There is an oft quoted statistic these days, to illustrate the disparity in earnings between the richest and poorest in our society: that the highest paid 1% earn approximately 100 times more than the average wage. Even more alarmingly, the gap between the very top and ‘the rest’ is considerably larger, and continues to grow … this year (2017) Oxfam estimated that the top 8 billionaires were worth as much as half the rest of the human race (three and a half billion folk). But for the sake of this discussion, let us ignore the enormous and growing disparity between the extremes and look at the more mundane differences, that might affect our own average lives
Let us inspect the modest claim that the top 100 FTE CEO’s in the UK earn about 160 times as much as the average wage (this despite a slight fall off over the last two years)
Let us now suppose that Cyril Whistle, the boss of Twirpwhistle Ltd, having got lost in his own headquarters, finds himself in the staff canteen. It being break time, and feeling unusually peckish he orders a cup of tea and a slice of cake, and retires to an empty table to eat. Joe Handyman, who had been next in the queue at the counter, looks around and seeing a space, sits down opposite Cyril.
“Ah, I see you’ve gone for the chocolate cake as well” says Cyril, by way of conversation
“Indeed”, says Joe “More than enough for me till dinner time. Fuel for the old body, don’t you know”
“U-huh … and what might it be that you need the fuel for?” asks Cyril, seeing an opportunity to find out about life down below, as it were.
“I’m with maintenance. You know, pick up the faulty gear round the offices, and send it across to the relevant shop for attention. Steady work, been here for twenty years now”
“And they treat you ok? … happy with your lot?”
Joe narrows his eyes slightly; decides the well dressed fellow opposite is just a visitor. “Och, mustn’t grumble …. take home just under 2K a month; weekends and holidays me own; you know, to follow me hobbies”
“And what may they be?”
“Well, I’m building a diarama”
“ like a model …. actually, of this place. Or rather how I’d like to see it put together. Been doing it for years now. Started off in the spare room till the missus moved me out into the garden.”
“Oh really? So you’d improve it would you?”
“Don’t know about improvements. Just how I see it in my own eyes. There was an old factory building that ole Mr Whistle Senior started off in. I’ve kept that. And the way it linked in with the old rail station”
“Mr Whistle Senior eh?”
“Before my time … certainly before yours. Though I remember it as a kid, before I went away.”
“Aye, the forces for nine years. That’s where I learnt me engineering. Hence maintenance. And the diarama”
“Tell me, “ says Cyril, intrigued but slightly annoyed by Joe’s casual air., “what makes you so confident that you could improve it?”
“Did I say improve it? … just how I’d like to see it. A bit of a fancy really”
Cyril moved in his seat, to ease the stomach ulcer which was playing up again, and said “The overall picture, you’d have to see the overall picture, before you could consider ‘improvements’. The old factory had to go … too inefficient. We outsource to China now. It’s all about R&D, IP, PR, what the market thinks. I’ve just spent two hours in a strategy meeting with the board trying to persuade them of this. Toys are all very well, but the real world is different. Bloody hell, what would you know, you’re just in maintenance”
Joe looks at Cyril with a slight frown on his face. “I knew yer father didn’t I? Your his bairn, the one who took the whole thing public. Cyril isn’t it? And my name, in case you need it to send me a dressing down is Handyman, Joe Handyman.”
The general volume in the rest of the canteen had dropped, as their conversation had become more heated. The nearer tables were feigning indifference, but straining their ears.
“I don’t need to send you anything, I’ll tell you now. What do you earn Joe? Twenty five K?. Show me, and I’ll show you the difference. Another slice of cake for Joe here!” he calls out to the counter. “Damn it, bring the cake!”
Cyril cuts another slice, places it on Joe’s plate.
“There. That’s your basic wage. Now you cut me a slice that you think I’m worth to this godamned company”
Joe tilts his head sideways slightly, and after some consideration cuts a hefty slice, half again as big as his. Cyril widens his eyes in mock surprise.
“Really? Is that all?” He leaves the slice Joe has cut and lifts the rest of the cake onto his plate. “Now I’m going to show you the real world … Kitchen!” he shouts, “Send me through all the chocolate cake you have!”
A harrassed looking Mary comes round the counter and whispers in Cyril’s ear. He nods, “That might do. Send it all through. Yes, all of it!”
After a wait of some two minutes, and plenty of banging and clattering from the kitchen, two orderlies come through wielding a trolley load of cake. They place it nervously besides Cyril’s table. After a short delay, which seemed forever to the beholders, including Joe, Cyril deigns to look round at the towering display. He ostentatiously counts off a dozen complete chocolate cakes.
