OnWords: Earned

May 2, 2017

As we move out of tax season, you may be thinking a lot about what you’ve earned.

Our associations with the word “earn” run from wealth to work, but they cleave closely to ideas about what people deserve.

The word “earn” is surprisingly emotional.

Consider that people who rationally apply complex statistical analysis to difficult datasets can immediately get worked up when the subject turns to what people ought to earn. Economists like to say that the market determines what someone earns, but markets are abstract concepts and can’t decide anything on their own. Determining what people earn is actually hotly contested in wage negotiations, collective bargaining, and legislative edicts.

Earning is a complex game of what people can get away with charging and what employers can get away with not paying for. The rich don’t need to say, “My financial risk is more important than your labor.” The tax code says it for them. And the tax code is a result of hard-earned lobbying, not of the magic of the marketplace.    

But all of this struggle of wealth and class has its roots inside of religious notions of karmic debt and heavenly reward: earners are seen as holier beings.

Humans may have a basic sense of fairness. But economic and religious precepts mask who actually earns what and why. Rather than being universal, these details of earning are culturally determined and very much reflect who is winning and who is losing in the here and now.

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