The Washington Post welcomed in 2012 with this story, “World’s richest men added billions to their fortunes last year as others struggled.” A few of the stunning statistics:
The pandemic has forced untold hardships onto many Americans, with tens of millions of families now reporting that they don’t have enough to eat and millions more out of work on account of layoffs and lockdowns. . . America’s wealthiest, on the other hand, had a very different kind of year: Billionaires as a class have added about $1 trillion to their total net worth since the pandemic began. And roughly one-fifth of that haul flowed into the pockets of just two men: Jeff Bezos, chief executive of Amazon (and owner of The Washington Post), and Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX fame. (my emphasis)
Two men—$200 billion. Is there something missing here? I think so. So, I turned to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2019 survey of wages, which presents median hourly wages of some146 million workers, ranging from the lowest entry, gambling dealers ($10.22/hour), to the highest, physicians ($99.28/hour). I combined five large categories near the bottom to put the earnings just from Bezos and Musk in perspective: food preparation and serving related, retail sales, healthcare support, material moving, and cashiers. These five total 39.2 million workers, about 27% of all employment. The average median wage for these five groups is $12.72/hour. If we were to tax just Bezos and Musk at marginal rates in the 90% range, as we did for about 20 years following WWII, the taxes collected are equivalent to a raise of $2.20/hour or $14.92/hour, essentially at the much-discussed minimum wage of $15.00/hour. And this quick analysis leaves out the $800 billion that went to the other billionaires.
This obvious and obscene maldistribution of wealth has everything to do with our values, or better with our lack of a particular value, caring. Its absence can be seen, again, in the set of labor statistics. Working up from the bottom, some of the larger categories (and a few others) are: food service workers, servers, bartenders, cashiers, cooks, retail sales workers, maids, home health care, personal care, cooks, nursing assistants, child care, cleaning and maintenance, laborers, healthcare support, sales in general, nursing, security guards, substitute teachers, and receptionists. I stopped at $15/hour. Almost all explicitly involve some form of caring and connectedness. Alternatively, starting from the top, the highest wages go to physicians of all sorts, dentists, nursing specialties, chief executives, IT in general, marketing/sales managers, public relations, consultants, engineers, general managers, and lawyers. I stopped at about $40.00/hour. All focus primarily on using analytic, generalized skills.
The main conclusion from this admittedly rough, but meaningful, analysis is that we do not value caring as an important human quality. We have our values upside down. The Covid pandemic also has exposed this shocking truth about America. Our new heroes turn out to be those who protect and care about and for us—first responders, nurses, grocery clerks, etc. But in terms of the primary economistic way we show what we value, they are far, far down the line. And yet, they are the ones that actually interact with us on a direct, personal level. They are the ones that see us as real individuals, not as commodified shadows. They make us feel uniquely human and alive in the process.
Wages reflect many factors, but my analysis shows that caring is not one of them. This does not surprise me, as this outcome reflects the workings of the dominant left hemisphere of the modern brain. As I have written in The Right Way to Flourish: Reconnecting with the Real World, based on Iain McGilchrist’s model of the divided brain, our present-day culture is driven primarily by the controlling, self-contained, left brain hemisphere. Virtually all of the high-end wages go to left-brainers, who rely on the detached, analytic, manipulative side of the brain. For these, one day is pretty much like the next. Their value in the labor marketplace, as represented by their pay, relates largely to their ability to perform with certainty. Even the epitome of caring professions, medicine, has become so technocratic and mechanical that real caring is rare.
If we so choose, we can try to rectify the economic distortions by policy design, but our misplaced values will still be in place, still showing up in other forms of social and individual pathologies. We can really get our values straight only by instituting changes that will put the connected, empathetic, creative right-side of our brain back in the saddle where it belongs.