Opinion

Human beings are not walking dollar signs

America's workers are more than the sum of their economic contributions to society

If we are to settle on a single lesson from the coronavirus crisis, I hope it is this: Human beings are more than the sum of their economic contributions to society. We are more than walking dollar signs, and should be valued far above and beyond our ability to make a buck — or to produce a buck for somebody else.

People matter. Period.

That might seem fairly obvious to you, a moral or religious lesson learned in childhood. But many other Americans, and certainly many of our leaders in Washington, seem to subscribe to a different ideology. They cannot separate the idea of one's "worth" from the proverbial bottom line.

This is why nursing homes have become vectors for illness, as my colleague Matthew Walther has pointed out. It is why so many prominent conservatives, including the president of the United States, want to ignore the coronavirus pandemic and send everybody back to work despite the increased risk of illness and death that would bring, especially to older and vulnerable Americans. And it is why, on Wednesday, three United States senators — all of them Republican — held up the emergency stimulus bill over fears it might pay too much to America's poorest workers.

Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) expressed concerns that unemployment benefits in the bill were too generous, that too many Americans might choose to stay home if their desperate need for a meager paycheck didn't spur them to work.

"We cannot encourage people to make more money in unemployment than they do in employment," Scott said.

"If you're a nurse aid making $15, $16 an hour, you're on the front lines here," Graham added. "You're going to have all these well-trained nurses, they're going to make $24 an hour on unemployment. You're literally incentivizing taking people out of the workforce at a time when we need critical infrastructure supplied with workers."

On the same day Graham and his allies made their objections, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced 40,000 retired health-care workers had volunteered to help that state's response to the COVID-19 crisis. They presumably did not sign up for the hazardous duty because they expect great pay, but out of a sense of responsibility to their fellow New Yorkers.

No doubt commerce is important to the functioning of society. And even during a lockdown, we need people to care for the sick and ensure that all of us have access to food, medicine, and other necessities. But in our present emergency, it is cruel to deprive our poorest workers of lifesaving resources in order to prod them back into the workplace. It is better to rely on — and encourage — a mix of public-spiritedness and pay of the sort that recognizes the hazards that, say, grocery store clerks face every day when they go to work. If Graham, Scott, and Sasse don't want the federal government to pay people $24 to stay home — the number Graham said nurses would be overpaid in unemployment benefits under the bill — they might consider paying them that much or more to do the hard work of fighting the pandemic. It is surely worth it.

But the emphasis really ought to be on getting all Americans the resources they need to live through this pandemic.

Such incentives would not deprive America of the workers it needs right now. Across the country, volunteers are sewing protective masks that the government has failed to provide. They are providing sack lunches to hungry kids and needy community members. They're running errands for their senior citizen neighbors. And they're doing all of this without any hint of a profit motive. Why? Because humans are more than the sum of their economic contributions. When things get bad, most of us understand our job as moral beings is to take care of each other because it is the right thing to do.

In the end, because of the way unemployment insurance actually works, the senators' objections didn't really make a whole lot of sense. And on Wednesday night, the Senate finally passed the stimulus bill, despite the trio's concerns. But this week has revealed — once again — something dark and selfish at the heart of American conservatism.

We cannot subscribe to a belief system that reduces people to their economic contributions, and identifies money as the single incentive to work. We humans are more complex than that. Our values will be tested in the coming days and weeks. Now is the time for us to affirm our true worth to each other.

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