Every right-thinking person in Britain and around the world is shamed and revolted by the greedy, self-serving bankers and their hollow justifications exposed in the latest round of bankers’ pay and bonus announcements. The only action we mere bank customers can take is to take our business elsewhere.
So that’s just what we did. It’s inconvenient, but not difficult. And it feels great once you’ve done it. We felt we have to protest in every way we can. Otherwise Burke is right, evil triumphs. If we as customers of these banks don’t forcefully show our disapproval, how will public revulsion ever mount to the tidal wave that will be needed to stop these people?
It’s a small gesture for the kind of a society we want to live in.
Surely we have to become the kind of society that
says, what’s the point of a massive salary and bonus
if your children are ashamed of you?
To appreciate why the children of these bankers will, when they grasp the true situation, be ashamed of their greedy parents, consider the arguments put forward to justify the huge salaries and bonuses bankers and others vote for themselves and their cronies (often dozens and even hundreds of times the average pay of their fellow workers).
They do a really difficult job.
No they don’t. Not particularly. I was a banker once. It’s just a job, like any other. Quantum physicists and headmasters do difficult jobs. Neurosurgeons, lifeboatmen and high court judges do difficult jobs. None of these assume they’re entitled to salaries 50 or 100 times their managers or staff (who probably do most of the real work). Some bankers do a difficult job, sure. Pay them well, of course. But not excessively. Not at everyone else’s expense.
The difference is, bankers sit on top of piles of other people’s money. Since Thatcher, Blair and Brown removed all regulation they’ve got used to helping themselves from these seeming riches, without restraint. Of course, the people who allowed this are as much to blame.
They have to make difficult decisions.
Like buying ABN Amro Bank. Or mis-selling payment protection insurance. Or investing in the US sub-prime market. And so on. However colossally bad these decisions turn out to be, the bonuses are still taken as if they were a right.
Bankers do really important jobs. They need to be paid shed-loads, and then some more, so they can attract the best.
This seems to imply that cabinet ministers do much less important work. And prime ministers. And the head of the Civil Service. The top guy in air traffic control also does an important job, as do his staff. So do brain surgeons and air ambulance pilots – really important jobs. Same with architects, newspaper editors and civil engineers. And...
We want to recruit the best for all these jobs. Top bankers are not worth hundreds of times more than what top nurses, teachers and social workers are paid for the long, hard, important work they do.
If we don’t pay them vast bonuses on top of their vast salaries, they’ll leave.
Personally if they did I’m sure they’d be no great loss. But they won’t leave. They don’t want to live in Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur. In Germany, where there are sensible, much fairer earning differentials, their bankers don’t make a beeline for Britain. Are German people more loyal than British? Or just less selfish? Fairer salaries may make German banks more competitive than British, and help them attract funds at the City's expense.
Those that go would be easy to replace. With better people.
Introducing fairer salary structures will irreversibly damage the world’s image of the City of London.
Is the idea that people like to line up to look at rich bankers just as they like to look at the Queen and her family? Really, this is dredging the barrel, almost as daft as imagining fat cat bankers as role models for tomorrow’s youth, inspiring future generations...
Try any of the above arguments on a reasonably intelligent 12-year-old and he or she will quickly see through the fabrications the bankers have spun to justify their avarice. The only reason they pay themselves these sums is because they can. Because no one has stopped them. Better late than never, a few politicians are now repeating what many of the public have been saying for some time.
- Pay bonuses only after achievement. Reasonable bonuses, of course.
- Bring back sensible regulation. Reduce the unfairness of simply taking everything you can by introducing practical safeguards, making it impossible for people to set their own or their friends’ remuneration; in effect, to help themselves.
- Encourage a system such as in the John Lewis Partnership, where no one is paid more than a reasonable multiple of the earnings of the lowest paid employee. This still gives some handsome top salaries plus a shared sense of being in it together. No one objects to paying high achievers well and rewarding exceptional results. But a bonus is meant to be some cream on the top. Not enough to buy a whole creamery.
- Full transparency and accountability on bosses’ remuneration for all to see, to prevent anyone from enriching themselves at the expense of their fellows.
We live in a country that, thanks in no small measure to the reckless mismanagement of these same bankers, is obliged right now to cut the salaries of its public workers, reduce health and welfare services and scrap basic essentials to the poorest and the most needy. Yet in the last three decades in Britain the rich have got massively richer and the poor proportionately much poorer, so that now we have returned to a social divide similar to the chasm that stood between the aristocracy and the masses at the turn of the 1900s.
And the country has not yet begun to be repaid for the risk it took in bailing out the banks, at the cost of £billions. This, rather obviously, is no time for bankers’ bonuses.
Aside from the arguments for morality and fairness and the rejection of greed and self-serving there’s another overriding reason for changing this paradigm fundamentally, now. Quite simply, the fabric of our society is at risk if we don’t. There’s now real danger of serious unrest, or worse. Far from inconceivable, protests and even riots in our streets seem likely to be an increasing feature of our lives, unless our society vigorously addresses all its unfairness issues. An unequal society is an unhappy society. When our society becomes fairer for all, everyone – except perhaps the few who deserve to be disappointed – will be very much happier and more contented.
Please, let’s all push for this one fundamental, achievable change in our society.
You can start by changing your bank. It’s a really good feeling, when you do.
© Ken Burnett 2012