We are more than our jobs and more than breeders, George Pyle writes

We pay too much attention to our utility and not enough to our humanity.

Visitors admire "The School of Athens" fresco by Italian Renaissance artist Raphael inside the Vatican Museum after it reopened, in Rome, Monday, June 1, 2020. The Vatican Museums reopened Monday to visitors after three months of shutdown following COVID-19 containment measures. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

“A man is what he’s paid for. I’m paid in the rank of lieutenant colonel.”

— Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) “Fort Apache” (1948)

When two Americans meet for the first time, it usually doesn’t take long for one to ask the other what they do for a living. For college students, first contact often includes, “What’s your major?”

I once overheard an initial meeting between two highly accomplished professional women who already knew one another’s job title, so the conversation moved almost immediately to, “How many children do you have?”

Nothing really wrong with any of that. Such questions are quick ways to break the ice, to get some idea of who the other person is and what common experiences they might have.

But when we move beyond casual chit-chat and start making policy and passing laws, it is time to stop defining ourselves and each other as interchangeable parts or breeding stock and remember that we are all human beings.

Democrats and Republicans compete for the right to claim that their policies will create the most jobs. Everything from destruction of the environment to tax cuts to tax increases to free trade to trade barriers to the invasion of Kuwait has been justified by, in the words of Bob Dole, “Jobs, jobs, jobs.”

It is easy to measure the number of jobs out there, those who have them and those who don’t, certainly easier than it would be to measure human growth and fulfillment. But the Declaration of Independence speaks of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” while the U.S. Constitution promotes squishier goals such as justice, tranquility, welfare and “the blessings of liberty.”

Neither of those founding documents, nor any of our civic canon, reduces Americans to economic units seeking their maximum return on investment, to interchangeable widgets that only need to be molded and directed to their proper place in the machine for all to thrive.

Which is why I think everyone should find it as annoying as I do that so much of our civic conversation about state and federal spending, education, housing and homelessness sees us all, not as humans, but as workers, or potential workers. And how women are instead — or also — evaluated for their fertility over their innate value as human beings.

The only hope for schools and colleges to win financial support from most politicians is to stress to the powers that be that you are turning out cannon fodder for industry, finance and media and hope they never realize that you are teaching the kind of history, literature, philosophy and art that can lead to youngsters thinking their own thoughts.

In Utah, the conduit for many programs to aid the poor, particularly the homeless, are not run through the Department of Health or the Department of Human Services but the Department of Workforce Services. Not that that department is badly run, but it implies that any person desperately down on his luck is only valued, only deemed worthy of assistance, if he or she is seen as a currently misappropriated station on an assembly line or idled provider of services.

The decline in the birth rate in the United States, Japan and elsewhere is largely portrayed as an economic rather than a social woe. The people who aren’t being born aren’t missed for the stout company they would have provided, the art they would have created, the great thoughts that would have occurred to them. Because, again, all that is difficult to measure and, to the policy wonks and economic metric experts, doesn’t really matter anyway.

What we hear is that those who aren’t born are counted as shirkers who aren’t working, aren’t collecting paychecks, with which they would buy stuff, feed the economy and pay taxes to support the social safety net that those of us who are already born either already depend on or soon will.

More and more women are delaying or completely passing on childbearing, perhaps because of poverty that denies them many life choices or because of wealth that leaves them independent of any need to attract and hold a husband. Whatever the reason, such women often are counted as so many blank rounds rather than honored for making their own personal choices.

Those who believe in the wisdom of markets should be less about panic and more about how the marketplace has the ability to allocate resources when and where they are needed. Standing in the way of that is the idea that labor — apart from capital, rent and land — should not be allowed to grow in value but be kept down by market manipulation techniques such as immigration or collusion that stops increases in wages.

It is more difficult to calculate, plan and govern human activity than it is to guide economic behavior. But if we are to see ourselves and others as human beings of immeasurable value, we must work to support one another’s humanity, not their utility.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) George Pyle.

George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, has an economic value that cannot be measured. Which may mean none at all.


Twitter, @debatestate