Cross-posted from Robert Reich Blog
What someone is paid has little or no relationship to what their work is worth to society.
Does anyone seriously believe hedge-fund mogul Steven A. Cohen is worth the $2.3 billion he raked in last year, despite being slapped with a $1.8 billion fine after his firm pleaded guilty to insider trading?
On the other hand, what's the worth to society of social workers who put in long and difficult hours dealing with patients suffering from mental illness or substance abuse? Probably higher than their average pay of $18.14 an hour, which translates into less than $38,000 a year.
How much does society gain from personal-care aides who assist the elderly, convalescents, and persons with disabilities? Likely more than their average pay of $9.67 an hour, or just over $20,000 a year.
What's the social worth of hospital orderlies who feed, bathe, dress, and move patients, and empty their bed pans? Surely higher than their median wage of $11.63 an hour, or $24,190 a year.
Yet what would the rest of us do without these dedicated people?
Or consider kindergarten teachers, who make an average of $53,590 a year.
That may sound generous but a good kindergarten teacher is worth his or her weight in gold, almost.
One study found that children with outstanding kindergarten teachers are more likely to go to college and less likely to become single parents than a random set of children similar to them in every way other than being assigned a superb teacher.
And what of writers, actors, painters, and poets? Only a tiny fraction ever become rich and famous. Most barely make enough to live on (many don't, and are forced to take paying jobs to pursue their art). But society is surely all the richer for their efforts.
At the other extreme are hedge-fund and private-equity managers, investment bankers, corporate lawyers, management consultants, high-frequency traders, and top Washington lobbyists.
They're getting paid vast sums for their labors. Yet it seems doubtful that society is really that much better off because of what they do.
I don't mean to sound unduly harsh, but I've never heard of a hedge-fund manager whose job entails attending to basic human needs (unless you consider having more money as basic human need) or enriching our culture (except through the myriad novels, exposes, and movies made about greedy hedge-fund managers and investment bankers).
They don't even build the economy.