Envy politics

London tube strikes are always amusing. The streets swarm with a variety of tourists holding the hilarious belief they will be able to hail a taxi, commuters who have decided they’re on safari and wander round with big backpacks and integrated hydration systems, and of course the hobby cyclists who try to get themselves killed on High Holborn.
I have no particular sympathy for the strike, as it’s a case of the union having spent a decade crying wolf. Now they are losing their jobs, which is most certainly a reason to voice resistance, but when the going was good, they still went on strike about tea breaks.

People are all hypocrites about unions though, along with poverty, inequality, privilege and wealth. I don’t think many people disagree that the establishment of the unions was a good thing, at a time when it was perfectly possible to employ children in workhouses, work them twelve hours a day, and pay them a few pennies. We like to think that since all that is in the past, unions are anachronistic dinosaurs. We would prefer to forget why almost everything we consume is made in China, where workers have no rights at all. Of course we still carry on buying iPhones, mostly in the full knowledge of how bad the conditions of the people who make them are. If the various unions bankrolling the Labour Party are really so exercised by inequality, why haven’t they spent the last 20 years forming global alliances, talking to all the factory workers in the world about demanding better pay, better hours, safer factories? It would in some ways be a tactical move, given that low pay is the reason all the manufacturing jobs are in the third world, and removing those rock bottom rates by bankrolling third world unions could result in jobs coming back here. Long term, it would surely be a good thing for everyone if working conditions were globally standardised in some way. I’ve been reading a lot about Thomas Picketty over the last week, and his idea that the only way to prevent the gap between rich and poor getting ever wider is to introduce global taxes on wealth. His idea seems to be that since money makes money, taxation should focus on capital assets rather than income, as the growth of the former is far outstripping the latter in all developed democracies. As everyone has hastened to point out, it would never work, mainly because we know that there are far too many vested interests at every level. We’re all constantly convinced of the status quo, the idea that the way things are is the only way they can be. Little worker ants running around all day long scraping together the money for their mortgages and rents, while the big ant (or whatever it is in an ants nest) is sitting on a deck chair making money out of his mortgage backed investments without putting down his piña colada.

People in this country mostly dislike strikes and unions, partly because most white collar workers are not members of a union, and view it therefore as unfair. Someone in HR at a global bank once told me, when I expressed surprise that Unite had a presence, “oh the damn union, that’s just for the cashiers, we’ve been trying to get them out of here for years”. I found it rather surprising that she was in a packed lift at the time, and didn’t seem to care who overheard her.

However, people also dislike huge gaps between workers’ and managers’ salaries, which is the end result of a lack of representation. They don’t like the idea of inherited wealth either, yet Bob Diamond, who apparently came from grinding poverty, is universally despised because he has dedicated his life to making as much money as possible. Basically the whole world hates rich people, and tax dodgers, until they get rich themselves, at which point they hire a good accountant and complain about how no one appreciates how hard they have worked for this. The real problem is that any policy targeted at making the rich less rich is driven by satisfying the sour grapes attitudes of people who feel they deserve much more, without really having made a contribution. I agree that the rich should be less rich, but not really for any particularly ideological reasons. I just find it faintly immoral to sit on several billion pounds sterling without trying to do something useful with it. For me, “something useful” could be as simple as paying all your taxes.f the 100+ billionaires all fired their tax accountants and withdrew salaries rather than dividends from their holding companies, we’d fix the deficit a lot quicker. Or maybe they could lend the government a few billion below market rates. In the past, rich people would build things, or become patrons of the arts, largely of course for their own vanity, but that certainly made the world more beautiful. Perhaps only the middle classes can afford to be so disparaging about money. They envy whatever is left of the aristocracy, but laugh at the vulgarity of self made men that have often come from dire poverty.

People no longer accept that pay is dictated by what the market will pay for it. They expect the market to have a moral compass, perhaps to accord greater value to the jobs we most admire. A market does no such thing. In a capitalist structure, it will eventually find the lowest price for every product or service. In a global economy, and assuming free movement of labour, that means that wages for menial jobs could theoretically go through the floor, until all taxi drivers earn in London what they do in Dhaka. The reason that doesn’t happen (yet) is that governments implement controls such as immigration and minimum wages. It is governments that should be moral, that should apply to the markets an idealised view of how we want to live, and regulate activities accordingly.

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