Tag Archives: worth

Money and philosophy

There would be a simple way to have all non-essential workers stay home without over-burdening the companies they work for. That same method would enable self employed workers to stay home, too. It would make it reasonable to ask for rent holidays. It would put money into the economy where it would do most good. Small business people would have a chance to re-boot in the future. That solution, is universal basic income. Giving everyone a viable amount to live on is also the least bureaucratic way, and thus the quickest, of rolling out an intervention.

However, giving people money in this way challenges the capitalist philosophy of what money means. We are used to measuring human worth by income. Those who earn most are considered to be worth most. We are encouraged to look up to them respect them, see them as valuable. At the same time we’ve called low paid people unskilled and considered them as having little value. If you pay everyone the same, it’s like we’re all worth the same as human beings. It’s a radical shift in thinking.

As the virus impacts on us, we’ve gone from seeing many low paid jobs as low worth, to recognising that these people are the heart of our infrastructure and the backbone of our societies. Money, it turns out, was not a good measure of the value of people working in supply chains and retail, bin collectors, cleaners, carers… their worth to the rest of us is far higher than their paychecks suggest.

As isolation kicks in, we may be more in need of our entertainers and creators. Especially the ones willing to interact with us, teach us and support people in being creative to stay sane. In their absence, we might notice the things that were valuable to us – venues, gigs, events, festivals… Most of the people working in these industries are not wealthy.

What do we deserve? What resources should we have access to? When the not-so-free market dominates, our scope to access everything is based mostly on our buying power. Our buying power is based on what our work is worth to the market, not what it is worth to other humans. Unpaid domestic work is totally undervalued, but right now, people cleaning things are keeping their families safe and well. Such work has always been valuable, but the value has been invisible.

What if we deserve to have our basic needs met because we exist, not because a specific level of profit can be extracted from our labours? What if the people who make money out of money while doing no one any good are not entitled to more benefits than most other people? What if we deemed making profit by exploiting others to be a disgusting activity, not one that should bring benefits? What if worth was measured in terms of actual worth, not earning potential? Meanwhile, the massively affluent ditch their workers with no pay and demand government bailouts.

Universal basic income gives everyone the same fundamental worth and the same basic entitlement to have needs met. Practically speaking it could be a magic bullet for solving a great many of our problems right now. Philosophically speaking, it would radically change our cultures for the better.

How we think about work

How we think about work may be more informed by what we get paid for it than by how useful it is. Unpaid carers are routinely undervalued. Unpaid domestic work is unvalued. We tend to take going out to work more seriously than staying at home to work. Friends and family don’t assume they can just pop into your busy office for a cup of tea and a chat when they feel like it. If you are a self employed person and a carer, it can be hard persuading the people around you that you are working.

The way we prioritise paid employment has a great deal to do with the stories we’ve assembled about paid work. It is the basis of how we organise our lives and our countries. It is entirely normal to work for someone else who profits more from your work than you do.

For most of human history, it clearly wasn’t like this. We haven’t always had money. The closer to subsistence you live, the more preposterous the idea of profit seems. We didn’t used to work, we used to exist, survive, struggle, hunt, farm and make the things we needed for daily life. Without the notion of work it is hard to have a notion that some people are so important that they shouldn’t have to work and should be served. When everyone is involved in the effort required to stay alive, the value of what you do is not going to be measured in coins.

Our ideas about work are deeply intertwined with our ideas about human worth. Our money stories distort our sense of what is valuable. It’s worth taking the time to think about what we value and what we pay for and who we think is important. If our views weren’t distorted in this way we might better value the people who raise children and care for the sick and elderly. If we did not put money first, we might have a very different perspective of people who do very little, and get paid a great deal for it.

Worth and convenience

Modern western lifestyles are underpinned by a notion of convenience. We’re told how much we want things to be quick and easy, but how often do we stop to do any real cost-benefit analysis? The cost of our convenience increasingly includes environmental disaster, which will be highly inconvenient for all of us. So, I thought I’d explore some of those convenience stories and see what else might be said about them. If you have specific needs that put you in a different relationship with these issues, that’s a different matter.

