Friday, 11 December 2009

Is it time to give the bankers a break?

There’s something deeply unattractive about the way we tend to look for scapegoats for anything that causes us pain. It’s so facile. Something’s gone wrong so let’s blame somebody, just as long as it isn’t ourselves. Once we have identified our culprit, rightly or wrongly, we can turn our anger on them and enjoy the glow of self-righteousness.

This kind of behaviour may make us feel better, but its ugliness is encapsulated in one of the central parables of Western culture. Faced with a woman about to be stoned to death for adultery, Christ tells the crowd ‘he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone’. Only if you’re pure yourself can you indulge yourself in judging others.

Right now we have a particularly egregious set of scapegoats, carrying on their shoulders the weight of arguably the greatest calamity to beset the developed world since the end of the Second World War. The bankers are the objects of our wrath for having brought the financial system down around our heads by their fecklessness, and then demanded that the rest of us bale them out of the problems they created. Turning the bankers into scapegoats is obvious and easy. On the other hand, it exonerates us of our own substantial measure of blame: we took the cheap credit when it was available, and we enjoyed the fruits of a prosperity largely fuelled by their activities.

So should we perhaps recognise our share of responsibility and relativise our anger with the bankers?

This was a question I felt was posed particularly strongly last week when I heard our Business Minister here in Britain, Lord Myners’, telling the bankers to get back into the ‘real world’ when it comes to pay.

It transpired that there are 5000 bankers in the City of London expecting a bonus this year in excess of a million pounds. Of course, a lot of them are prepared to settle for the frugal end of the bonus scale and only take a million or little over. There are some, however, who expect real, substantial bonuses, in some cases of 15 to 20 million. Since a worker on median wage can expect to earn about a million in a whole, 40-year career, this means that some of these bankers want bonuses in a single year – on top of their salaries – that represent the earnings of 15 to 20 whole careers of ordinary people.

In total this group wants to take at least 5 billion pounds out of the banks, possibly as much as 10 billion. We, the taxpayers, put in 170 billion to bale them out of the trouble that they created for themselves and us. Now they want to take up to 5% of that sum, one pound in every twenty that we contributed, and stick it straight into their own pockets.

This week the government announced a new, one-off levy on high bonuses (any bonus over £25,000). The banks themselves would have to pay 50% of the bonus sum in tax to the government. Many bankers have reacted by threatening to move out of Britain.

There’s a suggestion floating around that they might head for Shanghai. The sheer layers of irony in this rumour make the mind boggle. Bankers going to an ostensibly Communist country to be free to pay themselves what they like; bankers seeking their freedom in one of the most authoritarian nations on Earth; and that regime accepting, in the name of socialism and proletarian values, that they should be able to do just that.

All this means that I think I have an answer to my question: is it time to relent towards the bankers?

Like heck it is. No way. The ‘he that is without sin’ bit has no place here. We’re talking about ‘he that is without shame’. The bankers may have redeeming characteristics, but if so they keep them well hidden.

You want to turn them into scapegoats? Be my guest. Go right ahead. Nothing you can say can possibly be too harsh. After all, you don’t have to worry about hurting their feelings. They can’t have space for other feelings once they’ve accommodated that level of greed.

The worst they might do if we get really, really rude about them? They might clear off to Shanghai.

If they’d sink so low as to travel in my car, I’d be only too willing to take them to the airport.

1 comment:

Awoogamuffin said...

Whooo yeah! I like righteous indignation - I'll be sitting in the back seat regularly hitting them round the back of the head.