I know I bang on a bit about the linguistic incompetence of the English, but toady I read something on the train to London that pushed all my prejudice buttons.
In today’s Guardian Jonathan Freedland has a good go at the (usually untested) arguments for the massive pay differentials in some of our businesses. The usual rationale has something to do with the assumption that our ‘best’ talent would go abroad if we brought what the boss of Barclays called the ‘compensation’ levels down to something that resembled ‘earnings’. In other words, we would be left with second-division executives who lack the ambition or the hunger to up sticks and emigrate.
He responds to this by recognising that rare skills can legitimately demand rare salaries – but also that the skills of those who earn huge amounts are not exactly rare.
?… Our objection to telephone-number salaries goes deeper. What it comes down to is desert – a notion so deeply ingrained that, yes, even a seven-year-old can grasp it: the belief that people should deserve the rewards they get.
… Most people have long accepted that there will be a differential in pay that, in the hoary example, the brain surgeon will earn more than the dustman. People understand that some skills are rare and therefore command a greater premium. They even accept that this can result in extreme outcomes, with the likes of Wayne Rooney trousering £250,000 a week. But none of that logic applies to the current state of corporate pay.
Rooney is truly a one in a hundred million talent; there might be just two dozen people in the world who could match his skills. But with all due respect to Bob Stack, that is not true of him. Nor can it possibly be true of the 2,800 staff in 27 UK-based banks who, according to the Financial Services Authority, received more than £1m each in 2009. Whatever these people are able to do, it’s clearly not rare.
Ah, comes the reply, but these are the cream of the international crop, among the very best bankers in the world. The commission report blows a hole in that tired argument, revealing there’s hardly any cross-border poaching of corporate talent. Not many of our monolingual high earners could work abroad and even fewer would want to. They like it here and do not have to be paid lottery jackpot money to stay.
Notice the (almost) aside? ‘Monolingual’ high earners? We consistently underestimate the economic cost of our linguistic incompetence – to say nothing of the cultural and experiential deficit.
So, those are the buttons Freedland pressed for me: critique of the absurd and unjustifiable differentials, a sideswipe at our linguistic incompetence, and some myth-busting about the ‘market’.
And beneath all the fun a serious question about how we value people, what they do, why it matters, and how we need to recover some connection between work and reward.