It is convenient to do big shopping trips and stock up on food and it is not convenient to buy food every day, or every few days as used to be the way of it. Of course, to do this you need a car to bring the stockpile home and you need a fridge and freezer for storage. You’ll probably buy things you don’t use and that will go off because the longer term your shopping is, the harder it is to get this exactly right. All of this will cost you money, requires energy (fuel, and electricity) and the maintenance of costly items (fridge, freezer, car).

It is more convenient to buy ready-made food than make it yourself. This of course increases the amount of packaging you’ll have to recycle or throw away. Ready-made food is often bland and predictable, and not always that great nutritionally. It reinforces the idea that we have to be on the go all the time and shouldn’t expect to have time or energy for basic self-care. Making and sharing food can be a pleasure and does not have to be a chore, but if you’re run off your feet, it may be too much. Maybe not being run off our feet would be more convenient.

It is more convenient to buy ready-made clothes. Of course it takes time and skill to make your own clothes, and it costs a lot to have someone with time and skill make clothes for you. The convenience means we mostly wear clothes that don’t quite fit, that are bland and make us look like everyone else. Alongside this we’ve lost a lot of repairing skills so for many people, small damage can make a garment unwearable, which also has a cost.

Cheap disposable things are convenient. Except that they aren’t, because you keep having to deploy time, effort and money replacing them. They cost more in the long term than things that last longer. They break down and leave you missing kit you wanted or needed. They let you down.

It is more convenient to drive everywhere. Except the freedom of the open road is often the freedom to sit in queues, suffering immense frustration and breathing in pollution. Sometimes it is faster to walk or cycle, and it’s often a good deal more pleasant. The convenience of personal transport needs weighing against the cost of noise and air pollution, jammed roads, the cost of the car, and the environmental damage. Dying prematurely from car-related air pollution is not something any of us find convenient.

Flopping out in front of the television is convenient for relaxing at the end of your working day. And here they get you with adverts and images of how your home should look and yet more pressure to buy stuff. Convenient, low effort entertainment robs us of real human interactions, and all that we might find emotionally sustaining. We end up bored, lonely and unfulfilled.

Questions of worth

2016 is, without a doubt, the year I started questioning my worth in earnest. For most of my life I’ve been willing to accept the value given to me by whoever I happened to be dealing with. As a consequence I have a history of only removing myself from situations when they became so damaging that I had no other choice. Crawling away exhausted, burned out, emotionally flayed, unable to function, crying all the time, unable to sleep… it’s happened repeatedly.

This year it finally dawned on me that one way to avoid this would be to get out sooner. Saying ‘no’ more often, and spotting situations that aren’t clever will help me. The jobs no one else is prepared to do? Maybe I shouldn’t be striding in heroically. Maybe there are very good reasons no one else is willing to do those things. I’ve started thinking that it would be a good idea to hold a sense of worth, and standards for treatment, that aren’t shaped by how other people want me to be.

These are the things I have learned to be wary of.

  • People who repeatedly push for more than I am happy to give, people who can’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
  • People who are all about their own importance and ego trip and treat me as a means to promoting themselves.
  • People who don’t give clear instructions and then get cross because I didn’t do what they wanted, and people who expect me to magically know what they want.
  • People who think that ‘service’ means they are entitled to whatever pieces of me they want, with no obligation or duty of care on their part.

These are the qualities I look for.

  • Willingness to listen and negotiate.
  • Willingness to accept that not everything is going to be done exactly as was wanted at just the right moment, especially when you’re dealing with volunteers.
  • A default position of kindness, respect, and fairness.
  • More interest in the project than personal advancement, but no willingness to sacrifice anyone for the sake of the project.

There are times, causes and situations that call for heroic gestures and personal sacrifices. However, there are also a lot of people whose method for getting things done is to push others into heroic efforts and self-sacrifice. It seems to be widespread in conventional workplaces. I don’t want to participate in anything that cultures people to ruin themselves for some small cause that did not need their blood and misery in the slightest. I have to start with me, and with holding better boundaries. I’ve been complicit in unhealthy cultures too many times, convincing myself that letting someone run me into the ground was acceptable, and worth it. I’m no longer prepared to uphold that view. I won’t name names, but it is fair to say there are some things I won’t be involved with again.

