Human Worth is not a Dollar Figure
Our paycheck does not define us
America loves money and Americans love to brag about money.
There’s no shortage of people gloating about how much they earn, as if the dollar sign were a measure of human worth.
Or of the value they bring to the world.
Because the US runs on capitalism — a market economy — being grabby is something people are proud of. To quote Gordon Gekko, the lead character played by Michael Douglas in 1987 movie Wall Street, “Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works.”
Greed is so good that anyone glorifying their appetite for the greenback will be hailed as an example to emulate. Plaudits, praise, and admiration will be theirs, not based on their character but on an arbitrary number.
Overnight, you can go from zero to hero based on your bank balance.
Worse even, hard work counts for nothing if it doesn’t yield financial returns, money being the only way America assesses value.
What about volunteers toiling away to improve the lives of others? Is their work worthless?
Greed is so endemic to the American mindset that individualism is the default setting for many. “Me first and screw you” is an acceptable way to live, which is why health care isn’t even a basic human right and around 40 million Americans live in poverty.
A good American is by definition a rich American, and if you’re not rich in the richest country in the world, you’re a loser.
Look no further than the grabby orange mitts of the current incumbent of the White House for confirmation of the above.
On one side of the Atlantic, a greedy, grabby person is an example worthy of acclaim.
On the other side, they’re an insufferable braggart, their cantankerous ways a source of much consternation.
In France, talking about one’s salary or bank balance is taboo, as unthinkable as it is vulgar, the sure sign of someone lacking in both social skills and manners. And being blatantly money-hungry is a social faux-pas.
Of course, such people do exist but they know better than to advertise their greed lest they should alienate their entire social circle.
Conversations about money are always framed as a societal issue rather than a personal one. A small agricultural producer might go on the record and disclose what they earn to journalists to illustrate how poorly paid their back-breaking work is and how the corporate supply chain puts the squeeze on them, for example. And when they do, they’re generally very ill-at-ease, too.
A blowhard engaging in relentless self-promotion and telling you, day in, day out, how much they earn doesn’t stand a chance of making new friends or gathering admirers.
Similarly, individualism is frowned upon because the European Union strives not to leave anyone behind. The 28 member states all share common values and we all help one another out. For example, French agriculture owes a lot to European subsidies, and the new roads on the Portuguese island I lived on were all financed by the EU.
Europeans aren’t socialized to be competitive from a young age either.
Instead, the focus is on helping one another, sharing, and collaborating; we value the intangible above the material.
A good heart matters above all else and is the true measure of a human.
And those who are out of work or unable to hold down a job aren’t considered lesser humans. Beside retraining schemes, government agencies, and private charities dedicated to helping them, there’s a social safety net that guarantees a minimum of comfort to everyone.
Dignity isn’t contingent on your bank balance.
And yet, an American’s sense of self is intrinsically linked to what they earn and what’s in their checking account because, to many of us, unforeseen expenses like illness or accident could make our entire life collapse in a heartbeat.
It is dehumanizing.
“We’re only one missed paycheck away from homelessness,” is what my husband kept saying for the five years I was too sick to function. Not only was he right and we once received an eviction notice to prove his point, but he also started resenting me because I couldn’t work. And of course we were too cash-strapped to get me the care I needed, despite having insurance so I could get well and back to work.
It was dehumanizing.
My worth as a person, a professional, a wife, a community member became a dollar figure with a minus sign in front of it, nothing else mattered, not illness, not distress, not what made me me.
I ended up losing my humanity and only found it again when I came back to Europe, among my family and friends.
But whether you have money or not, at no point in your life do you stop being human, in America or elsewhere.
There’s no difference between you and the homeless person panhandling in front of the corner store.
If instead of a fellow human all you notice is how strongly they smell, then please ask yourself what you’d do if you too ended up on the street. Chances are you would no longer be able to shower twice a day either.
The only difference between a poor American and a rich American is circumstances, never humanness.
Like immigrants to the US who become raging racists because they’ve forgotten where they come from, those who once struggled and whose financial circumstances improve are wont to perpetuate the myth of wealth as worth as they keep bragging how about money they have.
And yet, they’re still the same people; how much you earn and own doesn’t make you a worthier member of the human race.
Money has no personality; our humanity doesn’t accrue with every dollar we acquire.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.