Bankers’ bonuses are an easy target. Politicians should raise other excesses, such as footballers’ pay or lottery winnings
Politicians have been falling over themselves to have the toughest stance on Stephen Hester’s £1m bonus from RBS, which he has now turned down. Being tough on bankers’ bonuses is seen as an easy vote-winner, and they are desperate to make political capital out of the public mood. Like anyone with a commitment to greater social equality I don’t dissent from the near-universal criticism of Hester’s bonus. However I can’t help feeling cynical about the outcry. If politicians are so concerned about pay excesses, why don’t they talk about some of the other areas of excess – the obscene pay of footballers, for example, or unimaginably vast lottery winnings.
By the standards of footballers’ pay and EuroMillions windfalls, Hester’s bonus looks almost modest. Wayne Rooney earns around £18m a year. Gareth Bull, one of EuroMillions’ latest beneficiaries, has just received over £40m for choosing the right balls. There have been several other wins of over £100m. For some reason a different logic is applied to these gains. Rooney and his superstar peers are seen as somehow worth these amounts, although I’ve never grasped why. Meanwhile the lottery comes under a different logic, one about chance and luck and embodying a collective cultural fantasy about waking up one day with more money than we could ever need or earn or even dream of.
But these amounts seem just as wrong to me as bankers’ bonuses. Would it really ruin football if footballers enjoyed more restrained levels of pay? No. Would it spoil the fun or destroy the fantasy of a changed life if the lottery were capped at a “modest” few million? Hardly. People would continue to play, and those amounts would make anyone feel lucky.
Some reading this will accuse me of being a killjoy. They’ll say that football brings great pleasure, and that the wealth of the players sets a great example – showing how people who don’t come from a privileged background can reach the top. Ditto the lottery. This will be defended as feeding us with heartwarming stories of modest people suddenly raised to the same level of wealth as the most successful or privileged.
I’d be more tolerant of these views if these scenarios of “ordinary” people becoming super-rich yielded anything except the most depressing spectacle of consumerist society. I long for the day when a lottery winner doesn’t list the expensive cars he’s going to buy and instead talks about the charity they intend to support. Or a footballer announces that instead of spending his money on vast houses and stupidly expensive clothes for his children, he’s going to put his money into something supporting kids from his own sort of background.
If the model these new super-rich based themselves on was a bit more like Bill Gates it would more acceptable. Instead they are set up as symbols of what we are all supposed to want: loads of dosh to spend on expensive goods. Or as the National Lottery spelled out in describing the desires of the latest winner: “Top of the shopping list for Gareth is a box at his beloved Manchester United, followed by a Range Rover Sport, a villa somewhere abroad.”
It’s much easier for politicians to bash bankers’ bonuses than it is to have a go at the other kinds of easy money in our society. That’s because they know stirring up traditional class attitude at the moment is a vote-winner, and much easier than raising deeper and more difficult questions – about the rampant consumerism promoted by these kinds of huge earnings, and about whether we are rewarding the right people in this society.
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