The price over everything and the value of nothing

Christopher Blackwell comments regularly on this blog, and I greatly value his sharing of insights and experiences. He recently responded to a post –What is your worth? with such a long and thoughtful comment that I felt it ought to be given a bigger platform. So, I’m re-blogging the comment, with Chris’s permission. Over to Chris…

Here in America it is often said that we Americans know the price over everything and the value of nothing. To some extent this is true as this is very much a consumer society. I watched a two year old in a grocery store rush to get a cola from a cooler, already trained as to which brand he wanted. I mentioned to his mother so young and already knows the brands to want.

But even if trained and taught to behave this way from a young age, one should start to question as one sees that money and having things owned does not guarantee happiness. One begins to note that being happy with ones life in general is rare in our world and start to ask the question of what would make me happy in various parts of my life. Once you start asking the question then you can step out of the slavish consumer framework that you have been trained to follow.

The first thing that you learn is there is never a one size fits all, contrary to the advertisements on the Telly. Each of us is different with quite different needs. It is in discovering what our true needs are and fulfilling those needs that we stand a chance of becoming happy. That means first that we have to discover just who we are, not the imaginary person that we have been told that we are suppose to be.

There is some risk to doing this in that many of the people around you may think you are strange because you do not slavishly follow the herd from advertised need of ownership and changing fads like everyone else. But there is no real happiness if you become a fake to fit in. Letting others determine what you should be gives them too much power over your life and no matter what you do, or how much you give up to fit in, you will find that you never will be good enough for some people. It is control of you and your life, not your happiness that they want for you.

Discover what is different about yourself, what makes you unique and then develop that difference and enjoy it. Sure some things will be similar to the people around you and that is fine, part of being human. However there are differences that you need to develop and cater to if you are going to be generally pleased with living your life. Becoming a happy person is the real success. It is not only important for you, but for the people around you as you give out what you have. If you are miserable, then you tend to spread misery around draining the happiness out of anyplace and person. If you are happy, then you start to light up the people around us. Become the person that you would like to be around, and others will likely want to be around you as well. Those that don’t can always move to be around the people that they are comfortable with. You are not required to please everyone.

What is your worth?

How do you rate your own value? What do you think other people are using as their basis for valuing you? Too often, the answer is money – the paycheck and the bank balance. It’s not helped, in the UK, when our government keeps coming up with policies to reinforce this idea. The latest is that only non-UK citizens earning over £35k are to be allowed to stay. What this tells us is that they do not value lower income people, assume that the skills of the lower income person are nothing special. It doesn’t matter what you might do, or what you’ve done, it’s just your paycheck at the time of assessment.

People who start businesses, and creative people often start small and work up. What we’re worth financially today is no indicator of our potential financial worth in the future. No one would have picked JK Rowling out of a cafe when she was too cold to write at home, and seen the benefit she would single handedly bring to the UK economy.

There are so many reasons to resist making a person’s value dependent on their wealth. In practical terms, low paid workers are essential to both the production and consumption sides of the economy, and always have been. In a world of fat cats sat in plush offices, nothing gets done. So much work – especially the child raising, care giving work of women – is unpaid and unrecognised. A great deal of essential stuff in this country is undertaken by volunteers, with the charity sector dealing with the gaps in care, research and support for the vulnerable because neither government nor the private sector are bothering.

We’re taught to seek out signs to demonstrate our wealth and success – usually signs appropriate to our class and background. Every time we switch on a TV we’re exposed to a lot of images of how we, and our homes, cars, children should look. What we should be buying to keep up. Every day, through visual media and advertising we’re bombarded by images of what success looks like plus information about where to buy the appearance of success. There are plenty of people going into debt to do just that.

When it comes to messages from the government and the media, poor but happy is never on the agenda. Choosing to live lightly and happy isn’t offered. A worth in terms of kindness, generosity, gentleness, service to others, contribution to human knowledge and spiritual richness – these never come up. In terms of career worth, we always prioritise the ones involved with the big bucks for media attention. It’s rare to hear anything about people who’ve spent many years doing something small but essential really well.

Being rich can make you famous. We take on trust that the reason a person is rich is that they contributed something worthwhile. We don’t look at what they inherited or who bailed them out (and I gather Donald Trump’s claims to be a fantastic businessman could use some scrutiny on that score). We don’t ask who they exploited, whether they’ve destroyed any ecosystems, displaced indigenous people, cheated, lied, back stabbed to get where they are. We put the financial worth ahead of their behaviour.

