The good money we earn – is it ours by divine right? Did we work so hard for it that we are right to feel affronted by demands to donate any portion of it to those less well-endowed, who didn’t? I’ll call this Polly’s paradox, after Polly Toynbee , noting that even Labour supporters think current state benefit levels are too high. No-one, it seems, can bring themselves to admire the principle of above-subsistence state support for those in need. Not even for children in need. Not even, apparently, those in need, which is most of us at some time or other. Ms Toynbee has no solution, beyond hoping that opinions will soften when people see benefit cuts affect their nearest and dearest, but I fear the problem is weirder than that. We are capable of enormous feats of doublethink: “Oh I didn’t mean you are a layabout scrounger! Or me! Just everyone else on disability benefit/tax credits/housing benefit!”
As far as I can see, attitudes will only change when the link between pay levels and respectability is severed. When the public, en masse, recognises that, not only mega-salaries, but most halfway-decent salaries are probably less well-earned than miniscule ones, or indeed non-existent ones. That the hardest, most stressed workers of all are probably those who are not paid at all, except in benefits; a serial single mother, or a long-term carer, for example, on a run-down estate. How can anyone who is any kind of mother be fooled by the Daily Mail into imagining these lives are just one long irresponsible adventure holiday?
I’m going to come clean now about my most embarrassing personal secret: I too live off unearned income, and have done for several years. As a parent of young child, whose partially disabled father works long hours for virtually nothing, in the hope (his only hope) of improving his skills and contacts sufficiently to one day earn more; without a fortuitous inheritance just after our child’s birth, we would all be very poor indeed, and a lot more dependent on tax credits than we are at present. I’m not proud of it; on the contrary, I am as ashamed of my unearned income as any benefit scrounger. I have conscientiously avoided the kind of self-congratulatory circles where private incomes are relatively common, which has isolated me, in terms of social class, but there it is; that choice of mine virtually made itself. Actually, I’m not sure, given my other circumstances, that it was really a choice. Whatever, without that private income, my child would suffer, particularly in years to come.
One thing the banking crisis, and the mega-salaries’ publicity which followed did for me was make my own private guilt easier to bear. I didn’t earn my little pot of money, I didn’t deserve it, didn’t work hard enough for it – but by god, neither did a great many other people. And neither will their children, most likely with far fewer conscience pricks than I’ve had.
Yeah, sneer, please do, because I’m not trying to make myself likeable, I’m trying to make a point. Vast amounts of insufficiently earned income is a fact of life in places like the UK today where wealth differentials soar. It’s paid for by far vaster amounts of mass-distributed micro-incomes that have probably been “earned”, by comparison, ten or twenty or 100 times over.
Until the public comes to question the generally-held conviction that high salaries (and soaring capital assets) are deservedly and honestly enjoyed by people who are simply “better” than the rest, rather than just a bit more fortunate, it will never accept the levels of tax-redistribution necessary to give the children of the underclass a genuine fighting chance.
I’ve lived in developing countries where wealth-poverty diversions are far more extreme than here. There, you can hear the privileged openly convincing itself of the innate inferiority of the masses; serious, quasi-scientific reasons a bit like Boris Johnson’s are trotted out in polite conversation why the best of them will never be good for anything but domestic service or production lines. Clearly, to many of the wealthy, the poor and uneducated really do belong to a different animal species. It’s easy to be shocked, but I understand that some people need to believe it. How else could they live comfortably as they do?
The facility with which those convoluted arguments flowed on the other side of the Atlantic give me little optimism about what’s happening here. I don’t think British people are any more naturally egalitarian. We’re moving backwards towards underdevelopment, towards widening social classes, away from national consensus and all-mucking-in-together – and apparently, we’re supposed to be proud of it.