My burning question on bankers’ bonuses and CEOs’ salaries

10th November 2011 by

Not very often, but once in a while, a top-tier banker or CEO will appear in a broadcasting studio or broadsheet newspaper interview and be asked: Are you worth it? Do you deserve it?

It seems the answer they give is always yes, sometimes with some humility and sometimes all-guns-blazing, arguing that their know-how and talent creates wealth for the rest of society.

George Monbiot this week pointed to research showing that bankers’ performances are no better than if they had thrown dice to make investment decisions. But, as he admits, present them with this evidence and it often makes no difference to their self-belief.

For me, these TV studio encounters are frustrating. There is a burning question I want to see the financiers answer. I think it would be illuminating and help blow some fresh air through the debate, opening up an important angle that’s often not looked at.

It’s not ‘Are you worth your salary?’ It’s not ‘Isn’t the gap between the richest and poorest hurting the whole of society?’ – though these are important questions.

It’s:

“Why do you want so much more money than anyone actually needs?”

Pressing them to answer this question would make for an absolutely riveting interview. Many of the honest, or even dishonest, answers I can imagine being given would confront viewers, and perhaps the interviewees, with the question of how much wealth and how much consumption is enough, and how much is moral.

What might the honest answers be? Here are a few guesses:

“I want to earn enough so that I can move only in circles of similarly rich people and so I don’t have to mix with ordinary people unless I choose to.”

“I like to know that I possess more money than I could spend because the knowledge of this abstract wealth gives me a feeling of security and self-affirmation.”

“I want to buy stuff: Rolexes, swimming-pools, multiple homes with more rooms than I can use, haute couture, yachts, limousines, racehorses and private jets.”

“I want to reach that point where my wealth is so great that I can live off the interest on my existing wealth without having to do work that is actually productive.”

“I want to live with and die with more money and material possessions than 99% of human beings.”

“I want my children to go through life knowing only ease and total material security, provided for in every way so they don’t have to learn how to make their own way in the world.”

Their claims that they deserve their remuneration seem to convince some people, even some of those who can never hope to earn such sums themselves but respect those who have been able to.

But what would it do to the debate to air this question of what we might want enormous incomes for? Many people, most likely, would still identify with these desires, still want them for themselves and still see them as legitimate and justified reward for supposedly hard work and irreplaceable talent.

Many others, though, might find themselves feeling new disgust, anger, alienation or even pity towards those who want incredible wealth.

Airing the question, though, would help bring out some deep questions for all of us, because the gap between top-flight financiers and the rest of us arguably has a parallel in the difference between most of us in rich industrialised countries and the vast majority of the world’s people who would regard our lifestyles as those of kings and emperors.

It would put on the table for all us the question of how much is enough, whether there is a gap between what we desire materially what we need to live decently, whether our desires are compatible with natural limits and others’ well-being, and what we are prepared to forego for the greater good and greater equality.

This is an increasingly important question, because if we cling to a sense of entitlement to riches and great material ease, but the economy and declining available energy make these less and less attainable, the anger that may result can take ugly political directions into scapegoating and extremism. We all need to be prompted to re-evaluate what we can collectively afford to have and afford to desire.

So come on, Paxman, give it a shot.

Blowing hot and cold on wind

19th October 2011 by

A normal conversation whilst visiting my parents house in Wales goes thus:

Me: “Where are you off to Dad?”

Dad: “Just up to see Nora, I’ll be back for lunch.”

Me: “Is she alright? This is the third time you’ve been this week!”

Dad (looking slightly perturbed): “I’m not sure, she’s not been moving much lately – I just want to go and check on her.”

Enter Mum, rolling her eyes: “Are you still going on about Nora????”

Photo by John Williams, Bro Dyfi Community Renewables

Now you may be wondering whether Nora may be an ailing neighbour, or even a mystery female. However, Nora, the woman so close to my dad’s heart, is in fact a wind turbine, formally known as the Nordtank 500, which stands proud and tall on the hill opposite my family home in the heart of Wales.

Nora is one of two turbines owned by Bro Ddyfi Community Renewables, one of the first locally owned energy cooperatives in the UK. The co-op is owned by mainly local shareholders – just normal local people – who want to put their money where their mouths are and create renewable energy for the local community, as well as getting a small return from selling the electricity to the grid. The project was also funded by Ecodyfi, a local NGO dedicated to sustainable development, the project from which is used to tackle energy poverty through providing grants to households for energy efficiency measures.

For many, wind turbines are an emblem of the environmental movement, symbolising the essence of sustainability: harvesting clean, renewable and often cheap energy from the natural environment. Many people, me and my dad included, see wind turbines as things of beauty, majestically gracing the hills and mountains of some of the most stunning landscapes in the world. And all over the country normal people are walking the talk, getting involved with community owned wind projects from Scotland to Oxfordshire in a bid to do their bit in the fight against climate change and other global environmental destruction associated with the oil industry.

However, not everyone shares these views and aspirations. As anyone who lives near a planned wind farm site knows, there is often substantial and vocal opposition to wind power. Driving through small villages in mid-Wales you can see fields littered with increasingly humorous placards proclaiming ‘No to wind’.

Paradoxically, opponents of wind also see themselves as stewards of the environment, although with a slightly different mandate to wind supporters. One MP from mid-Wales called proposals to create a new wind farm ‘environmental vandalism’, citing the usual (and often unsubstantiated) criticisms concerning noise pollution, bird deaths and damage to tourist-luring vistas.

So how is it that members of the same community, who are fighting for the same cause of environmental protection, end up in such embittered conflict over wind? It seems to me to depend on depth of environmental worldview.

Photo by John Williams, Bro Dyfi Community Renewables

People who see the environment as a global and long lasting entity tend to see wind turbines as a necessary tool in fighting climate change, and perhaps are willing to overlook small scale distruption to the local environment. Others, who see the environment as limited to what they see in their gardens, are passionately fighting to limit what they see as destruction of the natural landscape and biodiversity in their locality – resulting in what is commonly known as NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) syndrome.

It would be naive to say that people accused of NIMBYism do not understand the environmental issues at stake. However, it it boils down to how this information is processed, depending on how you look at the world. Some people will put their hard-earned savings into building a wind turbine of their very own, whilst a neighbour may spend long hours planning campaigns to shut it down.

Obviously one of these viewpoints is going to have to change or be overruled, which is why the issue of wind in many communities is such a touchy subject. Perhaps as climate change comes more to the forefront of people’s minds, and the cost of fossil fuels increase as peak oil looms, then attitudes will change. Perhaps the people who support wind should become as vocal as the often minority anti-wind protesters, to show local support  to counteract the resentment.

Maybe it’s up to people like my dad and his friends to change people’s attitudes and show that wind turbines are the lesser of the evils in the quest for a secure energy supply. All I know, as I follow my dad’s gaze to watch a Nora happily spinning round on her hilltop throne (and I’m sure even the most NIMBYistic of my community would agree), is that I’m glad she’s not a hulking great power station.


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