How do we challenge this? The answer is in many ways to start small, by noticing other kinds of worth in the people around us and championing it. By questioning assumptions that tie worth to money. By not buying the things we are told we need to look the part. By daring not to manifest the agreed signs of affluence and success. By not measuring our own worth in terms of cash held and cash anticipated.

What is it worth?

If you work a normal job, then the worth of your time and skills is decided by someone else and you don’t get much say. If you buy from normal shops, and utilities providers then the cost is equally beyond your control. In both those situations you could well be dealing with someone who needs to make a profit – so you are undervalued to create a profit margin while the things you buy will be overvalued, also to create a profit margin. Profit is the difference between production cost and sales price. On one side of that equation workers’ wages have to be kept down and on the other, prices have to be kept up or there is no profit.

For those of us who are self employed, the game has at least the potential to be very different. I don’t need to make a profit on my time and skills, I need those to be valued at a reasonable worth. I can often set my cost, and when I’m dealing with other independent people, the cost of products is also negotiable. I might make a sale or return arrangement with another trader. I might work for a profit share if I believe in the product but its creator has no money up front. Equally if I value something I might pay over the odds to support the creator if I know they could do with it.

I don’t charge for celebrant services. If I’m asked to do a handfasting or some other rite of passage, I’ll ask either that my transport costs be covered (if there are any) or that transport is arranged for me. Beyond that, I leave the issue of payment in the hands of the person/people booking me. Pay what I am worth to you. Pay what you can afford. I’ve had no cause for complaint over how this has worked out so far. No one has taken unfair advantage of me.

What happens when the economic value of an object or service becomes tied to ability to pay, and the needs of the one who will be paid? Money ceases to be an expression of power and control, where those who direct the flow are able to determine the options the less powerful person has. Low wages and high living costs create a terrible power imbalance. If ability to pay becomes a moral obligation to pay, things change. If factors such as liking the work enter the equation it is very different from a money exchange based on desperation and power to exploit.

The basis of capitalism is scarcity, and control of resources. So if there isn’t much water and you can control access to it, people will pay anything you like. Those who can’t, die. This is an ideal capitalist scenario. Greater earning from water means money for the means to protect your control of the asset. If another well opens, the good capitalist will buy it and close it again to make sure people stay desperate, thirsty and willing to pay. Money in a capitalist system is not about exchange, but power.

What happens when you deploy money in a way that is not about the power relationship between you and someone else, but some other factor? How we feel about money starts to shift – it just becomes a way to get things done, not an item of fetishistic reverence. Our identities become less tied to how much money we can earn and deploy. Our sense of human worth ceases to be about what we can be made to pay them.

It might sound farfetched, but it is happening already, on places like Patreon.com and bandcamp, where supporters can give, and pay and offer more than is asked for, more than is ‘normal’ for the products in question. It happens at events where there is no door charge but a hat is passed. It happens around crowdfunding.

We don’t have to have an economic culture based on scarcity, exploitation and money as a tool of power. We can use money to get things done, to support each other, to make real change. This is not just an option for the arty and self employed either, opportunities exist for all of us to change the money game.

Valuing the ephemeral

Science can incline us towards the idea that what matters most are the things we can measure. It tends to help that the things we can most readily measure, we can also point at, and are therefore more able to agree about. How much money you have, how many cars and how big a house are easy things to point at when you want to compare yourself to others. For much the same reasons, governments like to point at employment figures, and do not want to get bogged down in conversations about whether those jobs are any good or worth doing.

Worth is very hard to measure, unless you judge it by money. The same is true of quality of life, happiness, wellbeing, sense of community and the state of your soul. Sure, you can survey people and ask them how they feel, but then you’re relying on self reporting, and of course people aren’t reliable and can lie to you. How do you measure love, friendship or enlightenment? How do you measure and value the way a sunset makes you feel?

That we can more readily measure some things than others invites us to invest more effort and attention in the things we can measure – both personally and as a culture. So we talk about how many lives are saved by different medical interventions each year, not the quality of life for those who continue to live. We take our measure of spending as a measure of how well we are doing as a country, no matter what that money is being spent on. We want faster train travel and more oil and we can measure the profits, and the growth but we can’t measure the value of the landscapes these destroy, and so we don’t measure that value, and we trash something irreplaceable.

