Friday, 15 November 2013

Fair Enough

Those who, in Peter Mandelson's immortal words, are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich tend to accuse those who are not so relaxed about it of "the politics of envy".  This is a curious accusation, if you stop to think about it.  It says, "You are not criticising the wealthy from a moral standpoint or any systematic egalitarian political analysis; you're just jealous!"  It's as if someone were to justify bullying by saying, "You don't really care about people getting hurt -- you just wish you were big and strong, too, so you could push everyone around!"

Now, clearly, we'd all like to have enough money, and then some.  Few of us, given any choice in the matter, are inclined to select the hair-shirt from the rack, or to ask whether cold gruel is on the menu today.  The problem is, who decides what counts as "enough"?  Enough to buy the kids nice new winter coats is one thing; enough to fund a private jet quite another.  Crudely, your politics are defined by whether you think the ownership of private jets by a few enables or prevents the purchase of winter coats by the many.  There are arguments on both sides, but the harsh truth is that most people don't have any politics, as such.  What they do have is a fairly pragmatic sense of social justice, of what is fair enough in an unfair world.

Radix malorum...

Now, I was amazed to learn that, if I were working full-time, my income would put me in the top ten percent of earners in the UK.  In a country where my full-time annual earnings would be seen as a pretty disappointing Christmas bonus by many this seemed unlikely, but statistics do have a way of concealing reality, rather than revealing it.

According to a 2008 report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies ("Racing away? Income inequality and the evolution of high incomes"), these are the facts on top earnings in the UK:

                             Top 10%-1%     Top 1%-0.1%       Top 0.1%
Number              4.21 million              421,000             42,000
Minimum value       £35,345             £99,727         £351,137
Average value         £49,960           £155,832        £780,043

In other words, if you earn as much as / as little as * £10K more than the national average of £25K p.a., then you should probably stop thinking of yourself as "about average" in the earnings stakes, and start thinking about where to moor that yacht, not to mention hiring some security to protect you against the envy of the 90% earning less than you.  Though, I must say, when I look at those figures I think there must be an awful lot of undeclared earnings up there at the top end.  In the final analysis, it's all about distribution, not averages.

To return to envy, though.  It is impossible -- even, ahem, for those of us in the top ten percent -- to be envious of the stinking Mandelsonian rich, because we have no idea of what it must be like to live like that.  It is even pretty difficult to imagine the life of a bottom-feeder in that top 0.1%, with an individual entry-stake income of a mere £350,000 per annum.  We cannot see these people; there is no fast-lane checkout queue in Tesco, no heliport on the roof of Kwik-Fit.  They might as well be a separate species, with different needs and imperatives, passing unseen through our lives like the Fair Folk of legend. If anything, we should pity them: what must it be like, to live sated, gated lives in moneyed quarantine?  As the song asks, who wants to be a millionaire? A country estate?  That's something I'd hate! **

So, let us save the hyper-wealthy from themselves.  In a fair enough world, no-one would have an income of less than £25,000, and no-one would earn more than £250,000.  And why not?  As multi-millionaire tax-exile John Lennon once put it,  imagine.

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth,
where moth and rust doth corrupt...
Matthew 6:19

* delete according to taste
** Though a large house in a choice part of Central London could be tempting...


Martyn Cornell said...

"In a fair enough world, no-one would have an income of less than £25,000, and no-one would earn more than £250,000."

But what would then happen to all the people who worked for companies making private jets?

Mike C. said...

Private jets would have to be a lot cheaper...


Zouk Delors said...

The figures suggest a total of 40M (what?adults in the UK?). Interesting to note then that in the last 9 months almost exactly 1% of this number have been deprived of benefits claimed ("sanctioned") for a period of at least two.weeks mostly on the grounds they are "not doing enough" to chase the pitiful number of job vacancies available.