When I watch or read news about what is going on in our world, I am struck by the disconnect between what politicians say and what they do. All polls make it abundantly clear that Americans are concerned about jobs, jobs, jobs. But "news" must be about numbers and/or disasters, the Media yell about the numbers of unemployed and then go on to the tornadoes, warm winters, hot summers, while sowing doubt about global warming..
Unemployment, and underemployment, is of course about jobs, about earning enough money to pay for food, transportation, mortgage, debts. But it has another meaning as well. In our culture when you get fired the message is "we don't need you any more. Your work does not have enough value to keep you on." In modern American we don't use the word "worth" except for things; the worth of a gold coin. We don't associate worth with people. A Samoan man used it when he said "You first palangi tell some we is worth" His English was limited--do I need to add that I knew no Samoan--but the meaning was all too clear: You are the first white person who has ever told us that we have worth. He had spent the day walking me around the tiny island, far from civilization, introducing me to people who knew healing. I had spent years in travels to many islands searching for remembered shreds of what some call "native healing" and here was an island so isolated that it still had people who had that knowledge.
His parting words shocked me because it is all too true that we rarely if ever acknowledge a person's, or a culture's, worth. We judge worth by how famous she is, how much money he makes. The extreme inequality created in the last twenty, thirty, years between the hyper rich and the rest of us has given us the idea that worth is measured in money. Money is power; power is worth.
Of course our worth is also what we do well, talent, education, skills. But that is not what the Samoan man meant. He meant something more basic, our worth as humans. The worth we too often deny to people who we see as other.
In a hierarchical society with our wealth and power (and a shockingly wasteful life style) we see others as less, below us and so having less worth. For instance, we expect everybody in the world to understand American English. Many Americans feel superior to recent immigrants, assuming that "of course" we are not fully equal. The Media are convinced that "ordinary people" cannot understand complexities so they must simplify all issues to one sentence. Some, perhaps many, educated people talk down to those they assume know nothing. The one percent does not even see us. I hear the politicians who yell their wildly exaggerated ideas so that the populace will get their sincerity not needing to understand the consequences of their ideas if they were to be practiced.
It is how we have designed our societyI a layered pyramid. We the People at the bottom, the one percent on top; politicians right under the top. We are even told that the wealthy few will generously leak a few dollars down. Nationwide unemployment emphasizes the layers. The statistics--an unemployment rate of eight point something--does not count the people who may have some work but part time or it does not pay enough to live on, as well as people who have given up. In fact a stunning number of people is very marginally "employed." They have work now and then, but where a few years ago they got paid $45 an hour, forty hours a week, now they must accept a job that paus $20, and then the work giver will try to get him or her to work for $15. Even if that were 40 hours a week--it isn't-- that is not a living wage.
On the national stage the vicious arguing about what to do about the economy ignores the effect of having no job. Unemployment and underemployment has other, maybe more serious, effects than the loss of income. It is also a loss of worth in a society where worth is counted in dollars. I see it in young people but particularly in older people, who feel thrown away, worthless. And that stays. It is a very real PTSD.
Yesterday I watched again one of my bookmarked short movies:
I don't know whether the economy can grow again, or even whether it is supposed to. I know that eternal growth is a myth; nothing can grow forever. For many thousands of years we survived without what we call "work." We did what we had to do to live, to eat, to make love, save the species, to talk story as we say in Hawai'i. We know how to recover from disasters, cleaning up the mess, finding something to eat, maybe moving on to the next valley. We know how to survive, that is our worth.
Today we find ourselves stuck in a crumbling empire on a warming planet. We are drowning in frantic speeches about going back to a growing economy that may provide "jobs" for some or perhaps more than some. In the real reality our worth, the ability to survive, is immensely more important than money. Survival requires a community. Survival is always WE. People cannot be dismissed. If society is so structured that it takes away our worth we ourselves must recover our own and our neighbor's worth. Isn't that what the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, is about: to regain our worth from a system that has demeaned us by measuring our worth in money. The outlandish theories politicians dream up and the media feeds us ignore who we are. Our true nature is not being followers, swept along by emotional orators. Our true worth is our joyful ability to survive. Slaves have that worth, people living on small islands have that worth. The billions of the shadow mega-cities have that worth. It is in all of us.