Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Other people are always the problem

Polly Toynbee, writing in her capacity as Harriet Harman's representative on earth, identifies the problem with society today: the rich. Not, of course, people who are well-off like Polly, but the "Babylonian excess" of people who are earning more than her.

Sweeping aside the urge to make some glib quip about Babylonian excess being more appealing than modern Puritanism, let's look at why this is such a bad thing for society.

It matters because improbable rewards at the top are fracturing pay scales. Senior managers are pulling away from middle managers who have increased their gap with the shop floor. The public sector has to pay more for top talent, so chief executives of small cities are paid more than the prime minister. Other public posts pay eye-watering sums to the profound discontent of those they manage. Yet down at the bottom the chancellor is trying to hold the line on a below-inflation 2% pay deal; unsurprisingly, he is threatened with a massive public sector strike as he moves next door. Meanwhile boardroom pay still rises by 20% to 30%, according to the annual Guardian survey.

Can you think of any other examples of this rising inequality? I can: in journalism - and the Guardian to boot. Editor Alan Rusbridger admits, reluctantly, to making more than half a million last year. Top columnists are very well paid (though we don't know exactly how much Toynbee earns as she refuses to discuss it when the issue of of this apparent hypocrisy over fat cats is raised. I also recall that Private Eye also asked her directly about this and she gave them some flannel about it being irrelevant). However, let's go with the reasonable assumption she gets more than £100,000 a year. Meanwhile, the discontented and poorly paid grunts threaten revolt.

Still, while it might be fun – and right – to mock this double standard, it merely weakens her credibility. It doesn't mean that what she's saying is necessarily wrong. So let's look at her suggestions as to what Gordon Brown should do about this problem. She has a range of solutions, including higher taxes on people earning more than £100,000 a year (to her credit, if we assume she'll be paying more); maybe more tax on the super-super rich; a wealth tax on "more expensive" homes; more public housing, help for house buyers and raising the minimum wage. Okay, nothing that screams "this is a bad idea" here, although a lot of it is pretty vague and full of it-would-be-nice-ifs.

But it's interesting for what she doesn't say. For one thing it seems to ignore the fact that Brown has been chancellor for ten years. But, as such, it's a fair assumption that he decided that the super-rich should be allowed to pay minimal tax; watched blithely as house prices sky-rocketed (unless I missed a lot of Brown speeches about how this madness can only end in a nasty crash]; relied heavily on regressive taxes to raise revenue, kept a tight reign on funds to build more public housing; imposed tuition fees on universities which, she tells us, are increasingly dominated by the middle classes; and the rest. Toynbee's is not a view that is universally held.

Yet, as Toynbee insists "a man can't talk like that [ie about helping the weak] for long and ignore the debauchery of riches at the top." In other words, ignore his record, let's look at what he told the Labour party in a bid to placate the left. She's either trying to shift the blame onto "the government" [ie Blair] – which is implausible given Brown's influence – or else she honestly believes that what a politician says is more important that what he does. If the latter, she really should not be paid for sharing her views on anything.

There's another interesting thing here. Whilst Toynbee is, naturally, concerned about how far the poorest are falling behind, now it's time to act because "as Madeleine Bunting wrote on these pages yesterday, there is change in the air now the middle classes are feeling the mortgage pinch, worried for their children, repelled by excess."

Well this is clearly why the Guardian's top commentators are paid much more than the ordinary reporters and subs – only they could possibly have set Brown right on this vitally important matter. It's curious, though, that it's only the super-rich (ie those richer than Toynbee) that are to blame.

They, according to her, are the only ones benefiting from buy to let. Those who are merely rich – say earning £100,000 a year – have apparently not benefited from rocketing house prices and generous pay rises. To believe this you'd have to believe none of them have cashed in on the house price boom, thereby perpetuating the gap between those who can't afford a place to live; none have second homes; none have bought or enjoyed expensive but non-essential consumer goods and none, good heavens no, have supported the government in creating this situation.

It would be political suicide, of course, for a politician to try and engineer a house price deflation (not least because the people most likely to benefit are the ones most likely to be too stupid and lazy to vote) rather than creating more homes which first time buyers will have to take on eye-watering levels of debt to buy. And hitting the middle classes to help the poor would lead to high fives and smug grins all round at the Tory Central Office. I'm not claiming there's an easy answer to all this (in this regard I'm at one with Toynbee – "none of this would much dent mega-wealth - it would just be a bit fairer") but I would suggest that the super-rich are not the only problem. Unless we're going to take a Toynbee-esque approach and apply that label to anyone who earns more than I do. Because I am pretty sure that Toynbee could look closer to home before blaming all the problems on the fact that the mega-rich have prospered under the party she supports.

There's another thing, too. Apart from a few sort of concrete suggestions, Guardian readers are getting a lot of hand-wringing, selective finger-pointing and partisan elision from one of the paper's most lucratively rewarded employees. And, as I've already noted, this might not be the best or – to take Toynbee's key concern – the fairest use of the Guardian's wage bill.

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Blogger Glamourpuss said...

Sorry, I meant to comment here, but you lost me at the words 'Polly Toynbee'. Ouch. It hurts to type that.


1:27 pm  

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