What is your child worth? Your mother? How much would you pay for a long, healthy life? Confronted with such questions, most of us ramble incoherently.
We get queasy with those insurance company values of body parts: Is an eye worth more than a leg? What about two eyes and one leg?
The market value of all the elements in a human body? About a dollar. Yet people spend hundreds of thousands for a child of their own.
“What’s that worth?” is a cultural trap. Underestimating, say, the cost of your home or Aunt Clara’s heirloom teapot marks you as a fool, ripe for exploitation. Overestimate and you’re proud or deluded.
The importance of assigning a dollar value is unquestioned. People pay handsomely for professional appraisals for just about anything. If you can’t come up with a price, something’s wrong.
This unspoken norm undoubtedly fuels the mini-boom in storage spaces. Stashing things away means not having to decide whether or not they’re worth keeping. Far simpler to make rental payments than admit you can’t evaluate the worth of your stuff.
A cynic is one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, Oscar Wilde observed. A cynic is someone who believes that people act only out of self-interest.
Using money as the only measure of value gets us into ethical and moral dilemmas.
Compassion, altruism, caring? How much will those cost?
A newborn’s survival or an elder’s health? What’s the bottom line?
Caring for the sick, the needy, the less fortunate is the right thing to do, according to every major religion. Caring for its people is a basic moral obligation, the cornerstone of every free nation.
Yet our government quibbles about cost and profits, slipping the responsibility for basic moral actions onto our shoulders.
As individuals, we care. We organize fundraisers for an infant’s heart surgery or a friend’s chemotherapy.
We pay individually for our national lack of compassion. Our medical bills are the world’s highest, yet our care ranks just ahead of Slovenia. Medical bills are a major cause of bankruptcy.
Being compassionate, altruistic and caring are entwined in our DNA. Yet we’re constantly wrestling with a system at odds with our very best human instincts.
Few of us deliberately would harm our fellow citizens, but the system does that every day.
Consider President Obama’s recent decision to roll back clean air standards that the media portrayed as siding with business interests against the Environmental Protection Agency.
Clean air regulations save some 12,000 lives a year — which didn’t merit consideration in his odd calculus. Yet who among us wouldn’t think more than once about throwing away thousands of lives?
Tens of thousands of us will have to gasp our way to emergency rooms with asthma attacks, respiratory infections, bronchitis and pneumonia. Anyone who’s witnessed a full-on asthma attack knows that intimate terror. Those will be our children and grandchildren wheezing, our parents or neighbors sick, unable to breathe.
No problem for the government to balance our caring hearts against business interests.
Businesses routinely scream at any environmental regulations. Too costly, they claim, although history shows that claim is bogus.
Companies would have to cut jobs, they claim, evoking today’s hot-button issue, one invoked by paper mills in Port Angeles and Port Townsend when requested to use the best available clean air technology.
Which made me wonder.
Why wouldn’t Obama want businesses to pump billions into the sagging economy? Improving our air can’t be outsourced. Don’t American companies make pollution control devices? Our workers could construct, sell, deliver, install and monitor the equipment. Lots of green collar jobs every step of the way.
Green collar jobs — career-track, family supporting work that directly contributes to environmental quality — address joblessness and environmental woes simultaneously, Van Jones explains in his 2008 book, “The Green Collar Economy.”
New equipment is a tax-deductible business expense, although taxes aren’t a problem for big businesses — they’re only a problem for us.
Corporate profits are the highest since 1947, when record keeping began. S&P 500 companies now are sitting on about $800 billion in cash.
How much is that in human lives? Or the health of all of Earth’s air and water?
Diana Somerville writes about creating more sustainable communities and our personal connection with the environment. A Clallam County resident, she’s a member of the National Association of Science Writers, the Society of Environmental Journalists and the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
Reach her at www.DianaSomerville.com or e-mail email@example.com.
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