“This”, he proclaims, “is what I receive a year from this company”
He looks around the canteen, full with about forty other folk sat there. Does a quick head count, and addresses the crowd.
“Another way of looking at this would be to say I’m worth four times the number of you lot sat here”
With that, he wipes a a dribble of chocolate from his chin, arises with no more than a slight grimace from his ulcer, and leaves, a shocked silence following him.
Whether an actual CEO would have the brass neck to behave in such away is beside the point. The disparity is the point. For every slice of cake that every Joe receives, the boss of a major company receives not half as much again, or even double … but one hundred and sixty times as much. Is he really 160 times as good, clever or able as the average Joe? Is he like Superman, or the Silver Surfer? What are his special powers? And I mean ACTUAL powers or abilities, not how they might be perceived. Usain Bolt or Wayne Rooney might be paid a thousand times more than Joe, but even if Joe is old and infirm, Usain will not run a thousand times faster …. perhaps twice as fast, if Joe has no legs or a heart condition. So what? They receive so much more because people are prepared to pay that much more to watch them, either perform or through advertising endorsements. Does this apply to a CEO? Is he paid for actual performance, or for some obscure star quality? A good playmaker might be the difference between a football club winning the league or risking relegation. But in absolute terms of excellence the differences are slight, and a whole season is needed for these slight differences to accumulate. In front of an audience of many millions these might translate into millions of dollars, so the same dynamic applies to Wayne Rooney as to Usain Bolt … the market decides.
This is one of the rather tenuous arguments that is used to justify high pay: the market. We have to attract the best, as in a bidding war, like an old slave auction. The fact that CEO’s often receive massive bonuses even when the company performs badly suggests that competence is not a determining factor however. Their pay dwarfs that of our elected politicians, who are famously shy about awarding themselves salary increases. They are in the public eye, and may lose their jobs if seen to be too greedy. That pay increases for CEO’s have been moderate for the last two years is because shareholders are more circumspect now that public perception has influenced their voting. But the decisions are still made behind closed doors, and it is usually in the interest of those who decide levels of remuneration to aim high; big raises beget good rates for any associated with the Board. The very difference between high management and the workforce itself produces a layer of insulation …. the gods are above the clouds, out of reach and out of touch.
It is the same sort of self delusion that those who inherit wealth or privilege sometimes display …. that they were born rich because they somehow deserve it. Entitlement seems to be self-reinforcing, as Paul Piff’s experiments at Berkeley showed. If Cyril and Joe might somehow come to life, Cyril might well display a more selfish temperament than Joe. My own life experience, from being cosseted at boarding school, through life on the shop floor as a young man, to self-employment as a steel fabricator, would testify to the grand observation that the poor tend to be more generous in spirit than the wealthy.
So why, if wealth makes us mean, do we pursue it? There are certain advantages in basic wealth … .taking an hour to drive the fifty miles to Dumfries, rather than two days to walk it; logging a tree with a chainsaw rather than an axe; having a roof over my head and a stove to warm me, rather than huddling outside on a winter’s night. But these are obviously not the considerations of wealth in question. A Bugatti Veyron will hardly get me to Dumfries faster than a Citroen Berlingo, a mansion will not necessarily shelter me better than a shed …. but each might cost a hundred times more. So what are we really paying for? If we just say ‘the respect of others’ that would presume that we would need to be constantly observed to feel the rewards. But I could imagine cruising in glorious solitude down the A75, with a fine operatic aria blasting out from the Bugatti sound system, or enjoying a fine malt whisky as I look out of the mullioned windows of the mansion drawing room. I would be inhabiting a mental picture, a shared aspiration gleaned from history or advertising. True, I might be less inclined to stop for the scruffy hitch hiker, or invite the poor neighbours round. Would that be because I was more selfish than before, or because the strangers might interfere with my tableau? From a societal point of view it would make little difference …. reluctance to share is not good for society. But I admit, ashamedly, to some of its attraction. If we all lived in mansions and drove Bugattis however that attraction might not be quite as keen. It is the exclusivity that makes it appealing. So the hitch hiker still languishes by the road, and the neighbours would only be welcome if they fit my aspiration, if they enhance the picture. Their value as people would be enhanced by their peer rating.
What are my options if I find this picture of wealth conflicts with my ideals of equality? If the discomfort of the hitch hiker, or the snubbbed poorer neighbours qualifies my enjoyment? Why, I can change the picture. With no more than a click of my fingers I can dissolve that particular dream; pick up the lad by the road and answer the door; call the estate agent and put the pile on the market; trade in the Bugatti for something a bit less thirsty. It sounds easy, but would require some effort of the imagination, some determination …. it might even be called courage. I would suggest the first step might be to construct a picture of one’s own. Perhaps by putting pen to paper?