On What You Make
13th Aug 2012Posted in: Blog 0
On What You Make
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
It seems we don't like to talk about what we make. It seems rude or superficial to most people when we do. When we make babies or art we are more than happy to share that information but i have met very few people willing to talk about their actual income. When it comes to money, it is hard to find people willing to lay their cards on the table. There is this sort of tradition within capitalist culture which dictates that our salaries should remain private. In communism, the people's earnings were supposedly public and i think there is an element of social justice in that. In a communist system where everyone makes about the same amount of money, there no longer seems any need to conceal the amount of one's earnings. Of course, there is corruption in communism just like anywhere else because people are naturally driven to make a little more money on the side. When people do this, there is an incentive to keep it secret not only from the government for tax reasons but also from the neighbour. If the neighbour knows how much we make, he may be tempted or jealous. For that reason, we prefer to keep all discussions of our individual salaries out of the public domain.

One thing i have learned in my probing of money earners is that the desire to keep one's income private seems to come from two separate kinds of earners. Poor people don't want us to know what they make because they might be ashamed or fearful that  their character could be judged harshly by those many fools who judge the character of a person based on how much money they have. On the other end, rich people don't want to advertise how much money they make because they not only fear the unfair judgement of their  character but also because they fear jealousy and the very real repercussions which could ensue such as kidnapping, extortion, robbery and violence. In my experience, the rich and the poor both have learned the hard lesson that it would be best just to never talk about how much money they bring into their homes. I saw a movie recently called ''In Time'' staring Justin Timberlake as the poor boy and Amanda Seyfried as the rich girl. The movie was plagued by poor acting and direction in my opinion but this did not hurt the metaphor much. At one point in the movie, Timberlake's characters say's that what each of us is born with is no fault of our own. In Time is a new take on the old tale of how rich and poor get along in society and how the socioeconomic position of each one affects our personal politics.

"In Time Poster"

So far, i mentioned rich and poor people. Those segments of the population are at the extremes of a capitalist culture. However there is a huge group of people in between these two poles. These are the teachers, police force,  nurses, social workers and small business entrepreneurs of our society. These people often have no problem telling you how much money they make. In fact, their salaries are usually on the public record. It is possible to find out how much most of these people make. They could not hide it even if they tried but the point is that they don't care to. This group of people is unusually proud to be serving society by raising its children, protecting its vulnerable, healing its wounded and holding its pain. They are proud workers and they don't mind telling you what they make because they earn what they believe to be an honest living. This middle class often complains of making insufficient income for the work they do, but i think this is largely because they compare themselves against the upper class who are often making amounts of money which are incomprehensible to most of the population.   When it comes to the middle class, you can look up the salaries of public servants on the internet but no one else seems to be willing to say what they make. Every time i ask an individual what he or she makes financially, my question is usually met with a defensive reaction and a kind of outrage as though my benign question were somehow intrusive.  My point is that when we are proud of what we do and proud of our role in society, we have no qualms about telling people how much money we take for the work we do.

Having asked the question: ''how much money do you take home?'' of dozens of people, i can tell you that my findings hold true. Anyone who owns a retail business, buys and sells stock, makes money from politics or law or works in high end government never wants to tell you how much they take home. I have upset many people asking this question. Family and friends have all warned me to stop asking it. New acquaintances have shut me out completely from any further communication because i have asked the question early on in a relationship. Still, there must be some reason why asking it is so important to me. Do i want to learn how much you make in order to steal it? Do i want to learn how poor you so that i may inflict judgement upon you? I think the answer is no to both questions. So why then do i insist on straining on my personal relationships and taking the risk of being excluded from potential new ones? I have thought this through and i think it is worth the risk.

When i ask : ''how much money do you take home?'' or ''What is your net worth?'' i am essentially trying to understand the roots of social and political views of the person i am communicating with. It is clear to me that our political views have roots in our early experiences and our socioeconomic circumstances so i naturally want to know if someone was born a millionaire or raised a homeless orphan. I want to understand how those socio-economic circumstances have affected the political and cultural views of the person i  am in a relationship with. This is important to me because i seek authenticity in relationships with any person and i can not have authenticity in a relationship where a secret is kept about something as crucial as our socio-economic status. I just think the world would be a better place if that kind of knowledge were public. I suffer tremendously from the code of secrecy that i am forced to accept between myself and my fellow human being. I think we need a discussion about what we were born with, what we all make and what we do with it. Understanding the dynamics of our necessary socioeconomic relationship could ultimately render our interaction more authentic and more profound.

