exorbitant salaries not for value-directly-created — but instead as motivation to the CEO’s underlings to work hard for the promise of “being CEO one day” — I felt that when the CEO made 250x more than the average worker this went well beyond a motivational totem and to the point of thuggishness.
What Leo’s piece did for me was snap this old argument into a broader and more urgent frame. If he was admonishing doctors — by all considerations, one of the more admirable and morally unimpeachable professions out there — to measure their worth by how much better they are than average, then what of me? Shouldn’t I, of considerable advantage, recognizant of capitalism’s original sins, consider my value-add, my VORP, my worth and my paycheck on moral grounds? What is the most ideal way to consider our worth in capitalist society as we know it?
I think it’s something like the following:
What I am worth is how much better I am than the average person would be if born exactly in my shoes, with my set of advantages and disadvantages, my upbringing, brain chemistry, etc. In other words, I am worth only how much better I am than the average of all my possible selves.
I believe, essentially, in the golden rule: treat others as you would like to be treated (if you were in their shoes). That the golden rule exists and is generally thought highly of across all cultures and creeds confirms for me that it is a natural derivation of consciousness. And inhered in the golden rule is a certain metaphysical-logical recognition — that I could have been born as anyone else. My consciousness could just have easily been “born inside” any other of the billions of bodies-in-circumstances across humanity.
I accept this, and the VORP criteria is my only option. Because if I could have been born as anyone else, anyone else could have been born as me. So not only must I treat others as I would want to be treated if I were them, but I also have to behave as I would want others to behave if they were me. I would want this other “me” to do his damn best. And I would only be impressed by how much more worthwhile “he” was than all the other potential “me”s would be, on average. So then I must hold myself — me as “me” — to the same standard: to be paid more than average only when I am truly worth more than average, in all the possible iterations of who I am and who is “me.”
(A quick aside on one particular difficulty with the idea, and then I’ll wrap: We (or just I [I hope we...]) have just derived the strictest possible standard for measuring our worth. We are going to fail against this standard. On top of that, there is the general impossibility of ever precisely knowing or measuring ‘the most worthful thing to do.’ We are supposed to create more value than average, but what is “value”? We’ve clearly gone beyond talking about money and toward something more like “value to humanity.” And humanity includes ourselves, of course. So when is it best to take a vacation and rest the mind, and when is it best to push through working on your new thing that will benefit a lot of people? Is it right to take drugs from time to time if they inspire us to the very aliveness of life, even though they kill some brain cells? How can we judge procrastination when faced with an unknowable future, in which that procrastination may lead us to something extraordinary? I figure the best I can do here is to see myself as I would if I were navigating a forest. I most certainly won’t take the perfectly-optimal route between each tree — I may backtrack, or get tired, or lost sometimes — but I do have a direction. I have a star to follow, or a just-barely-felt wind at my back, or a pull-beyond-all-logic in my heart. We must. Or I have faith we wouldn’t have found ourselves in the woods in the first place.)
So what do I want? I don’t believe that VORP-measured worth — the application of the golden rule to capitalism — is realistic, in my lifetime or ever so long as the mysteries of the universe remain mysterious. I don’t believe we can all be paid based on how much we can be our best selves. But I still want to strive for it. I want to remember that anyone else put exactly in my shoes for a lifetime might do a better job, or be more deserving. When I am poorly paid but doing something I love or struggling for a righteous cause, I’ll consider that I might be at my most worthwhile. And for others with unfair starts, I want to always recognize the depth of your value. Against this standard we all get a fair start. I will be humble. I will try to do my best. We were all created equal. Now let’s go prove our worth.
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