America needs to shift perceptions on value away from money

America has a money problem.

I’m not talking about the nearly $18 trillion owed in federal debt or the fact that we’ve been in a budget deficit since the early part of Bush Jr.’s presidency. I’m talking about the American political culture of money itself: The representational value of money is misrepresented by proponents of capitalism. Money is erroneously viewed as value earned, and value earned is erroneously viewed as value added to society. If we want to promote equity in our society, we need to begin valuing things of substance within our culture rather than simply the representation of value.

The great success of capitalism is its supposed alignment of baser human desires (like greed) with a schema for societal achievement: non-intervention by the government on property rights provides incentive for private individuals and institutions to innovate and produce for personal monetary gain. Money is perceived in the United States as a reflection of the value production, with prices assumed to reflect (to quote Leonard Smalls’ character in the film “Raising Arizona”) “what the market will bear.” This notion is part of America’s national character, a corollary of the ideals of “the American dream” and “freedom.”

This idealistic position was rabidly defended for decades in the false dichotomy of a culture war. Free-market Capitalism vs. Socialism, Individualism vs. Collectivism, Democracy vs. Communism: All are descriptions of a paradigm that misinterpreted the political philosophy battle of West vs. East. The USSR was effectively run with an economic system of conservative state capitalism, while the United States has long been an oligarchy. The notion that an individual’s hard work and innovation are and have been appropriately compensated at face value in the American economy is a myth, as is the notion that the U.S. economy has historically always been a “free-market” alternative to actual implementations of communitarian philosophy.

There are plenty of essential jobs in society that don’t receive living wage compensation — parental care and community-building rarely see monetized reward. To look at the money/value myth from another angle, CEOs now “earn” 380 times what the average worker does. Does a CEO work 380 times as hard? Do executives’ invested assets truly add that much more value to society? With ever-greater shifts toward wealth inequality, it seems that most monetary value is stuck in a feedback loop benefiting the investment culture of the One Percent.

Philosopher John Rawls posited the idea of an “original position” in his bookJustice as Fairness. This term refers to a hypothetical state where future participants in a social contract are made ignorant of their class distinctions (such as race, creed and economic status) and have to decide what sort of a social contract they will enter into before knowing how they will enter the game as players. The idea is that a just system will not unfairly disadvantage one player as a political or economic player just because of their starting class. It’s laughable to assert that American society comes anywhere close to this sort of a standard. Lacking the benefits of a wealthy and privileged starting position, it’s unlikely that members of the working class are going to be able to use their work ethic and intelligence to rise to monetary gain as their executive counterparts have.

It is past time for Americans to internalize that money does not equate to personal value. Certainly we need to cease blind participation in consumer culture, which worships the representation of a representation of value. Definitions of personal success need to be elastic enough to mean both the ability to afford a comfortable lifestyle and an ethical base to inhabit it comfortably.

Perceptions of money in this country are fueled in part by the desire to overcome an unfair original social position, in part by an acquiescence to the elitist notion that it is morally justifiable to dominate others for personal gain, and in part by the uneasy assumption that such unfair domination actually does society a service. In a world where charity, knowledge and sustainability are fully commoditized, personal monetary gain should not be seen as a wholesale representation of the value one adds to society.

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