The Fourth Day

Saturday, 5 January 2019

On the Fourth Day, according to the Book of Genesis, God created the Sun and the Moon and all the stars. That’s a pretty big achievement. Of course, that’s God we’re talking about so we ought to have pretty high expectations.

And here we are on the fourth day of the year. Four days into a brand spanking-new year when we haven’t even put the Christmas decorations away yet, or finished the Christmas turkey, and we have another milestone. Today the average CEO of a FTSE-100 company will have earned as much this year as the average UK worker will earn in the whole of 2019. OK - not as impressive as creating the Sun and all that, but quite an achievement, eh?

Digest that thought for a moment, along with the remains of the shortbread and those turkey and stuffing sandwiches. And have a few Rennie tablets to hand in case of dyspepsia. The average CEO of a FTSE-100 company in this country has already ‘earned’ as much as the average UK worker will earn in the whole of the coming year. In other words, they could take the rest of the year off and be as well-off as you or me. 

But maybe it’s always been that way. Maybe the folk at the tops of companies have always been that well off. No. Twenty years ago the average CEO earned 47 times as much as the average worker. In those twenty years that ratio has nearly tripled. Today he (or, rarely, she) earns 133 times the wage of the average worker.

But maybe they are worth it. Maybe they really do as much work as 133 other, but lesser, mortals. Maybe they are responsible for 133 times as much of the wealth generated by their businesses as the average worker within them. Maybe their thrusting, go-getting, get-me-on-the-next-plane-to New York vitalism has sent their businesses soaring to stratospheric levels of success that has allowed wealth to trickle down to the rest of the economy.

Er. No. The fact is that economic growth has been sluggish for years and productivity has flatlined. Most of these lads (or, rarely, lasses) are little more than names on brass plates who make little or no difference to the fortunes of the companies that employ them. Most of them are little more than placeholders. 

Does that sound like the ‘politics of envy’? Maybe. But envy is a powerful force in the hearts of human beings. It may not be nice and it may not be pretty but it is real. And it is tearing this country apart, as it is tearing apart the United States of America. Brexit and Trumpism may not, at first sight, seem to have a lot in common but they stem from the same root. They stem from a sense of despair and a sense of entrapment.

The USA has an idea they call ‘The American Dream’ - the idea that if you work hard enough, if you study, if you have talent, then you can be anything you want to be. OK - that was always bullshit, but that’s what dreams are. Last night I dreamt I was wrestling a six-foot goldfish. In the UK, in the 1980s we were sold the ‘Yuppie’ dream where, thanks to Reaganomics - sorry!: the ‘Thatcher Economic  Miracle’ - young people would be upwardly mobile.

But it didn’t happen. What has happened in the last forty years is that ever more of the nation’s wealth has been siphoned into the pockets of the wealthy and social mobility has atrophied. The gap between the wealthiest and the rest of us has got ever wider to the point where, instead of a gradual slope that one might climb through effort and hard work, there is an escarpment that seems insurmountable.

So here we are, on the fourth day of the year, and the average - note, average - CEO has already ‘earned’ as much as the average worker will earn over the whole of the coming year. If they are lucky. How does that sound to the rest of this society? It sounds like the neighbours are having a party - a party that is going on all day and all night seven days a week. And it’s a party going on in our house with booze and drugs that we paid for. And we can’t do anything about it but we are encouraged by the press and the media to blame “cheap foreign workers”. Or “Benefits scroungers”. Or anybody weaker than us. What do you think that might do to a society?

On the fourth day God created the Sun, the Moon and all the stars. Show me a CEO who can do that and they can have whatever wage they like. If not, maybe we need to rethink the way we do things