Wednesday, September 29, 2010

How Much is He Worth, Part 1

At the funeral of a wealthy person we often hear the question, “How much was he worth?” I submit that the answer will inevitably be wrong and in fact the question is impossible to answer adequately. There are at least two reasons for this:

First, the answer is usually given in dollars, claiming that the person is worth $10 million, or a billion etc. That assumes that men are to be measured in money.

Second, the “worth” so defined considers only how much the person has at a given moment. What he has earned and spent or given away is neglected.

Consider for example Jon Huntsman, once ranked as the 47th richest man alive. After his death someone might ask what he was worth and the answer might be zero, nothing, zilch. Huntsman's ambition is to donate his fortune to the effort to eradicate cancer and to die broke. If he achieves that he will have no money at all. Would he really be worth nothing?

A much better measure of a man is described in the book Co-opetition.* The authors use the term “added value” to describe the worth of any person or company in any endeavor (which they call a game since the book is about applying game theory to business). Added value is the value of the endeavor with the person or company in the “game” minus the value of the endeavor without the person or company.

If we consider Mr. Huntsman in that manner we might look at the value he has added to our society by his efforts to eradicate a terrible disease. Could we assign a dollar figure to that? I doubt it. We might be able to determine how many dollars he has given but not the result of those gifts. How many lives has he saved? We cannot know. It is impossible to calculate what Mr. Huntsman has been worth to society.

Even if we could put a dollar figure on people like Jon Huntsman, is that adequate? I would say that it is not. Money is necessary in our society but not the only thing people desire. In fact money itself is good only for what it can do in terms of other values. The person who hoards money for its own sake is called a miser and usually lives a miserable life. (In fact I wonder if it is coincidence that “miserable” sounds so much like “miser.”) No, money is not the measure of a person's worth

That confusion is the source of much mischief in our society. Too often we think of the job that pays a lot of money as more important than one paying little. We regard physicians as of more value than plumbers even though plumbers do more for our health than do physicians. We regard the person working for money as of more value than the mother who stays home and raises great children, though our society depends on the nurture of children for its continued existence. A mother's work, important though it is, cannot be measured in dollars so we tend to value it less than its immeasurable worth.

That also leads to pressure for people to pursue endeavors measurable in money instead of satisfaction or other values. I once helped interview a young woman for an engineering job. She was smart and did reasonably well in her studies. However it was apparent that her real interest was not in electrical engineering but in homemaking. She had apparently been persuaded that she owed it to the world to pursue the more lucrative job instead of what she really wanted to do.

We also see government edicts based on the false assumption that everyone should pursue lucrative careers. The EEOC goals assume that women will seek the same type of jobs and career advancement as men. If a company fails to hire and promote the right proportion of women it is automatically considered guilty of discrimination. There is no allowance for the fact that many women want to be mothers and homemakers first and that jobs take lower priority in their lives. Yet the satisfaction a woman receives from her family is likely to exceed that that which a CEO receives from his career. Furthermore, her added value can exceed that of any CEO.

The added value from a CEO is not the value he brings to the company. It is the difference between that and what someone else would have brought had he been CEO. If he were not running the company, someone else would do it, and do probably a similar job. Since there are usually several highly qualified candidates for a CEO position, the difference in value is generally small. In fact the CEO may have added no value at all.

However the added value from a good parent is immeasurable. Should the parent not be there even the most dedicated substitute caretaker is unlikely to provide the same nurturing and teaching as the parent would. And no substitute caretaker can fill the hole left behind if a parent dies or is otherwise removed from the scene. We cannot measure the added value of parents in dollars. However that value is immense, both to society and to the children they raise.

No, neither the worth nor the added value of a human can be measured in dollars. We must think of people in other terms, and that is just for their value to society.

Next time I plan to discuss human worth from a different angle.

*Co-opetition, A revolutionary Mindset that combines competition and cooperation, The Game Theory Strategy that's Changing the Game of Business. Adam M. Brandenburger and Barry J. Nalebuff, Currency Doubleday, 1996

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