The Value of a Human

As one who detests hypocrisy, I can't help but be angered by the simultaneous belief that all human beings are valuable, yet it is the dollars they earn that defines their value in society.

There is a widely spoken belief that all people are valuable. For instance, you can't run down a person with your car whether he's rich or poor. And helping strangers is generally seen as good, and hurting them bad.

Yet when it comes to the policies we make to guide our actions, it's a different story. If you have too little money, you don't deserve comforts, health care, a place to live, clothing, food, or even water. In fact, you can be so poor that you are not permitted to simply exist: you must pay for the land you stand upon, or pay whoever owns it to exist there.

So simultaneous with the spoken belief that people are valuable is the belief that existing without working for money makes you a drain on society — that society would be better if you did not exist.  This belief has been with us for generations and it is nearly impossible to imagine an alternative. I mean, consider how birds eat berries for a lifetime, but a human is not afforded the same right: the human must work for money to buy berries.

There has been a progression which started with centralized currency (or before), and ratcheted up with the Industrial Revolution. It was then that people became interchangeable parts to a system. And more importantly, that they could be sorted and ranked in value as to the supply and demand of their particular skills. Profit-centric farming is another ratcheting step although subtler: farmers are taught to think of their animals not as living things but as "product". From there we have companies who teach their managers that people are not humans with lives and value, but as "human resources" — conceptually equivalent to a vehicle or a bolt.

I think it's time we formalize this and dispense with the hypocrisy. Rather than having an outmoded caste system that permitted individual merit within a caste, we should simply rank people based on dollars. Each persons lifetime earnings will be extrapolated linearly to their expected lifespan. That is the worth of a person. An alternative but equivalent comparison can be made with jeir average dollar-per-hour rate.

For instance, Warren Buffet's net worth in 2008 was $62 billion (according to a quick check of Wikipedia), so on average over his lifetime, he earned about 2 million dollars a day or about $90,000/hour. Compare that, say, to someone earning minimum wage in New York ($7.25/hour), 40 hour weeks, from age 18 to 65 — a lifetime total of $700,000. Basically, then, if a minimum-wage earner were to detain Warren Buffet for 8 hours (whether deliberately or not), Warren Buffet could kill them and it would be considered fair because the equivalent monetary damage was done — after all, there would be no way for the minimum-wage earner to repay Buffet's loss.

And what of the confusion in making things safer? If an airline can prevent one additional crash at a cost of, say, $10 million, is it worth it? With this system, the airline can examine the expected total earnings of each passenger, and tally for each flight. If the worth exceeds the cost of the upgrade, it can be considered a good investment.

In the end, we can simplify everything in life by moving to a true dollar-based morality. It's clear that it is desirable — I mean, if human lives were valuable, we would have universal health care just like every other first-world country, yet we have constant debate that it will be used too much by poor people. The same goes for social services and even immigration. If we valued human beings as human beings, any person living in the boundaries of the U.S. of A. would be afforded the same rights and responsibilities, yet we cling to a nationalist system to ensure that some people are as valuable as unwanted insects.

So spread the word and calculate your own worth so you can know whether you're better than your neighbor. What a wonderful world this will make!

The King of Comedy at the Dryden

Christina and I headed to the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy. Jim Healy gave the introduction and said he had seen this film probably the most number of times of any film he's seen (and I fully believe he has seen a great number of films). The gist is that Rupert Pupkin played by Robert De Niro plays a stand-up comic who attempts to get the fame he thinks he deserves by kidnapping a TV host Jerry Langford played by Jerry Lewis.

The beauty of the film is in its portrayal of Pupkin as the fanboy inside me (and presumably most people) that just goes too far. For the sake of filmmaking and the story, Pupkin's fantasies intermingle with reality — disastrously. For instance, he has a fantasy of having dinner with Langford where the star begs him to take over the talk show — despite that Langford actually does not see any refined talent in Pupkin, and far from the degree that Pupkin's fantasy lays out.

When I set my mind adrift and daydream of an encounter with some famous person — be it a consistent legend like Randy Newman or a cute-girl-du-jour like Kate Micucci — some event happens where I get to meet them by chance, and for some reason they are interested in me or thankful for something … basically, what Pupkin does. Only in his world, this is the way things actually happen: these absurd, unlikely, coincidences are believed to play out because the fantasy person does not have a real existence. In other words, I realize that famous-person-in-fantasy has, in real life, their own existence that simply does not include me whereas Pupkin does not have such a realization. He fully believes that fame makes the real person disappear — that the celebrity is no longer real, or that celebrity can completely obscure that reality.

The movie asks, in part, how do you handle a person like Pupkin? How do you handle someone who has disposed of your value as a human being? I believe it is the same haunting psychology that leads to stalking, rape, genocide, and any human-on-human atrocity: if you can convince yourself that another person is not a human being (or that they are simply a thing) then your mind is freed to do anything to them without remorse. And if you are on the receiving end of such behavior, all you can do is either change your mind so they are no longer human and you can do what you want with them, or save your own humanity, do what you can to educate them, and wait for them to realize that you are a valuable person too.