I’m generally pro-science. I recognise that by its nature, science can only go around measuring measurable things. Issues like the state of your soul and the beauty of your location are hard to approach that way. The habit of measuring locks us into some very narrow ways of thinking about worth and value. Because money is the most readily measurable thing in the equation, so we down-value what we don’t pay for – the domestic work of women, the dawn chorus, our clean air, the future of our children – we tend to be very short term around how we see the price tags, too.

This all fits in with what I was exploring yesterday (thank you Helen Noble for the prompt on facebook). When you take narrow measurements of value, a certain kind of resource and person will tend to dominate your society. Those who can accumulate material wealth are treated as the most valuable members. Not those who are most generous, or cause most happiness, or do most to enable others. Not those who have brilliant ideas, or who add beauty to the world, but those who have the biggest pile of coins, no matter who they exploited and what they ruined forever in order to achieve that.

Our current value system actively encourages us to trash the planet on which our lives depend. We need to change that, because as the saying goes, when there’s no clean water to drink and no food to eat, you try eating money and see what good it does you.

Neither use nor ornament

I don’t know when the phrase ‘neither use nor ornament’ entered my awareness, but it was early on, and applied to me. The first sense of my appearance I had, was the description that I am ‘funny looking’ and I have understood for most of my life that as I am not ornamental, I had better throw everything I have into being useful. It’s been a life defining sort of phrase.

The idea that things should either be useful to us, or visually pleasing, not only informs many human interactions, but is central to the relationship we westerners have with the natural world. We prioritise the pretty things, the charming and the lovely, and we ask what the point of wasps is. Thus to be neither use nor ornament, is by this measure, to be nothing at all.

I wonder sometimes, how different my life would have been if I’d grown up feeling good enough, innately worthy of love, and confident of my place in the world. I would have been an entirely different person, I would have made different choices, expected better treatment, walked away from things that did me no good, I suspect. I would have been much happier, and maybe defaulted to thinking that mattered.

What happens to our relationship with the world when we let go over the narrow constraints we so often have around valuing? When we stop demanding to know the utility and the cost, and start thinking about a much broader kind of worth. When simply existing becomes a valid form of worth, to be respected and taken seriously. The environmental implications of that would be huge. So would the political consequences, because this whole language around who is undeserving would simply go away.

Speaking as something that has understood itself to be neither use nor ornament, doing away with those measures would make the world a kinder place, and, I think, a better one.

The ethical marketing department

Larger businesses have marketing departments spending money on getting their products into your awareness. Not only do they sell you products, but they sell you ideas about lifestyles, identity and aspiration to make you want their stuff. We’re encouraged to be dissatisfied with what we have, so that we keep wanting new things. We’re taught that to be left behind, old fashioned, out of date, behind, is a dreadful, stigmatising failure. This all helps to keep us spending.

In some industries, the influence of marketing is truly pernicious. There’s big money in pharmaceuticals and precious little in preventative medicine. On the whole not getting sick in the first place is far better for you than having to mop up the symptoms after the event. Guess where the money gets spent.

If, as a species, we are to have a viable future, we need to consume less, and to do that, we need some kind of counter-narrative to the marketing stories in the mainstream. We need an ethical marketing department that champions sustainability, re-use, reducing consumption, making healthy choices. We need a marketing agency that gives the small producers the visibility they need so they aren’t drowned out by the incessant shouting of big brands. This marketing department needs to champion things that make life better at no cost. It needs to run advertising campaigns for compassion, honesty, friendship, going for a nice walk and the such.

No one is going to pay the ethical marketing company any real money. No one is going to have time to properly organise it or write plans for it. That’s ok, because we can do it anyway. Take a job with the ethical marketing company. No previous experience required. Start today. Take whatever opportunities you have to be the PR person for stuff you think matters. No one will pay you, but the hours are good and the job satisfaction considerable.

Let’s tell some new stories about what we’re worth and what we deserve, and who we are. Stories that are not centred around a brand and that aren’t designed to have us relentlessly consuming. Let’s challenge the story that any brand is ’exciting’ because most of what’s out there in the mainstream is obvious, tedious, monotonous beige cardboard wrapped in cheap plastic. Including far too much of what passes for entertainment. We need new stories all round.