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I Would Rather Do “Good” Than “Do Well.”

It started as a Facebook meme that I shared in frustration. It had to do with how much money members of congress make when you add up salary and various perks that we, the taxpayers, provide for them. The hashtag on the bottom said something about paying them minimum wage. A sentiment that I agree with, wholly. (Amongst other reasons, because I think that minimum wage would increase really fast if that were the case.)

A friend of mine, who I know to be brilliant, compassionate and an all around good guy, suggested that I had it backwards. That we should pay them even better than we do, so that we’d be able to attract the best and the brightest. And that made me sad. Very sad. Because in that statement – which is not necessarily wrong – is the assumption that the “best and brightest” would automatically choose to make more money, rather than making the world a better place.

I have reason to believe that isn’t true. 

But that it is our defacto M.O. in this country. We refer to people as “doing well” when they make a lot of money. When we see people doing good work, or interesting work, we have to justify why it matters, because, you know, they aren’t making a lot of money, and that is what we should value. (The implied converse, of course, is that if you’re not making lots of money, you aren’t doing very well.)

We value MORE. More money. More things. More recognition. We don’t value “enough.”

My husband and I do well enough. Largely through the good fortune of inheriting stuff, and being generally privileged white folks, we do well enough. We drive old and humble cars, we go away for weekends when we want to, we eat well and our home is often filled with people we love. Life is good.

We could both make a lot more money if we wanted to. He is a civil servant (firefighter) and could promote if he wanted to. But he likes working the lines, it makes him happy, so he doesn’t. I could go get a corporate job and probably make 6 figures if I wanted to. But I don’t want to. We own a neighborhood gym, we love our work there. It’s hard, but the emotional rewards are enormous and the revenue is enough to justify it. We call it our “hobby gym.” Like some people have “hobby farms” on which they get in touch with their values and manage not to lost money, so it’s justified. This is our “hobby gym.” So we live simply. We have more than enough. We spend as much time as we can with our aging parents and our young children. We laugh a lot. It’s good here. I would not like to die tomorrow, but if I did, I would have no regrets about how I spent my time.

I was speaking recently with someone about what we pay our employees at the gym. The man I was speaking to was a high-level executive at a fortune 100 company, who was flabbergasted by what we pay people. We start people at $20 an hour and quickly get them up to $30 an hour. This is what we pay ourselves also. (And in the beginning, there were times when we paid everyone except ourselves. Them first, always.)  If our employees need health insurance, we offer that as well. None of them work full time.

He was shocked. Genuinely confused. He told me, in all sincerity, that at his company (which employs tens of thousands of people) there is “literally no way” to offer health insurance to someone who doesn’t work full time. “Yes, there is,” I assured him, “it’s called making a choice.” You can, at any time, choose to put the welfare of the many over the perks for yourself. He then remarked that surely our decisions cut into our net income. I assured him that he was correct. I know what our payroll is every month. We could easily be taking home an additional $6k a month or so if we chose to do what many gyms do, which is not pay our coaches at all, just have them work off their membership fee. (I find this disgusting!) We could save money by not helping with health insurance for our coaches.

But why? We make enough, Our life is good. Very good.

I started to justify our decisions with him, and although I wish I hadn’t, it was a worthwhile exercise. We’ve had the same coaches for years. We have almost no turnover. Which means our coaches – who are, let’s be clear, the product that we’re selling – form great relationships with our members. It means that they routinely go above and beyond for us, because we do for them. It reduces churn of both clients and staff. It’s worth it. From a perspective of pure greed, it’s the right thing to do.

But he remained confused. It was so antithetical to his way of thinking – that we weren’t all about “MORE.”

I found that sad.

We live in a society in which the middle class is disappearing. Owners of things are making exponentially more money, and workers, in general, are struggling more to make ends meet. Education costs a fortune – not even a small fortune – and takes years to pay back while offering little Return On Investment. (Sadly, if we glorified the trades as much as we glorified VCs and Sartups, more people might go into the trades, make a seriously good living, and not be burdened with all that student loan debt.) We live in a society in which healthcare is linked to employment and still prohibitively expensive then, and even with the Affordable Care Act. We live in a society in which corporations are allowed to pollute and destroy our planet with impunity, because politicians protect corporations, and corporations, in turn, put profit ahead of people. We live in a society in which prisons are a for-profit enterprise, and that informs our entire “justice system,” allowing POC to be culled for cash.

Why? Money. People who, time and time again, believe that we are put here to make money.

