Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Net Worth vs. Net Value

To what degree is Net Worth a phantom, a ghost, a cipher? We only discover its emptiness when we sense mortality's hand on our left shoulder.


Longtime correspondent Yoni F. recently posed a profound question: what if our Net Value was measured as diligently as our Net Worth?
On what categories/areas would you rate a person's contribution/value to the world?In the absence of an alternative, we seem to value money as a proxy for value. However, as you note, wealth is not equally valuable (e.g. Steve Jobs vs. Jamie Dimon). So outside of cash, how else should we think about evaluating people? Charity, time spent with family, time spent creating goods/values, time spent employing others, power over others, etc. 
As I think about it, we all divide our time among various activities and it may make sense to segment us by how we spend it. In the end, the scarcest resource of all is time and how we choose to use it says a lot about who we are. What if there was a way to make our "Net Value" to society be as well known as our "Net Worth", maybe that would lead to a change in mentality/perspective.
Thank you, Yoni, for asking questions that are completely out of the mainstream. Yoni has raised a number of core issues about our lifestyle, the human experience, and the way we spend our lives. As he wisely notes, "the scarcest resource of all is time", and how we spend our limited time not only defines who we are but also expresses our core values and shapes our legacy. 

I will start my response with this general observation:

1. The key characteristic of activities that create financial Net Worth and "meaning" in the Status Quo is that they generate sale and profits for corporations/cartels and tax revenues for the State.

The aspirations shared by almost all center around external signifiers of status: a large, beautifully decorated home in a desirable neighborhood, a luxury vehicle (or working-class equivalent, a monster pickup or SUV), a costly watch or bauble, designer clothing, blah, blah, blah.

Higher up the scale, an advanced degree, foreign travel (collecting "places visited" like kids collect marbles--"I have more!"), membership in exclusive clubs and other behavioral signifiers of status are sought, all to show the world "I have value, I'm exceptional, I'm important," i.e. markers of self-worth.

The same can be said for the majority of items on "bucket lists," the lists of experiences one is supposed to check off in a last-minute frenzy to add meaning to one's life once mortality can no longer be staved off: 

Skydiving, $500
Midnight in Paris, $5,000

And so on: most bucket lists I've seen are simply checklists of profit-generating tourist destinations or adventures. The bucket list invites us to spend whatever cash/credit we might have on a checklist of what (heavily marketed) conventional wisdom has pinpointed as markers of "worth" and "meaning."

The basic idea is: self-worth and meaning are created by profit/tax-generating acquisition of status signifiers. This is just as you'd expect in a State-cartel debt-based consumerist economy: this definition of self-worth and meaning has been marketed to us non-stop since the day we entered this world, because the State/ corporate partnership profits from our belief in their profit/tax machine's self-serving definition of meaning and self-worth.

How much profit is generated by falling in love? I don't mean all the sappy adverts pushing the purchase of trinkets--once again, signifiers being sold as substitutes for the real thing. I mean the experience of falling in love is absolutely free.

How much profit is there in nurturing a garden? A few cents of profit for the seeds, perhaps, but hardly enough to keep the State/corporate machine going.

What if we reverse the conventional belief system and state that self-worth and meaning can only arise where there is no profit/tax generated? If a profit or tax is generated, then the most powerful institutions in the land have a keen self-interest in your choice to spend time/money on something that generates profits/taxes for them. As a result, we can hardly expect their marketing to be neutral in the matter.

Let's start our list of categories that rate a person's contribution/value to the world with friendship. What if one's Net Value were based on the number of close friends one has nurtured in this life, friends that one trust enough and that know you well enough that you can unburden your darkest secrets to them and know they will not betray your trust?

A close friend (in my view) is someone who is welcomed into your home, regardless of circumstance, as you are welcomed in his. A close friend has spent so many years in friendship with you that he/she knows you better, in some ways, than your parents or siblings.

A close friend is not lost when you change jobs or locales. A close friend's kids can rely on you to act as an uncle or aunt, doing anything to aid them that you would do for your own family. A close friend is someone you want to see in your last days in this life, to savor your many adventures and experiences and to see them one last time.

