Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Gossip and golden eggs

In 1821, John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, Whig Member of Parliament and heir to a huge mining fortune, added the nickname "King Jog'' to his other titles, after after commenting airily that 'a man might jog along comfortably enough on £40,000 a year' (it's hard to give an exact equivalent in today's money, but we'd certainly be talking about at least a million or two). I first came across King Jog when he got a brief mention in T H White's gossipy history of the period from the late eighteenth century to the Regency, The Age of Scandal.

White loved such gossip in high places, but also had this to say about its purveyors:
Their literature was one of personalities. Great thoughts on large political or moral issues were absent, leaving only the trivialities of life and the anecdotes about character which are the bane of serious historians. 
In this sense, the Jack Straw / Malcolm Rifkind scandal belongs in the gossip columns rather than on the front pages. The venality, complacency, self-importance and boundless sense of entitlement might make ordinary people angry with the individuals concerned, but does getting angry help, or do we lose sight of the bigger picture when the red mist descends? Malcolm Rifkind's self-justification, for example, might make many hard-up voters very cross indeed:
I think also if you’re trying to attract people of a business or professional background to serve in the House of Commons and if they’re not ministers it is quite unrealistic to believe they will go through their parliamentary career being able to simply accept a salary of £60,000. 
But, as Michael Greenwell points out in one of the most thoughtful reflections I've seen on the affair, it's not Rifkind's infuriatingly complacent assumption that of course he, personally, must be worth more a lot more than some insulting pittance like sixty grand a year that's the problem.

The larger political issue is that we live in a society where representative democracy takes a back seat to the notion that wealth, and anything else of value, is exclusively created by an elite class of gifted managers, the magic geese who lay the golden eggs on which we talentless moochers in the 99% rely. These geese must be fattened, pampered, petted and cosseted, lest they waddle off and take their god-like talents elsewhere, leaving the rest of us to starve as a result of our own indolent stupidity. If only we had more of these wonderful geese sitting in parliament, instead of ordinary, mediocre folk, we'd all be living in a rich, happy, magical kingdom.

Ironically, even Dan Hodges of the Telegraph, the paper that set up the sting, has completely internalised the belief system behind cash for access:
...they should earn that because they are worth it. Jack Straw will regret till the day he dies admitting on national television he charges £5000 a day for his commercial activities. But that’s what he can command, so like it or not, that’s what he’s worth...
...Forget the vacuous argument we need “more ordinary people in politics”. What we need are more extraordinary people in politics.
In short, he shares the ideology that underpins Straw and Rifkind's desperate self-justifications. But it's only a belief system and not a very convincing one, at that. Even Forbes, the parish magazine for the plutocracy, has noticed that faith that all we need is more highly-paid supermangers isn't very firmly founded in actual evidence:
They [Michael Cooper of the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business and two other researchers] also looked at pay and company performance in three-year periods over a relatively long time span, from 1994-2013, and compared what are known as firms’ “abnormal” performance, meaning a company’s revenues and profits as compared with like companies in their fields. They were startled to find that the more CEOs got paid, the worse their companies did.

Another counter-intuitive conclusion: The negative effect was most pronounced in the 150 firms with the highest-paid CEOs. The finding is especially surprising given the widespread notion that it’s worth it to pay a premium to superstar CEO... 
Forget the vacuous argument that we need “more golden-egg-laying geese in politics.” What Fairyland really needs right now is for more people to notice the non-existence of that new Savile Row business suit the Emperor just bought.