By Howard Zinn • ZCommunications • November 25, 1999
There are two issues here: First, why should we accept our culture’s definition of those two factors? Why should we accept that the “talent” of someone who writes jingles for an Advertising agency advertising dog food and gets $100,000 a year is superior to the talent of an auto mechanic who makes $40,000 a year? Who is to say that Bill Gates works harder than the dishwasher in the restaurant he frequents, or that the CEO of a hospital who makes $400,000 a year works harder than the nurse, or the orderly in that hospital who makes $30,000 year?

The president of Boston University makes $300,000 a year. Does he work harder than the man who cleans the offices of the university? Talent and hard work are qualitative factors which cannot be measured quantitatively. Since there is no way of measuring them quantitatively we accept the measure given us by the very people who benefit from that measuring!

I remember Fiorello Laguardia standing up in Congress in the Twenties, arguing against a tax bill that would benefit the secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, and asking if Mellon worked harder than the housewife in East Harlem bringing up three kids on a meager income. And how do you measure the talent of an artist, a musician, a poet, an actor, a novelist, most of whom in this society cannot make enough money to survive against the talent of the head of any corporation.

I challenge anyone to measure quantitatively the qualities of talent and hard work. There is one possible answer to my challenge: hours of work vs. hours of leisure. Yes, that’s a nice quantitative measure. Well, with that measure, the housewife should get more than most or all corporate executives. And the working person who does two jobs — and there are millions of them — and has virtually no leisure time, should be rewarded far more than the corporate executive who can take two hour lunches, weekends at his summer retreat, and vacations in Italy.

And there is the second question: Why should “talent and hard work,” even if you could measure them quantitatively, be the criteria for “rewards” (meaning money). We live in a culture which teaches us that as if it were a truth given from heaven, when actually it serves the interests of the rich, especially since they have determined for us (as I point out above) how to define “talent and hard work.”

Why not use an alternate criterion for rewards? Why not reward people according to what they contribute to society? Then the social worker taking care of kids or elderly people or the nurse or the teacher or the artist would deserve far more money than the executive of a corporation producing luxury sports vehicles and would certainly deserve more money than the executive of a corporation making cluster bombs or nuclear weapons or chemical pollutants. But better still, why not use as a criterion for income what people need to live a decent life, and since most people’s basic needs are similar there would not be an extreme difference in income but everyone would have enough for food, housing, medical care, education, entertainment, vacations.

Of course there is the traditional objection that if we don’t reward people with huge incomes society will fall apart, that progress depends on those people. A dubious argument. Where is the proof that people need huge incomes to give them the incentive to do important things?

In fact, we have much evidence that the profit incentive leads to enormously destructive things. Whatever makes profit will be produced. And so nuclear weapons, being more profitable than day care centers, will be produced. And people do wonderful things (teachers, doctors, nurses, artists, scientists, inventors) without huge profit incentives. Because there are rewards other than monetary rewards which move people to produce good things — the reward of knowing you are contributing to society, the reward of gaining the respect of people around you.

If there are incentives necessary to doing certain kinds of work, those incentives should go to people doing the most undesirable, most unpleasant work, to make sure that work gets done. I worked hard as a college professor, but it was pleasurable work compared to the man who came around to clean my office. By what criterion (except that created artificially by our culture) do I need more incentive than he does? (that goes for your law professor too!)

Another point: even if you could show that talent and hard work, defined as stupidly as the way our culture defines it, should determine income, how does this relate to small children? They have not had a chance to show their “talent and hard work,” so why should some grow up in luxury and others in poverty? Why should rich babies live and poor ones die (infant mortality strikes the poor much more than the rich)?

Okay, let’s get practical. We are, as you point out, a long way from achieving an egalitarian society, but we can certainly move in that direction by a truly progressive income tax, by a government-assured minimum level of income, healthcare, education, housing for every family. For people (usually well-off people)
who worry that everyone will get an equal income, you can ease their fears by saying absolute equality is neither possible nor desirable, but that the differences in wealth and living standards need not be extreme, but there should be a minimum standard for all, thinking especially of the children, who are innocent victims of all this high-fallutin philosophizing about property and wealth.

First published at ZCommunications • November 25, 1999

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