Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Most Valuable Thing I Own

I had to think about it for a few minutes. It wasn't immediately apparent to me what the most valuable thing I own was. By valuable I mean something with an obvious dollar value attached to it. Intangibles like love for another person or friendships with other persons--in the broadest terms what is called 'human capital'--can justifiably be called wealth generators, but are difficult to quantify. Analysis of social trends will show that intangible are productive for individual persons. For individual persons, however, these intangibles are rather unpredictable. You never know who you might meet, what doors of oppourtunity might consequently be opened, where those door will lead, etc.

Let's me try to answer the question in a programmatic fashion, working my way through obvious things towards those less obvious items of value. I own a few computers, two more than I need. Two of them I make use of on a daily basis. The third sits on a shelf beneath the television, untouched in three or four months. Due to their age, the three computers put together probably won't be worth as much as the television.  But if we start to add up the different pieces of technological infrastructure that has slowly been built around my biological existence, the replacement dollar value for the equivalent functionality and convenience might run somewhere in the neighbourhood of $3,000. Nothing worth writing home about. I spent considerably more on jewelry and a wedding dress for my wife. Though I probably won't do myself any favours calling those items of expenditure (and by implication her) things that I own.

The other pieces of moveable property to which I can assign a dollar value? The furniture with which the apartment is furnished, including a couch and chair, queen size bed, tables, chairs, and a computer desk, as well as a few other odds and ends, have a replacement value of more than $6,000. The replacement value of my book collection runs a little higher, probably exceeding $10,000. Since the insurance company won't reimburse me for more than $2,000 of the total, it didn't make sense to calculate a more precise total.

Allowing myself to think a little more broadly about the idea of value, I realize that the apartment Sabrina and I live in has considerable value: location, access to public transport, in addition to the space itself. The apartment, however, is rented, not owned, so we could only claim to own it in the loosest of senses. There is the Ph.D program in which I am currently enrolled. It also has the potential to generate money for me down the road, though none of that is by any means guaranteed. A lot could change in the interim, including the job market and my own ability and/or commitment to completing the program

Very quickly, I discover, I have run out of things I can assign a dollar value even in the most nebulous senses of the term value. I wonder why that is. I wonder, for example, why it is that I am not living in abject poverty--given my meager amount of possessions, the moderately oppressive amount of debt I have accumulated, and all the other limitations of my ability to stop everything I am doing today, take a completely new job, and start generating a steady stream income tomorrow (or next week Monday, at the very latest). What is it that buoys up my ability to maintain a relatively comfortable material existence?

The answer that I came to about what the most valuable thing I owned is, is my Canadian citizenship. Against that backdrop, the sort of mental math that I have just been performing pales in comparison. Citizenship is a wealth generator--full stop. Of course, it takes some small amount of effort on my part to take advantage of the benefits of being a Canadian citizen, but all that is relatively insignificant alongside of the fact of citizenship.

My Canadian citizenship comprehends in very real terms all those other communities in which I participate. Family, school, religious, commercial and otherwise. Before anyone objects, I am not making a social-structural observation about how family, school, businesses, and church ought to relate to the government currently sitting in Ottawa. I am simply observing that the most comprehensive community, which establishes the legal conditions for the interaction of all other communities, is something called Canada. It is a legal reality with productive consequences. Want proof? Let's say you travel home, to school, to the store, to church. You use roads. You follow traffic laws as you negotiate a shared space with other drivers. Let's say you arrive at home, school, the store, or church. Presumably the lights are on. That electricity came from somewhere.

This puts things into a radically different perspective. Where I had been enumerating those things that I myself could 'claim' to have accumulated for myself, my Canadian citizenship is not something I can ever claim to have acquired for myself. In fact, I was born to it. All of my individual accomplishments suddenly look like dross beside a pure gold brick. The dour language of Calvinist predestinarians describes the situation perfectly: I was 'chosen' by a 'power' much higher and much more comprehensive than my individual will.

Lord have mercy! it's much worse than that. The citizenship to which I was born has made possible all my insignificant accomplishments--in the process, rendering my individual insignificance significant. The life that I lead is comparatively moderate in Canadian terms, but I can still count myself among the top 5% or 10%, measured in terms of material possessions, out of the seven billion persons currently alive today.

The interesting thing is that Canada is a relatively young country. Two centuries ago, it would not be possible for me to claim that Canadian citizenship was worth very much at all--on account of Canada not existing, and also because what would become Canada had very little to show for itself. The value of citizenship has been slowly built up over the course of those two centuries. I am the recipient of the hard work of hundreds of thousands, even millions of people, whose blood, sweat, and tears have contributed to the assembly of an aggregate 'product' that makes my life possible.

And I wonder, if this is the reality of things, why most political commentary never gets beyond asserting what mine is mine alongside a thinly veiled addendum about what yours is also mine. Have economic calculations so overridden the basic function of government that we cannot but see individual persons in terms of self-interested producers and consumers?

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