OPINION: Finding personal value in an elitist society

Imagine, for a moment, that there are two American men standing before you. The man on the left is named Bob. He is wearing an old and tattered flannel jacket, underneath which is a simple white T-shirt. His jeans are dirty and covered with holes. His hands are hard and cracked from years of manual labor. His face is covered in stubble and his broken smile reveals broken teeth. But he is smiling. He works at a production factory, where he earns about $12 an hour and craves overtime. He knows he is not wealthy, but he is content with where he is in life.

On the right is Charles. Charles wears a finely tailored suit and tie, and he looks impeccably groomed. There is not a spot of dirt or grime anywhere on his person. His shoes are expensive and shined to a smooth glean. His perfectly smooth hands hold a leather portfolio, inside of which is the livelihoods of hundreds of people: their paychecks. Charles is the owner of several production facilities, including the one where Bob works. He has over 1,000 employees, most of whom are blue collar laborers like the man beside him. He has recently joined the ranks of American millionaires, and he is proud of his accomplishments. He gives back to the community, in the form of charitable contributions.

Who’s more valuable?

Now imagine that all Americans were asked to vote on which of these two men were more valuable to American society. Who do you think would win?

Undoubtedly, the wealthy Charles would win in a landslide. Although most people may relate more closely with Bob, they would say that he does not contribute as much to our culture as does Charles. After all, Charles gives jobs to over a thousand people; he gives to charities; he generates revenue which boosts the economy; he pays far more in taxes than Bob makes in a year. Certainly he is more valuable, right?

In the society in which we live today, that would be an appropriate assumption. An American is considered valuable only if she has a great deal of wealth. Influence is given only to the rich.

Need more evidence? Consider this:

For the past few years, hundreds of thousands of average Americans have been losing their jobs. Homes have been foreclosed at historic rates. Real estate values have plunged at alarming levels. Millions of regular people have felt the effects of a devastating, and continuing, economic meltdown.

And yet the government has done nothing.

However, in September, when it became clear that our wealthy financial and insurance institutions were in danger of going under, the powers in Washington, D.C., stepped right up to bail them out. They threw over $700 billion at ridiculously rich executives who have proven over and over that they have absolutely no interest in serving the people, but only in lining their own wallets.

How did we get to this point? How did we get to the point where a person’s value is determined by the size of his bank account? Why is the amount of money you make the only measure of your worth?

It should not be this way

I am not qualified to answer those questions, and I certainly cannot explain how we change the current conditions. But I do know one thing: it is wrong.

It should not be this way. Our founding fathers declared that “all men are created equal.” Granted, they considered “all men” to be only rich, landowning males, but it is the thought that counts.

Jesus told us to “love your neighbor as yourself” and to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Have you ever seen those credos in a corporate mission statement? I doubt it. Corporations, and those who run them, are concerned not with how to help their consumers, or even the society as a whole, but only with profits and market share.

By these current standards, I am — at best — of average worth. I own a home, but I am behind on the payments. I lease a new truck, but I am in danger of losing it. I have credit card bills that I cannot keep up with. I continue to take college classes partly to avoid paying back my student loans. I have received my share of “shutoff” notices from utility companies. I never have more than a pittance in my savings account.

But I do not believe that these things make me less valuable than more wealthy members of our country.

I am just as valuable as that CEO …

I am just as valuable as the CEO of Ciena, who was paid $41.2 million while overseeing a 93 percent drop in the value of his corporation’s stock.

I am just as valuable as the CEO of Sun Microsystems, who received $13.1 million a year while driving the company’s profits into the ground.

I am just as valuable as the leaders of Citigroup, who “earned” millions while taking the company to the brink of bankruptcy.

I am just as valuable as George W. Bush, whose policies of deregulation and ill-conceived tax cuts, combined with his mind-numbing ineptitude, have contributed to the current crisis.

I am just as valuable as Richard B. Cheney, whose remarkable arrogance and narrow-mindedness has caused the deaths of thousands.

But no more valuable than the worker or the homeless person on the street

At the same time, our society considers me to be more valuable than some, simply because I have a house and a vehicle to drive. I may have more money than some other citizens, I may eat larger and tastier meals, and I may have the luxury of driving everywhere I go (for now), but that does not make me more valuable than anyone else.

I am no more valuable than the man I see walking the streets of Flint every day, who lives on the curbs.

I am no more valuable than the woman pushing her life’s belongings in a grocery cart along the road.

I am no more valuable than the millions of Americans who have lost their homes because they could not make the payments.

I am no more valuable than the young mother who works two minimum wage jobs to put food on the table.

I am no more valuable than the production worker who produces the items that make his owner rich.

Our current society is sadly mistaken. Personal value has nothing to do with wealth, or possessions, or retirement funds, or stock holdings, or dividends, or how many employees you have, or how many yachts you own.

I am just as valuable as the city planner, and no more valuable than the city bum.

I am just as valuable as the university president, and no more valuable than the high school dropout.

I am just as valuable as the resident of Beverly Hills, and no more valuable than the resident of South Central.

I am just as valuable as the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and no more valuable than the starving artist.

I am just as valuable as the owner of a trucking company, and no more valuable than its newest truck driver.

I am just as valuable as the most successful attorney, and no more valuable than the lowest criminal.

I am just as valuable as the plant manager, and no more valuable than the line worker.

I am just as valuable as the most popular Food Network chef, and no more valuable than the counter worker at McDonald’s.

I am just as valuable as a king, and no more valuable than a peasant.

It should not be this way. Capitalism was intended to give every citizen an opportunity at success. Instead, it has exploited most for the benefit of a few. And now a person’s value is directly related to the size of his bank account. A man’s value should be measured not by the size of his wallet, but by the mere presence of life.

Descartes once famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” In our society today, it is more appropriate for us to say, “I breathe, therefore I matter.”

Craig Withers is a freelance writer in Flint, Mich.