When i was much younger, around high school age, i became aware of socio-economic differences in the classroom and in the courtyard. In the highschool of 1500 students, it became clear to me that some students drove to school in cars, others dressed in fine clothes while others still dressed in what appeared to be rags. It was kind of liberating in a way to realize there was so much diversity of religion and culture out there. Different groups of people formed into what we called cliques. There were punks, rockers, ethnic minorities, girls and boys groups, musicians, hippies, jocks, nerds and a whole slew of intersecting circles within our student population. My school happened to be divided into english and french modules with respective students coming from different ethnocultural backgrounds. Students in the french unit tended to have some immediate European lineage while students in the english unit might have been from more local origins. All of this diversity helped to make me feel comfortable being me. At the same time, i began to wonder about this diversity and even sometimes saw it as difference. I wondered what this difference would mean for us as older adults. As i explored further, i realized that appearances were not always what they seemed. I learned the famous: ''you can't judge a book by it's cover'' lesson.

Some people who were relatively disadvantaged impressed me with the strength of their character while others were relatively more wealthy demonstrated kindness and empathy. My natural inclination to put people into neatly designed categories based on appearances and behaviour had been thwarted by reality. Again, i was fooled when a group of students in the hippie clique proved to be very wealthy, living in high end neighbourhoods within high end homes. They somehow chose to ''dress down'' with ripped jeans and birkenstocks while becoming involved in arts and prosocial activities. I discovered that some people with wealth not only want to dissimulate it behind an appearance of commonness. Were they ashamed of their wealth? Did they sincerely wish to disown that wealth by sharing it with others and stepping closer to the ground where many of their fellow students were walking? It is fair to say that none of us has control over where we are born. Rich, poor, black, white, Canada, Mexico. Not one of us has any say in the matter. This is pure determinism in action. Where we are born has everything to do with how we see the world. The color of our skin still shapes our views on the human spirit. Similarly, our economic status growing up will have a lifelong influence on who we think we are. It is for this reason that i think we need a more frank discussion about our financial situations.

Why can't i know what each and every stock broker on Bay street took home last year? After all, are stock brokers not doing an important job which is ultimately of concern to us all? Are they not wheeling and dealing the very lifeblood of our economy? What about top level politicians? Are we not entitled to know where their non-public revenue comes from and how that shapes their political views? I was shocked when i learned that Pauline Marois has lives in a mansion on an estate part time. I wondered how this must affect her political positions. Should not the take home pay over every lawyer and judge be known to the public in the interests of truly transparent social justice system? And what about my best friends? Is it not fair that i should ask them for a simple answer to a simple question? Why should they deny me this? So far, i can only guess that even those closest to me do not trust what i might do with the information once i get it? Do they fear that i might use that information to hurt them? Do they fear that i might become jealous and sabotage their happiness? Do they fear that i might ask them for money or offer them my own money out of pity? Either way, every scenario i have been capable of imagining points to a lack of trust about what might happen once we let the walls of secrecy fall. Ultimately, i burden myself with the failure of not having worked hard enough to reassure those closest to me that they can share those kinds of things in all confidence. Perhaps it is not fair to be so harsh on myself. Maybe it would be more fair to say that our capitalist tradition tells us that we must never share the actual number with anyone. We must never reveal how much any of us takes home because this will only lead to friction between people and the erosion of competition.

When i worked in an office as an employee assistance counselor, i frequently put my pay stub up on my cubicle wall. I thought it might be a nice place to keep it. I would often come into work to find it laying face down on my desk. I would pin it back up and the next day it would again lay face down. Eventually, a service manager came to tell me directly that i should not leave my pay stub in view at the office. He did not explain why but i knew why. It was because we had all negotiated different salaries for the same work. The company had been able to pay some people relatively small salaries but was cornered into paying others relatively high salaries. We all knew we were being paid a little differently but we never talked about it because we had accepted the implicit economic rule of non-disclosure. The company thought that showing the actual numbers would become problematic for their business. I think they honestly feared that sharing the information could lead some people to ask for more money or worse, revolution. Rather than run that risk, the company preferred to quite literally divide us amongst ourselves by limiting our access to information. Like a pack of Gazelles split up by lions on the hunt, we remain disorganized, confused and vulnerable. This picture seems rather sinister as i paint it but it is nothing more than the day to day activity of a capitalist system which thrives on individualism. It happens every day in just about every sector of the economy and we all accept it as normal so let me ask you:''is it really so strange that i want to know how much money we are taking home?'' or is it stranger that we accept the implicit rule that we should never talk numbers? Is it not stranger that we should accept to keep secrets from each other simply because the order has been handed down by a small few who benefit from such secrets? I think that what appears normal in this case is actually insane and i thought i would share it with you because i don't want any more people to get secret sickness: the sickness which afflicts those who must carry around secrets. So now is your chance. Confess. Repent. Whatever you need but get it off your chest. How much money do you make?

Leave a Reply