I have known far too many people who owned all the signifiers of conventional worth and meaning, the big fancy house with maids and gardeners in attendance  the luxury auto, the membership in some exclusive club, etc., but they did not have even one friend-- not just no close friend, no real friends at all.

Measured in close friends, their Net Value was zero. Were these people happy and fulfilled? No, they were closet addicts, suffering from a gnawing fear that all their signifiers of value were indeed worthless and superficial.

Friendship takes time, energy, and some element of selflessness: the person who follows the mindless edict of "looking out for Number One" cannot have any real friends, for everyone in his world is a stepping stone to be used in the relentless climb toward a higher Net Worth or as a mirror reflecting his own self-glorification.

Interestingly, both Yoni and I thought of Bhutan's guiding national policy, Gross Domestic Happiness, as a reference point for Net Value. Yoni forwarded this excerpt:
A second-generation GNH concept, treating happiness as a socioeconomic development metric, was proposed in 2006 by Med Jones, the President of International Institute of Management. The metric measures socioeconomic development by tracking seven development areas including the nation's mental and emotional health. GNH value is proposed to be an index function of the total average per capita of the following measures: 
1. Economic Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of economic metrics such as consumer debt, average income to consumer price index ratio and income distribution
2. Environmental Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of environmental metrics such as pollution, noise and traffic
3. Physical Wellness: Indicated via statistical measurement of physical health metrics such as severe illnesses
4. Mental Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of mental health metrics such as usage of antidepressants and rise or decline of psychotherapy patients
5. Workplace Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of labor metrics such as jobless claims, job change, workplace complaints and lawsuits
6. Social Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of social metrics such as discrimination, safety, divorce rates, complaints of domestic conflicts and family lawsuits, public lawsuits, crime rates
7. Political Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of political metrics such as the quality of local democracy, individual freedom, and foreign conflicts.
Here in the U.S., we give lip-service to all these values, but ask yourself: where do we spend most of our time? Serving our masters in the State/market economy, creating Net Worth for ourselves or someone else.

As an alternative to Net Worth, let's start a list of attributes of Net Value:

1. The number of close friendships you have nurtured.
2. The number of people you have mentored.
3. The number of children you've given abundant time to.
4. The number of trees and gardens you've nurtured with your own time and handiwork.
5. The number of practical skills you've acquired and freely shared with others.
6. The time you have spent alone, not in pursuit of work or pleasure but of solitude.
7. The self-directed mastery of difficult disciplines.
8. The number of strangers (foreign visitors, etc.) you have aided or invited into your home without any financial compensation or recognition.

You can probably add eight or more additional attributes of Net Value.

Yes, we all still need to earn a livelihood, but imagine a society constructed around generating Net Value and Gross Domestic Happiness instead of Net Worth. The power structure would collapse because none of these activities or accomplishments generate enough profits or taxes to keep the Machine operational.

A brush with mortality has a way of stripping away the superficial and the false. I think of the film Ikiru (1952) by director Akira Kurosawa, in which the middle-aged protagonist discovers he has a terminal illness. With nothing to show for a career spent behind a desk, he sets out to build a children's playground before he dies.

It is a sad statement that we often only awaken to value and meaning when we've run out of time to change the way we "invest" our time.

I also think of the film Ugetsu (1954) by director Kenji Mizoguchi, in which two brothers leave their families in search of wealth and recognition. One brother ends up living with a phantom woman while his abandoned wife suffers a cruel fate.

How many ghosts are we living with while our real lives have been abandoned as insufficiently ambitious and net-worthy?

Lastly, I think of the film I Hate But Love (1962) by Koreyoshi Kurahara (one of five films by Kurahara in the Eclipse Series 28), in which the two young protagonists seem to have it all--media spotlight, fame, fortune and love--but come to realize there is something deeply inauthentic and unrewarding about their lives.

These happen to be Japanese films, but three similar films could be drawn from any number of filmic traditions.

To what degree is Net Worth a phantom, a ghost, a cipher? We only discover its emptiness when we sense mortality's hand on our left shoulder.


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