Are Top Salaries Really Justified?

Awed by the Amazing Twentieth?

Gwydion M. Williams

Following the British election on Facebook, I saw a posting quoting someone called Katie Hopkins, who had tweeted:

“People earning £80k for working damn hard, have no wish to subsidise those who couldn’t give a damn about work.”

This Kate Hopkins is apparently famous in the centre-right media, and also cost the Daily Mail £150,000 after falsely accusing a Muslim family of extremist links.1

Speaking personally, I have a strong wish to pay no tax at all, and also to get £80,000 a year or even more. But I never felt that the rest of the society should be blamed for not giving me those things.  Nor that my wishes should take priority over the needy. And I’m also aware of the universal pattern of a tax-funded state getting bigger and bigger as societies grow richer and more secure.

The New Right claimed the state was vastly too big and that they would help us all by reducing it.  Now if they’d promised us a rose garden, they could have delivered. A government obsessed with roses might plant rose gardens all over the place. But a whole slew of governments who promised us small cheap government and low taxes have entirely failed to deliver. The ‘tax burden’ has been shifted away from the rich and onto the working mainstream, with many enormously rich corporations paying little or no tax thanks to various strange but entirely legal accounting tricks. The size of the state remains about the same.

And what about ‘those who couldn’t give a damn about work’?

At the very most, one penny out of every £10 you pay in tax might go to the undeserving.  And since they are clever tricksters, this tiny residuum are very hard to deal with without also harming the honestly needy. It has in fact been the honestly needy who have been hit. The supposed campaign against ‘benefit cheats’ was almost 100% aimed at people with severe needs. People with major illnesses or injuries have been targeted in a mean-spirited manner.

Sadly, pity for the poor hard-working people on a mere £80,000 and burdened by the rest of us is not confined to Daily Mail journalists. The Daily Mail was very fond of Adolph Hitler until he became an open enemy of the British Empire, which deeply surprised them. But Sadiq Khan, Labour Mayor of London, also seems to think that salaries nearly three times the average for someone in full-time employment is barely adequate for people living in London.1 Of course he gets £143,911 as mayor, and may well move on to something much better. But the average yearly wage for Londoners isn’t even half that. Even the average for the City of London is only £48,023,1 and that would have been pulled up by small numbers of people with enormous salaries.

As the Labour Manifesto explained, 95% of the population get less than £80,000. To the working mainstream it is a gigantic salary that they could never hope to get no matter how hard they work. It is more than £1500 a week. (Also £6666:66 a month, which might worry those Christians superstitious about the Work of the Devil.)

The view of the New Right and also of New Labour seems to be that those on more than £80,000 and sometimes gigantically more are an ‘Amazing Twentieth’ that we lesser mortals are dependent upon. It seems that most of the ‘Amazing Twentieth’ really do believe that they are the brilliant hard-working people who support the rest of us. This is the doctrine of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, but I’m surprised to find Britons believing this nonsense.1

What is not explained is how Britain had a fast-growing and much more secure society from the 1950s to 1970s with the ‘Amazing Twentieth’ getting much more normal incomes. And in fact most of the gains since the 1980s went to a more-than-millionaire class; the richest 1%: a class so privileged that you could be an actual millionaire and yet not quite a part of it. But maybe the ‘Amazing Twentieth’ are close enough to identify with this dominant Overclass.

In the past, I have contrasted this richest 1% with the ‘Next Nine’, people in the richest 10% but not the more-than-millionaire stratum.  Since the 1980s, a hugely unfair share has gone to the richest 1%, with 90% of the population getting less than they’d be getting without the ‘reforms’ of the 1980s. And I noticed also that the ‘Next Nine’ had more or less broken even.1  Yet in terms of cleverness, qualifications, talents or hard work, it was hard to see that the average member of the Next Nine was inferior to those in the more-than-millionaire stratum. It might even be that this stratum are inferior in everything apart from a knack of grabbing cash.  The amazing nonsense that was written by the late Sir James Goldsmith would certainly suggest this.1

Goldsmith himself explained how he had escaped bankruptcy thanks to a wholly unexpected bank strike in France, in an era when he would have been unlikely to recover. But the fact that his vast fortune owes quite a lot to luck did not stop him resenting any portion of it going to the wider society that had made his wealth possible.

