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Okay I should be cleaning the flat and going through unpaid bills and doing all the domestic stuff I have put off recently but I just can’t get this out of my head. The top 100 FT companies have increased their Chief Executive pay packets by 50%. It hit me like a bullet when I first heard it one early morning on The Today Programme on my way back from Harvest Mice Survey and it has been swept away in more seismic shifts in my personal life. But it’s just come back to hit home again, and I’m just incredulous at the powerful and simple immorality behind this.
Free Market Economics- A System not fully understood (not only by me)
We are in the midst of a global recession. Only last week, the system of free market economics was pulled from the brink of collapse (for now) by an agreement to service Greek debt. The EU had to turn to China to help with bail out. I am not an economist but my feeling is that the elements in the system (banks, governments, financiers and business) don’t really fully understand the processes that operate within the system. They haven’t really foreseen where the processes are taking us, and the system is on the verge of collapse. As an ecologist I can relate to the idea of knowing the function of elements in the system (dna, species, communities, ecosystems) but only having a small understanding of how the complex processes (immigration/ emigration, competition, predation etc) operate to govern its resilience. When the predictions are wrong, species are lost, ecosystems collapse.
Rise in Top Earners Wages
And in the midst of this, the people at the top feel they are doing such a good job that they deserve millions of pounds more than the rest of us who are getting by (and sometimes not) on wages orders of magnitude below this. This rise in remuneration has been shown not to be performance related. There are various arguments coming forward as to why wages keep going up and up for chief executives. The one I’ve heard put forward most is that the sector is global and that wages need to be set high to attract the best people not just from Britain but around the world. Well its an argument yes, but that doesn’t make it morally right does it. What appears to be happening is that wages are set according to the maximum earnings, not the average. When you keep comparing with high wage earners, it drives wages up and up all the time. And quite frankly, does every business need “the best” boss. Is the difference between one business guy and the next so critical for success that it justifies this endless escalation of wages. I’d like to see the hard data on that…
Markets should serve people, not the other way round
I’ll reiterate that I’m not an economist. I became an ecologist because when I was a local campaigner, a member of Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace protesting about removal of trees I wanted to know more, to understand the processes at work. I felt it wasn’t enough to just say don’t cut those 75 Lombardy Poplars down its destroying the natural world. I wanted to know how the system worked and whether those Poplars were integral to the functioning of the ecosystem. I went through a time when in my professional arrogance I dismissed the passion of those earlier years that ended me up cooling off in a holding cell next to King Arthur (they wouldn’t let him keep Excalibur). Maybe those poplars weren’t vital for ecosystem functioning but they meant a lot to people walking through the park every day.
So I don’t feel now I necessarily need to understand the system perfectly to reflect on the morality of it. I know how bitter it makes people to see these high earners increasing their wages time and time again. I think its time to call for these people to step outside their own epistemic box and realise that free market economics doesn’t operate in a vacuum. It’s a tool to serve a functioning society. Its there to see that people have enough to service their needs for living (and there’s an essay there on whether we all need a reality check about what our needs for living are!), and should be fair enough so that feelings of injustice don’t drive crime and social unrest. Perhaps a fair and equitable financial system would drive down criminality and social unrest to the point we were all spending less on policing and violence-related healthcare?
You can still protest even if you don’t have the answers
This all leads back to the other story in the news (no, not the demise of x-factor). I mean the OCCUPY-ation (sorry) of St. Pauls. What I am mostly impressed with is the protestors’ honesty over their lack of answers to the questions posed by the financial meltdown. I have heard interviews (again on R4 thanks guys) criticising the protest for not having an agenda, demands or those soundbites loved by PR people to get the message across. I love that even though it’s not their intention the protestors are undermining the system by NOT having such a strategy!
But why should the protestors have answers. It’s not necessarily there role to provide answers. It’s their role to provide a visible manifestation of the unrest that’s gripping people in the country over the immorality of the current economic system. My belief is there maybe a lot of people out there feeling they don’t know enough about how the system works, don’t have a language to express their unhappiness (except in some cases direct action or violence) and instead just put their heads down and suffer in silence.
Well its time to hold your head up folks and say I don’t have the answers, but I know this isn’t how society should work and we need to talk about how it should change.