Get Milked for All You’re Worth

Our class discussion on Wednesday made me feel a bit like a cow in an auction. In my mind, it appears as if every American is tagged at birth with an approximate value that fluctuates as we grow older and have a bit more leeway to make our own decisions. The prized cows are the members of society who are born to wealthy families into lives of luxury (most importantly into lives of opportunity). The runts of the litter, on the other hand, are those who aren’t given the resources that society values to thrive. Instead, they face disadvantages through the challenges that come with competing with their more affluent peers which include the likelihood of never catching up financially and being rejected in favor of those with stronger economic backgrounds and ties. While this pattern of the rich getting richer and the poor staying poor is unlikely to change anytime soon, I think that it’s worthwhile investigating how society places value on its members and whether or not I believe this to be fair.

Supply and demand impact the value that we are given to a great extent. For example, a restaurant that I worked at had trouble finding hosts, so they increased the position’s salary thus increasing how much the organization valued its hosts. How much society needs and appreciates a certain type of work correlates to value. For example, people all over the country need surgeries and other health care treatments every day which is a reason why our physicians are better compensated than the majority of workers. While people can live without a big mac (and will live a healthier life at that), people with life-threatening conditions can’t live without proper treatments. While a fast-food worker and a cardiologist may have the same moral value outside of work (say they both volunteer in their communities and donate time and/or money to charity), the nature of their professions differs to a great extent. Overall (although it may vary on a case-by-case basis), our society values access to health care over access to fast food restaurants, so the doctor’s sizeable salary in relation to the fast food worker’s salary is justified. I also see this instance as fair because doctors must undergo extensive training that costs them a considerable amount of time and money.

Would people still want to become doctors if everyone in society was compensated equally? Although some people do have a pure desire to help other people, it isn’t practical to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and over a decade of time to be compensated at the same rate as, say, a dog walker. Unless we descend into some utopian universe in which people are initiated into certain roles, I don’t envision anyone seeking out a challenge that comes with no rewards and no benefits. We have to have some reward system that incentivizes people to want to fulfill the challenging roles in to effectively maintain a functioning society.

However, some “professions” aren’t as beneficial to our society as their compensation would suggest. For example, drug dealers can be detrimental to public health and safety, but they get paid like they have great value. In high school, I tutored violin students and felt emotionally rewarded, but my compensation was nowhere near what one of the known school drug dealers received. It’s not something that I’m happy about, but I suppose it’s technically fair that the drug dealers got paid more than I did because it’s a reflection of what our society values. It’s a sad reality, but I can’t change the fact that some people are willing to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for weed over violin lessons.

Some professions, meanwhile, are severely undervalued in my opinion. According to the BLS, the average annual salary for agricultural managers is slightly below $70,000. I believe that this is a livable wage, but it’s much lower than the incomes of professional athletes and movie stars who can easily make millions or even billions of dollars a year. Society is saying that we value our entertainment more than we value our food production. Sure, I myself spend a questionable amount of time watching tv shows, but if it came down to not being able to watch The Office or not having food to eat, I would cancel my Netflix subscription and console myself with a chocolate chip cookie.

As usual, everything in society is a bit messed up which makes it difficult to come to a definitive conclusion. What’s fair to someone else may not be fair to me, as exhibited in the case of the violinist vs. the drug dealer. The drug dealer has greater risk involved in his “career,” so he probably sees his economic rewards as fair. I, meanwhile, think of all the time and energy that I put into learning and then in teaching the violin, and I find my slow-growing financial gain unfair in comparison (especially since I see my job as something that positively impacts rather than harms the person I’m servicing). Even though I would be more akin to the runt of the litter than the prized cow in terms of financial compensation relative to the drug dealer, appearances aren’t all they seem. The prized cow, when it’s a doctor, would be of benefit to the consumer: it would provide services that could substantially increase your standard of living. However, you might not be able to differentiate between two cows when they come with the same price tag. The other prized cow, this time the wealthy drug dealer, would be malignant to the consumer by poisoning your health and destroying your livelihood. So, even when people have the same moral value, they may not be valued economically. And even when people are valued the same economically, they may not have the same moral value.


1 thought on “Get Milked for All You’re Worth”

  • You are no runt! You are intelligent and thoughtful. Many many people have brains but don’t think. Family wealth or circumstance is not the only thing that determines one’s economic place. Talent matters also. The reason that professional athletes earn high incomes is at least in part because their talents are scarce. I think there is a similar distribution of every kind of talent across all family income levels. So for me a key social issue is how to give talented people from lower income families the opportunity to develop and use their talent just like people from rich families do. But wait. In born talent is not earned. So is it fair that talented people earn more than average folks who may work just as hard? I’m not suggesting there is an easy answer to that question, but I encourage you to think about it.

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