Back to my hastily-shared meme about congress making minimum wage. Yes, I believe that. I believe that is the cornerstone to changing our society.

Which is something that I already see our “best and brightest” doing. They just aren’t doing it in government. When I see the brains and braun that goes into running NGOs of all sizes, I am amazed. There is a large army of brilliant thinkers out there changing the world in whatever way they can, largely trying to clean up the social flotsam and jetsam of the overwhelming tide of corporate greed. They are the heroes in this world. They aren’t in it for money, but instead to house the homeless, care for the ill, comfort the abused, educate the ones who fell through the cracks….  They are weaving countless social threads to shore up the safety net through which too many people have fallen. And they don’t do it for the money. Or the glory.

I don’t want our politicians to be the ones who are looking for more personal reward. For higher salaries and more glory. I want them to be the people who understand that civil service is, and always must be, about the greater good. Period. Your job is not to make corporations happy, it’s not to raise enough money from corporate donors to get re-elected and keep your cush job. No. It is to serve the people. All the people. Not just the wealthy people and the people with the privilege to access power.

The more I think about it, yes, we should be paying our politicians minimum wage. They should know what it’s like to live on minimum wage. And if it’s not good enough for them, then it’s not good enough for anyone.

But more than that, it would make it unattractive as a lifetime career, which is what we need. We need term limits for everyone. 6 – 8 years of serving the people, then go back to whatever it is you want to do. But go with a keen understanding of how the decisions of a few impact the lives of everyone. Reelection shouldn’t be the thing that any politician is fighting for. It should be the people.

I have heard, and even intellectually understand, the argument that by paying them more, they should be immune to the financial bribery of lobbyists. But I think we know that isn’t working. People still want MORE. I would much rather have people in there who are simply uninterested in what lobbyists have to offer.

And yes, those people exist. They are working around the world. But they aren’t doing it in government for at least two reasons. First, it takes a ton of money and ass-kissing to get elected. So many people are out right there, without corporate donors (to whom you are then beholden) you can get nowhere in our political system. Second, of course, is the totally unsavory reality of working in a system that is so corrupt. Why would anyone want to?

I can’t help but fantasize about a government that was full of true civil servants. People beholden not to corporations, but to citizens. A place that one was lucky enough to serve, because you were elected not by corporations, but by people. A job you could do with pride, looking back at your short and powerful career to say “I got healthcare for more people,” or “because of the work I did, more people are getting a college education,” or “we were able to get wholesome food on more tables than ever before.”

The people who would beam with pride at that are not the same people who graduate from college and automatically seek the job where they make the most money. Those two things are, I believe, mutually exclusive.

Get the money out of every aspect of government, and we’d change the world.

But in this world, the one in which I live, we still judge people by how much money they make. The goal is still a big house, 2.2 kids, European vacations, European cars and Apple watches. This is how we define “doing well.” At high school reunions around the world, the ones who are “doing well” are the ones who are making money.

There’s a quote that is often attributed to Dave Barry, though who knows if he’s actually the one who said it. “A person who is nice to you, but not nice to the waiter, is not a nice person.” The man who has a big house, takes lots of vacations and can look me straight in the eye and tell me that he has no way to offer healthcare to his employees is not a good person. Intentionally  bad? No. But not willing to dismantle the system that serves him and oppresses others. Definitely part of the problem.

The politician who isn’t willing to live on the least that our system provides to our society is not a good person. An intentionally bad person? No. But a good person stands up to a system that benefits them while oppressing others and says “it’s time for a change.”

Because it is. It is time for a change.  As a society, we should be judged by how we treat our members with the least access to power. And those unwilling to help shift the balance need to be called out.

Gently? Sure. Assume positive intent? Okay. But call it what it is.

If you are avoiding helping the people around you because you think you should make more money, that is greed. Period. There is no other way to spin it. Whether you are a politician or a business owner.

Maybe I’m old and cynical (I am both, and I know it,) but I’ve ceased being impressed by people I meet who drive expensive cars and have big powerful jobs where they make lots of money for themselves and others. Give me the artists and the social workers and the small business owners who scrape it together but still manage to pay everyone a living wage.

Do good. There’s nothing wrong with making money. There’s nothing wrong with having money. But don’t put off “doing good” because you need to make more money. There’s a lot wrong with that.

And let’s stop judging people by how much money they make. Let’s, instead, look at the impact they have on the world around them. Let’s value doing “good” more than doing “well.”


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