Saturday, March 16, 2013

Money, metaphor, and worth

My students write daily in their Daybooks, a safe space for thinking and experimenting in writing.  The requirement is to do the writing.  Screwing up is good.  Succeeding is good.  Venting is good. Not venting is good.  Just write.

Later, they examine the writing for certain entries they are willing to share.  At one point they must locate an entry they describe as representative of "original thinking."

A frequently flagged entry is from a prompt inspired by Robert Pirsig, a composition instructor and author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  In the book he explains that  his students "write to a penny" for an hour.

Persig was frustrated with shallow, canned essays that did not excite the imagination or do more than rehash other's ideas. He wanted his students to discover and follow their own thinking.  Spending an hour writing leaves a writer with nothing but her thoughts.

My kids get a penny and seven minutes.  (For those who wish to repeat this activity, students write "to the penny," then pull a line that intrigues them, move the line to a new page and write some more.)

Still, even in that short space of time they are surprised to find they have something to say. What they say generally has them exploring the abstraction that money represents.

Me too.

I think about money a lot.  Especially as a tangible measure of an abstraction.  (Keep in mind that we made this whole construction up--money, that is--and we could change our minds about it any time we want.)

In America, our definition of money and worth falls along gender lines.

In the business world, money is a measure of worth.  Those who rise to the top are paid more, supposedly, because they have proven themselves as worth more.  And they are worth more because they have somehow managed to squeeze more profits out of their enterprise to divide among the shareholders.

And so you get CEO salaries that are stratospheric.  Timothy Cook of Apple, Inc., for instance, made $377,996,537 last year.  That's a salary. Per year.  Most don't make that much in a lifetime.

In the quarter century I've taught and participated in thousands upon thousands of evaluations of human beings from every ability level and walk of life, no one comes to mind who might rise to either this level of expertise or potential.  There just doesn't seem to be evidence for that extreme difference in ability.  My thinking is that Cook is more lucky than not.  Lucky to be in the right place and time among the many who are just as capable.

But business is, by and large, a man's game. Racking up points and its testosterone inducing chest thumping is what is really going on here.  It is a score.  The one with the highest score wins, right?

Conversely, money takes on a different character when attached to activities that do not result in measurable, money-based profits.  That is, occupations (largely dominated by women) that are centered on helping people better themselves.  There are many ways we profit from these enterprises, including making it possible for some to rise to the level of a CEO.  They just don't show up immediately on a ledger sheet.

In this context, money is dirty.  To speak of it as a measure of worth "cheapens" the activity.  We can't pay a mother to stay at home and nurture her children through the important early years.  That would be like paying for love.  Better that the mother drop out of the workforce and express her love for her children through a difficult old age where the loss in lifetime earnings makes a huge difference in how she might finish out her life.

In teaching, we are repeatedly told you didn't get into this for the money.  This particular rhetorical construct makes it extremely difficult to even ask for more pay.   Implied is that teaching is missionary or spiritual work and to ask for an increase denies or negates your intentions.  Apparently, the expectation of a decent salary reflecting a level of skill and knowledge gained in working with people is some form of prostitution.  Those in the ministry, whose salaries are historically low, are caught in the same trap.  Recall that we are asking the families of those who improve our society to sacrifice as well.  Perhaps the proper response is "I didn't get into this for the poverty either."

Money for help = bad.  Money for more money = good.

Our current system of compensation is pretty medieval.  Worth is equated with goodness (i.e. highly paid CEOs are the best thinkers, doers, providers) but the very best among us (selfless nurses, teachers, ministers, police, firefighters, service men and women) should expect to be among the poorest.

And yet, the argument turns on us in other ways.  When you earn less you must have done -- or not done-- something to deserve it.  (Teachers are victim to this reverse trap.  The "you didn't get into this for the money" becomes an accusation:  What did you think you were getting into?  You can't complain now.  If you were smarter, you would have made a better choice.)

Without a doubt, the current media conversation has established that salaries and earnings are way out of whack.  It is time to swing the pendulum the other direction.

When we change the conversation can we please stop talking about money as if it were unclean in any context?

The assignation of compensation is a moral question.  When we answer with compensation, we are answering these questions:

  • Who should and should not be able to adequately provide for their own children?
  • Who should and should not be able to live without anxiety?  
  • Who should and should not expect to end a life in relative ease? 

Teachers may not have gotten into the occupation for the money, but they get out of it all the time for just that reason.