We need a coat with two pockets. In one pocket there is dust, and in the other pocket there is gold. We need a coat with two pockets to remind us who we are.
– Parker J. Palmer
To be born in America is to incur your first bill: hospital births cost between $10,000 and $23,000, depending on the location, type of birth, and potential complications. If you are infertile, can’t adopt, and/or are determined to raise your own flesh and blood, you can opt for IVF treatment which ranges between $8,000 and $15,000 per cycle.
This, of course, is just the beginning of a diaper, toy, medicine, food, clothing, medical bill, etc. spending parade. Should a child have unacceptably crooked teeth, braces will cost an average of $4,500. This investment pales in comparison to average tuition costs: public schools charge at least $11,500 per year, and private schools charge upwards of $30,000.
Eventually young adults reach an age when they need to start purchasing themselves. These leaps into the future aren’t limited to landing a career, however. Some of the initial down payments youth learn to make on themselves entail looking the part, and this trend continues through out their lives. Those who don’t feel like they fit the bill can resort to self-destructive food misuse. It is estimated that 50% of teenage girls and 30% of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control methods.
Every day, 10 million females and 1 million males struggle with eating disorders in the United States. In recent years, Americans have annually spent about $38 billion on cosmetics, $20 billion on weight loss endeavors, $10 billion on plastic surgery, and $1.5 billion on tanning salons.
The cost of appearance-based self-esteem is merely one internalized asset with the potential for gain and loss. Securing employment and an economic niche is arguably a fundamental human need. When poor economic circumstances deny people the ability to work, suicide rates increase. It is clear that opportunities for financial independence and success influence our self-worth. This is a natural reaction to assigning different financial values to people based on what skills they offer, whether they risk their lives to save strangers from fires, prepare students for college, run corporations, build houses, or treat the ill:
Those who entertain us appear to take the cake. For example, the median annual salary of a police detective is $55,010. If you are a lucky, talented actor (e.g. Mariska Hargitay), you can earn $395,000 for each episode in which you convincingly portray a dedicated detective who provides viewers with a vicarious sensation of justice. Forensic science technologists earn $51,570 per year, and their dramatized television equivalents (William Peterson) can earn up to $600,000 per episode.
Professional athletes work hard to train their bodies and earn our admiration. The median salary for an NBA player is $2.33 million and NFL players earn about $770,000. Several NFL players sustain concussions and other brain injuries during their careers.
Perhaps the hardest working of those in the entertainment industry are those who compromise their safety and dignity to sell their bodies. Risking sexually transmitted diseases, cervical dysplasia, abuse, rape, and murder can cost as little as $1 and as much as $10,000 per hour. It depends on the location and what can be negotiated.
Even though we would prefer to not see ourselves as varying qualities of meat cuts, the human body’s value can be seen from other perspectives besides sexual pleasure. For example, from a chemical standpoint, the elements in our bodies are worth about $4.50. Different parts of our bodies can be extremely valuable to others in varying circumstances, however. In America, some cancer patients can now benefit from purchasing bone marrow tissue for about $3,000. The process of egg donation can cost an anxious, childless couple between $15,000 and $20,000.
According to some research based on cost estimates from insurance companies and hospitals, the human body’s theoretical worth can be priced at $45 million in America. It can provide 1,000 grams of bone marrow for $23,000 per gram. This totals $23 million. DNA can raise up to $9.7 million while antibodies can cost $7.3 million. A lung can by hypothetically priced at $116,400, a kidney $91,400, and a heart $57,000. They also found that a fertile woman could sell 32 egg cells over eight years for $224,000.
To point out the obvious, donating all your body’s valuable components would come at a larger price: dying. This would defeat the point of making money. Organ donation and trade is for helping people live longer. In America, the lucrative business of extending lifespans is chiefly fueled by two main catalysts: heart disease and cancer. In 2010, Americans with heart disease racked up $272.5 billion in health care costs. Cancer cost America $124.57 billion in the same year. It could benefit America’s pre-med students to know that heart disease costs are expected to triple to $818.1 billion by 2030, and cancer care costs are projected to rise to $158 billion by 2020.
We can only spend so much to fight the inevitable, however. When we lose our loved ones, we want to give them a worthy send-off. In spite of the cost efficiency and environmental benefit of simply burying the deceased in the ground, Americans often opt for embalming and caskets. The average minimum cost of a funeral is $6,560. This business model helps the funeral industry gross about $15 billion annually.
For some, death is not the end; it serves to amplify their influence. The saying goes that an artist’s work becomes more valuable after dying. This fact is unfortunate for artists like Vincent Van Gogh. While his work got some attention during his life, his mental illness won, and he committed suicide. In the decades after his death, some of his paintings were among the most expensive to be sold. One of his self-portraits sold in the 90s for $71.5 million. His Portrait of Dr. Gachet sold for $82.5 million in 1990, and the owner expressed wanting to be cremated with the painting when he died. Luckily, the painting survived him.
Even Van Gogh’s notable posthumous fame is unparalleled to that of the most successful martyr in human history: Jesus Christ. Considering limited access to economical records from the last two millennia, quantifying Jesus’s net worth is a daunting, and likely impossible task. There are still many other facts that illustrate Jesus’s far-reaching impact. Firstly of all we measure the years in human history around his life and death: BC and AD. And for the past hundred years, about one third of the world’s population has identified as Christian. It is estimated that there are 2.2 billion Christians worldwide, making it the largest religion with several expensive and unique architectural tributes.
In the United States, there are about 350,000 religious congregations. Of those, 314,000 are Protestant and other Christian churches, and 24,000 are Catholic and Orthodox churches. There are about 12,000 non-Christian congregations. According to one source, Americans donated $118.79 billion to religious organizations in 2010 and $126.57 billion in 2011. It goes without saying that dying produced a favorable ROI for Jesus: it allowed him to resurrect and gain followers for over 2,000 years.
The exchange of goods and services continues throughout our lives starting on the day we are born. From building an image and career to fighting for our lives, our value comes down to the transactions our peers agree upon. It’s a subjective evaluation based on the whims and needs of the moment. This game of quantifying, buying, and selling ourselves has its limits because our worth can be seen from different viewpoints.
Those who sell eggs or provide fertility services fulfill hopes for wanting parents-to-be. People with unsatisfactory body images help put food on the table for workers in the beauty, junk food, and weight loss industry. The bored inspire Hollywood, and the believers willingly write checks to their churches. Cancer and heart disease patients are worth thousands to doctors, nurses, as well as pharmaceutical and insurance companies. Upon dying, donors with healthy organs are invaluable to people who spend their lives waiting for a chance to live. And those who experience the inevitable help funeral directors put their children through college.
While it’s easier to envision a hierarchy, those at all levels are intertwined. One person’s joy, accomplishment, illness, or death can be another person’s tragedy, bread and butter, vindication, or hope. Dust can turn into gold and vice versa. It’s a transubstantiation that takes place in our every day lives, and it is comparable to any of Jesus’s miracles. But it takes a true leap of faith to distinguish tangible and intangible worth.