The tensions of excess, both in private and public sectors, are starting to display themselves in debates over the just level of wages for various occupations. These debates occur every now and then, usually provoked by a sense of disparity related to imbalances in the economy, themselves created by lopsided government intervention. Not surprisingly, given Gordon's predilections for the City, big corporates and micro-management by an overweening bureaucracy, the focus at the moment is on the remuneration of bankers, business leaders, management consultants, politicians and senior civil servants.
Following the recent announcement of record profits and record bonuses at many of the leading Wall Street and City banks, the Telegraph reports today that the number of public sector staff on six-figure salaries (i.e. > £100,000) has trebled in the past five years, whilst Brendan Barber (general secretary of the TUC, but usually a measured critic of business) has called for a "debate" about "how big and how justified" the rewards of directors of FTSE 100 companies should be, given that they have increased 105% in real terms since 2000, while average wages have increased only 6%. Put another way, these bosses now earn 98 times more than their employees. Bosses of AIM-listed businesses haven't been doing too bad either, some of them being paid over £1m for the first time. MPs' recent claims that they deserve an increase in their basic salary from around £60,000 to £100,000 received mixed press - some people feeling that it was worth paying to get a better quality of politician, others feeling that they didn't deserve a pay increase given their supposedly poor levels of performance and the pay squeeze on other public servants. There was further criticism of the high levels of pay for many public-sector executives (i.e. quangocrats), whose average pay awards are now second only to bosses in the City financial sector. Quangocrats' pay levels have been causing concern for a while now, without any sign of a retreat.
These debates are always characterised by an absence of intellectual consistency. Most participants argue that those they favour should be paid as much as is necessary to get "the best person for the job", whilst those they do not favour should be paid no more than is necessary to fill the post. Some eschew these generalisations for even greater simplicities - people should be paid according to the amount of work they put in, according to their performance / the results of their efforts, or, for the unreformed socialists, according to their needs. Whatever system is used, what unites almost all commentators is that they seem determined to invent their own personal scale of worth, as though it would be possible to devise a just scale of wages that could be imposed from above if only people would recognise the truth of the commentator's personal value system.
What is the truth? How are we to know whether people are being paid enough or too much?