Putting a Price on Your Hand

Putting a Price on Your Hand

Why you should care

Out-of-the-box questions can yield BS. Or this.

Imagine this: You roll out of bed, sleep still in your eyes, and drag your feet over to the mirror. You reach for the faucet to turn on the water and — no, it’s not a dream — your hand is gone! And what if you rolled out of bed a different race? Or you were short? Or completely disabled?

These “admittedly kinda strange” questions, and more, were all proposed to 2,000 people via the 2013 American Panel Survey, thanks to Mark Rank, a professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis. What he wanted to know is not what choice curse words you will scream (I’d go with a classic “Fuck!”), but how much money you’d want to be compensated by the sick person who hypothetically did this to you. In other words, how much do you value the color of your skin, in cash?

The proposals, which are part of research for his recent book, Chasing the American Dream: Understanding the Dynamics that Shape Our Fortunes, are especially relevant at a time when income inequality and race relations are arguably at a boiling point, or at least the objects of dashes of obsession in the news cycle. And the results, Rank says, are just as unexpected as waking up without a hand (OK, maybe not that much). One was when Black respondents were asked how much money they would demand as compensation if they woke up white, and vice versa.

Black respondents said if they somehow became white, they would have to be paid an average of

$882,000 a year

while whites wanted almost half, or

$450,000 a year

if they woke up Black.

You’d think that with research showing unambiguously the discrimination endured by African-Americans — in the job market, an African-American has the same chance as a white felon to be hired — Blacks would want less money. But while some white people might have lied in the survey, African-Americans could more closely identify with race, says Ann Morning, an associate professor of sociology at NYU. “It’s a label that gets stuck to you more often,” for good and bad.

Rank also asked respondents how much it would cost to give up the American dream, which was left up to them to define — Rank suggests in his book that it consists of people’s ability to pursue their passions, have economic security and to not be discriminated against for religious, racial or other reasons. On average, white folks wanted to be compensated $501,000 a year, whereas Blacks placed the price tag at $921,000 per year. Liberals put more value on the American dream than conservatives, by about $140,000 per year.

Granted, everyone has a different definition of the American dream, so it’s not exactly an apples to apples comparison. And Rank admits that money isn’t the only way to measure the value of something. But who can resist hearing the examples: Gaining 50 pounds: $423,000 a year; losing your writing hand: $713,000 a year. The value of our own hand, to us? Priceless.

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