Monday, December 16, 2013

No One is Worth this Much Money

Robinson Cano  signed with Seattle for $240 million. My son said "at least he was honest. Cano always said it [that is, who he would play for] was about the money." Whenever baseball or football or hockey players sign for these huge sums of money, I inevitably hear people saying "no one is worth that much money." That might be true. But, the fact that people sign contracts for these huge sums of money is a learning opportunity. In particular, it provides us with a chance of learning a bit about capitalism and how it functions because … from a capitalist perspective, the question of whether some is "worth" a certain amount of money is beside the point. It is irrelevant, a non-starter, a no-go discussion because value. Let me explain why and let me explain (or, try to) what is actually going on when someone says "no one is worth X amount."

Capitalist economics values "worth" differently than do ordinary people. For most ordinary people  "worth" is a moral concept. Person X is paid $Y for their job because they work hard, are a good person, never miss a day of work. We hear people say this all the time. "I need a raise because I can't provide for my family." Or, "I have new child on the way so I need a raise." Or, "I have been working for this company for X number of years and so I deserve a raise."

All these things may be true. I've even said them myself, but then I don't subscribe to capitalism. I have to mention "I don't subscribe to capitalism" because however true they are they are all irrelevant from a capitalist perspective. For a capitalist, "worth" is not a moral concept. It is a valuation that is based in assessing how much money someone else will make for me. Thus, for instance, I am willing to pay, say, a clerk $10.00/hr because that clerk makes me money. I don't pay her or him $10/hr because I am nice because, for the capitalist, niceness has nothing to do with it. What I am doing is trying to make money. I am trying to increase my profits and so I pay someone as little as I possibly can (this is called acting in self interest) and still get them to work for me.

This is basically what happened with Cano. The Yankees (his former team) offered him (reportedly) something like $175 million to stay with them and play baseball. Seattle offered him more because they valued his ability to make them more money than they would pay him differently than the Yankees.  Said differently, the value Seattle placed on Cano had nothing to do with his moral worth as a human being, his time of service, his work ethic, etc., even if these things are talked about publicly. Instead, the decision was one that was about cash. A group of very rich people decided that they could become even richer by paying Cano a great deal of money and selling the right to see him (we call these "home games") to tv networks and fans.

Does this mean that Cano is worth something more than the $10/hr clerk. In a strictly monetary sense … yes, that is precisely what it means. Seattle did not pay me $240 million because I can't make them that much money in return. I am less valuable than Cano. The issue is quite straight forward that plain and that simple. If you do not like that … you do not like capitalism. Don't shoot the messenger.

The problem people get into is -- as I indicated above -- that most of us don't use strictly monetary measures of value when assessing the "worth" of a human being. Most of us carry with is some sort of other moral compass that leads us to assess people in something other than a strictly monetary way. Thus, what is going on when people say "no one is worth" is not simply an imperfect understanding of capitalist economics, but competing systems of value. The system that says "Cano is worth $240 million" competes against a moral system that says "it is not right to place dollar values on people's lives and, even if it were, such gross disparities in value are ($10/hr v $240 million) are surely not just. Surely, there is something wrong with a society that will allow some people to, say, lose their homes because they can't pay their medical bills and others to have multiple houses and cars and airplanes, etc."

I don't disagree with this form of reasoning but -- and this is the point I want to make -- it is inconsistent with capitalism. Indeed, from a strictly capitalist perspective, the American medical industry that drives people into second mortgages, needing to return to the labour market in old age, and going bankrupt is doing nothing wrong. They offer a service and charge the highest price that they can get for it. It is only we people who are not capitalists -- who value life on something other than a profit maximizing basis -- who have problems with this. What we need to understand, then, is that capitalism is about money; not morals. Life is valuable to the extent that it makes money; not valuable to the extent that it does not.  

These competing value systems play themselves out daily. They are a matter of a our everyday world. Every time someone says "No one is worth that amount of money" they are actually making a profoundly anti-capitalist statement. Perhaps it is time that we consider such matters in more detail and what they mean for us as a society. I'll try to do that in future blogs.

PS: for those people who support a for profit health care system, I am sure you will be heartened to learn that Rob Ford does as well. You are in good crack-smoking, publicly lying company.
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