Whether it is bankers, doctors or dentists pulling in excessive pay, people are left wanting to spit at their greed. But John Varley, Barclays chief executive, reacted in horror this week to the suggestion of a Radio 4 interviewer that some parameters should be put around pay and bonuses awarded to bank staff. It would “interfere with the market”. This, it should now be clear, was a deeply strange thing to say.
Extraordinary powers of compartmentalisation may be a key skill for any banking chief. Yet this breathtaking adherence to doctrine in the face of real-world evidence is worthy of the officers of 1916 who ordered soldiers to slow walk against machine guns.
Had the banking market not been interfered with, to the tune of hundreds of billions in public largesse, it would not have survived in its current form. Something for which Varley, if not the rest of us, should be deeply grateful, and for which there must be a serious quid pro quo. And why should the market not be interfered with when it doesn’t think twice about interfering with life, the universe and everything else?
Six years ago, I proposed a maximum wage in an article for the Guardian. At the time it seemed a logical complement to the minimum wage, one of the key achievements of New Labour’s first term. The signs of the crash to come, in terms of ludicrous executive pay expectations, were already there. As Richard Wilkinson’s work in The Spirit Level has shown, inequality really is at the root of most social, and by implication, environmental problems. A maximum as well as a minimum wage would tackle income inequality from both ends of the scale.
The defence of high pay is that it is needed to attract and motivate senior executives, and give mid-level executives something to aspire to. Yet, as with so many facets of the failed neoliberal economic model, it is a triumph of self-serving assertion over reality.
The unintended consequences of that argument lie all around us in the landscape of the recession. But, more than that, the existence of an inverse relationship between pay and performance has been demonstrated for FTSE 100 companies. One of the fathers of modern banking, JP Morgan, believed that to motivate people you didn’t need a ratio of more than 10 between the highest and lowest paid. This is common knowledge in management school, but seemingly ignored in the workplace.
We know now all too well how destructive are the forces of seeking profit and pay maximisation for their own sake. Another benefit emerges of capping high pay or setting a maximum ratio between highest and lowest paid: beyond that level, an executive’s performance has to be judged against achievements other than personal accumulation. So, instead of status derived from higher incomes, the desire to excel can instead be directed toward the social contribution and environmental performance of the bank or company involved.
In an efficiently functioning market, there should be no exorbitant pay or profits. Competition is supposed to deal with that. There should always be someone or some business prepared to offer the same goods, skills or services and do the job for less. The pressure at the top should be down, not up on salaries.
Varley is fond of using the example of footballers pay to defend bank bonuses. But football managers get sacked. Varley himself earned more than £1m as the banking system crashed around him in 2008. Time to blow for a foul and show a maximum-wage card to those bringing the economic game into disrepute.