"You know what," said a banker to me the other day, "I think they should pay me about half what I earn." For a moment, he had the thunderstruck expression of someone whose casual yawn has turned into a giant burp, and who's not quite sure how to handle the ensuing embarrassment. "Oh dear," he said, "is that irritating?" Well, yes, actually, but at least it's honest. My offer to split dinner was, I have to admit, slightly half-hearted.
He had just described the pleasures of his work: the adrenalin, the stimulus, the intellectual challenge. He didn't mention testosterone. He didn't need to mention testosterone. And he didn't, until that sudden, awkward, taboo-shattering moment, mention money. Anyway, the truth was out. He loved his job. He did not have to be bound and gagged and dragged, weeping and wailing, into his gleaming office in the City. He did not have to be "compensated,, like some Nobel-winning novelist forced to write marketing material for Rentokil, with truckloads of cash. But he got them anyway. Because bankers, unlike every other breed of human being, will, apparently, work only if they're paid several times more than a prime minister.
And then, as we all now know, they need rewards. Little treats to keep them going. Some of us have to pay for our Kit Kats and our nasty coffee-machine lattes, but bankers wouldn't dream of paying for anything related to the workplace. The salary several times more than a prime minister's only gets them to their desk. To switch on their computer, you have to give them something called a bonus. And if you accidentally give them one that's a few hundred grand less than the person they sit next to, there's hell to pay. And then you have to start the agonising process of recruitment - as tricky, apparently, as getting pandas to mate - all over again.
Which, presumably, is why Stephen Hester has just been given a £9.6m pay package to run a bank 70 per cent of which we, the taxpayers, now own. And why accountancy firms are "pushing the envelope," as they might say, to come up with schemes to help bankers to avoid the full impact of the new top rate of income tax on their bonuses. Because if we're not terribly, terribly careful -- if we step on a twig or breathe at the wrong time - they'll just bolt. They'll run off and become teachers or firemen or nurses, and then where would we be?
You'd have thought that MPs -- excoriated for their B&Q bath plugs and Ikea light bulbs -- might be a little bit cross about the whole thing, but two of them, at least (both, as it happens, from a country which shares the name of the bank for which Hester now works), could have done something about it, but didn't. The trouble is that politicians basically agree with the bankers. They think that people can be enticed to do stimulating, interesting, high-status work only if you give them masses of money. They think, in other words, that the most highly educated people in our society are the ones most likely to operate on a base level of animal greed.
How else do you explain the fact that, under this Government, the average GP's salary has now gone up to more than £106,000 while a nurse's is £28,000? Or that some council bosses now earn more than £200,000, while many of their employees earn £14,000? Yes, of course it's more challenging running a surgery, or a council, than emptying bedpans or dustbins, but it's also much more enjoyable and much more interesting.
In my last job, running a small arts organisation, I campaigned to raise staff salaries to £20,000. Yes, raise them to a level several thousand pounds below the national average. That was for people with good degrees and good CVs. They weren't sitting around reading poems; they were spending long hours doing the usual (quite boring) administrative stuff that keeps much of the arts activity in our culture alive. You can argue that a society can survive without it, but you can also argue about how civilised that society would be. A single bonus from one of those indispensable bankers could have paid us all for a few years.
Most people I know would be happy to match the wage of Tube drivers (some of whom, incidentally, marked the fourth anniversary of the London terrorist attacks with a ballot for industrial action over pay), but they realise that that's a good £15,000 more than most people earn and a figure which puts you in society's top 10 per cent. Most of them realise, like my former colleagues in the arts, that it's a pretty rare privilege to be able to pay your rent by doing something you quite enjoy. They never thought that coining it was the secret of happiness. If they had, then the whole of world literature could have disabused them of the fact, not to mention the studies which show that the happiest societies are the ones with the smallest differentials in pay.
Politicians, for some reason, see things differently. They agree with Scott Fitzgerald that "the rich are different". And so it, seems, they are. They want to grab their cake, and stuff it down their face and demand that the next one, from the taxpayer, is even bigger.
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