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 Art of the Steal

I went to see The Art of the Steal at The Little (240 East Ave.) tonight. I wasn't sure what I was getting into because I'd read just a little about it, but it turned out to be an excellent documentary … at least for me.

It sets up the battle between Albert C. Barnes and the Chicago art community. The deal is that when Barnes was alive, he began collecting works of modern artists of the middle 20th century; further, he displayed those works only once at a Chicago gallery and the works were derided by the art community as inferior in nearly every way to true art. This only fueled his disdain for that art community — and he was embroiled in full-out battle when they realized his collection was one of the most valuable in the world, after that form of modern art became popular. Upon his death, he set up a trust for The Barnes Foundation (300 North Latch's Ln., Merion, PA) which was an educational institution for teaching art in a unique way — stipulating that it was specifically not a museum of art, no artwork may be loaned out, etc.

The film sets up Barnes and his foundation as the heroes, and the art community as the greed-infested enemies. As I understand it, Barnes had a view of works of art as things that had value because they spoke to human beings; and specifically that monetary value had no place being attributed to art. The art community intertwined historical value, personal value, and monetary value in a jumbled mess, and never understood Barnes' point.

So, blah blah blah, they go about dismantling the trust and gain access to the collection in ways Barnes never intended.

The reason I found it an excellent documentary is it opened more reasoned questions than it answered. How long should one man's dying wish be honored? How should we view art? By what mechanism does a person's property become public when they die?

But at its heart, the film asks: for any clause in a person's financed trust, how do we measure if it goes against the public good so much that it must be overturned? That's essentially the argument: the Barnes Foundation has all these great works "locked away" from public view. But how many people can really appreciate an original Matisse, for example? Isn't uninformed public viewing just a matter of bragging rights — don't most people say they saw this-or-that artwork and begin with its appraised value rather than any deeper understanding?

I didn't really see Barnes as the "good guy". I agree with his philosophy of art, but think that important works should have public access (even when it's pearls before swine). Perhaps I'm looking back with a lens tainted by 2010's copyright laws and seeing a world where ideas are longing to be free but are blocked. I'm sure Barnes saw a future where art whose dollar value drops below its value as fuel would simply be burned for heat. I don't know if either of us is wrong.

Blowup at the Dryden and the Holidays

I headed out to the Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Blowup. I had not seen it before but I was glad to do so. It settles well after a few days: it's art-house and avant garde but still accessible. At least to me where I am now … I imagine it's not unusual to watch this and just not get it.

The protagonist is a fashion photographer. At first he seems a bit eccentric — like a stereotypical artist-type from the late 1960's: that Andy Warhol pop-culture variety. He doesn't seem to agree with society on what has value and what does not — in fact, he seems to have no sense of some things having value and others not. From the beautiful women he photographs to an antique wooden propeller to music to food and drink to people — nothing is any better than anything else.

That is, until he examines his own work and discovers the trappings of a murder. He's intrigued. It's voyeuristic: he works from his safe and familiar nest, observing that which is most dangerous and visceral. And here the film perfectly captures that essence: inviting the strange into your safe haven through a portal — a window, a TV screen, or a photograph.

But then it's all taken away. And in a brilliantly poetic finish, he comes to realize the balance between the real and the imagined — and through that, what has value.

So here we are, at the cusp of another end-of-year holiday season — dripping with the insidiously sticky notion that we should buy totems of love for people we can't seem to find the time to listen to for the whole of the past year. Several thoughts cross my mind.


Last month I got this "Amish Friendship Bread" recipe from Ali from someone she works with. I did some Internet research and discovered that it wasn't all that special — and probably didn't even originate with the Amish. It's basically a bread starter: a mix of yeast, flour, sugar, and (in this case) milk — a living yeast culture. The gist is that over 10 days you keep the starter alive (adding ingredients to feed it at one point) then split up the batch of starter 5 ways, make one batch of bread with one of the splits, and then distribute the other 4 to your friends along with the instructions.

My bread came out okay, but I wanted to shove the underlying philosophy back to tradition. I wanted to make it a personal experience, and an evolution. I wanted people to copy the recipe by hand then notate how they changed the recipe and what the outcome was like before passing it on.

Unfortunately, with Christmas shopping and all the frenetic activity, I didn't have the chance. I read, though, that you can freeze a bread starter. So that's what I did. I'll work on it next year sometime.


In an article titled Fuck the Cheerleader; Buy a Gift Card, Save the World, the folks at Violent Acres outline why gift cards — particularly those Visa cash-like cards you can get at the bank — are such a perfect gift. The gist is this: you can't be bothered to spend time with people you love, and everybody you know has more stuff than they know what to do with, so you'd like to get them nothing and them to get you nothing — perhaps just spend some Quality Timeâ„¢ together instead. But, people get all uptight about not giving gifts. So instead of bestowing heavy politics on them about it, just get them a fucking gift card.

I have no idea what the cheerleader has to do with it.


No Impact Man is a guy — specifically Colin Beavan — who spent 2007 trying to minimize his environmental impact while living with his wife and kid in a New York City apartment. He posted an insightful piece recently titled The No Impact Dear Santa letter. I've been fascinated by Beavan's trials and tribulations, but this particular post has this poignant personal observation: "I was thinking how when I talked to a bunch of third graders a while back and I said to them, 'How many of you know the feeling of really wanting something and then when your parents finally get it for you, instead of feeling excited, you feel kind of disappointed and sad?' Three-quarters of the kids raised their hands."

Gifts, when given without the heart to back them up end up feeling hollow to me. Last Christmas I know I got some stuff. The only thing I remember offhand, though, is the scarf Ali made for me. I think that's amazing. I don't know how to knit things and although I think I can understand how it's done, I don't have the right aptitude to do the repetition right so it comes out. And she made it.

But most of all is that she backs it all up with her love. Through joyful days and trying days she's still there. It's funny that it's kind of like the scarf: stitch after stitch, row after row — before you know it, it's something meaningful. You know what else: I remember picking out the yarn colors and she wondered whether green and orange would go together, but I insisted.

And you know? Somehow it works.  Twenty months to the day, in fact.