I tried thinking about it like this:

“Supposing that one were to persuade a large group of men to play ‘Russian roulette’ as many as six times each, each time using a fresh gun. All of them would have been foolish, but some of them would end up as survivors. Looking at it in individual terms, each man might count his survival as miraculous. But statistics predict that there would be survivors, a surprisingly large number of survivors, fully one third of the original group.”1

Luck and greedy self-centred attitudes have a lot to do with the wealth of the ‘Amazing Twentieth’. But they are conceited enough to think that the vast income they receive within a complex state-dominated system is wealth that they personally have created. Ignore the awkward fact that GDP growth in Britain and the USA had showed no signs of speeding up since 1980. And that the breakdown of a stable state-regulated Western global order damaged the former Economic Miracle economies of West Germany, Italy and Japan.

The new Economic Miracle economies – Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and China after Mao – all followed the Mixed Economy pattern that Thatcher and Reagan were so keen to cure us of. These two very different approaches get lumped together as ‘capitalism’, but they need to be distinguished.1

For Britain, the top earners getting three times the average income for someone in full-time work would be quite enough. Pragmatically it might not be possible to impose such a ceiling, but it would be social justice

The high wages also go to the wrong people. Myself, I never got much more than the average for full time workers, but I found that quite reasonable. I used my brain for unconventional thinking, and such thinking seldom gets well rewarded. Is indeed quite often wrong, but I rather think I’ve got quite a lot right and that in the long run this will be recognised. Meantime what I got for my paid work was fair enough, since it did not indeed consume the whole of my attention. But what I don’t see is why some of the top people should be getting 10, 20 or 100 times the ordinary wage.

Nor do I see the top incomes going mostly to people doing anything useful. Most of the gigantic ‘financial industry’ is parasitic. Banks to hold stored money are fair enough. Commercial lending for productive industry is a skilled task and also deserves reward. But most of the ‘financial industry’ is juggling money with no useful outcome. It is just like gambling, except that there was intentional deregulation that undid the sensible separation of banking for ordinary people and banking for rich gambling. When the gambling created a financial crisis in 2008, governments were persuaded that it was the duty of the state to pump in money that saved the very rich from financial losses that would have left them slightly less rich.

“The UK’s richest 1,000 people ‘kept calm and carried on making billions’ amid the Brexit vote of 2016, according to the Sunday Times Rich List.

“Their wealth rose by 14% over the past year to a record £658bn, it shows.”1

Similar people – mostly not British citizens – own the bulk of Britain’s newspapers and other news media. They pushed a right-wing line that well-paid journalists, mostly part of the ‘Amazing Twentieth’, were happy to propagate. And they shrieked ‘left-wing bias at the BBC when it failed to play the game. The BBC now does play the game, and is losing the grand global reputation it once had.

To pay for all this, the useful parts of state spending are being attacked. If anyone deserves bigger salaries than the rest of us, it is doctors and nurses. Most of us do not have to deal on a daily basis with all sorts of disgusting wounds and injuries. We do not face the possibility of being strangled by someone driven insane by the stresses of an increasingly uncertain life. We do not have to deal with those suffering the most terrible fears or losses: things like knowing you have only a few months to live. Or consoling the parents of a dead baby. But it has also been shown that there are always enough good people who will do it for ordinary salaries and even low salaries. It is a disgusting exploitation of the higher human feelings – those that allow us to survive as a species, those that make us superior to the other apes, who are all less social, more violent and more prone to selfishness. Yet the doctors and nurses are among those being targeted so that even more money can be given through tax cuts to the ‘Amazing Twentieth’. And there is also a deep-down hatred of anything not driven by profit.

The privatised Health Industry of the USA consumes twice as big a chunk of the national wealth as does ours. But people at my level and well above it have real worries of not being able to afford the treatment we might need. Yet the Tories are determined to dismantle the simple principle of the NHS: free care on the basis of need. It is mad and an obscenity.

So you know who you should be voting for on June 8th.  Sadly, the media have given the Tories an undeserved reputation for competence. The outcome remains uncertain.

Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams