The New Economic Foundation (NEF) is “an independent think-and-do tank that inspires and demonstrates real economic well-being.” It aims “to improve quality of life by promoting innovative solutions that challenge mainstream thinking on economic, environmental and social issues. We work in partnership and put people and the planet first.” It has just published a study into pay, A Bit Rich: Calculating the real value to society of different professions (see link below). This argues that narrow notions of productivity, whilst having some relation to pay, are a poor way of judging the worth of particular jobs to society.
“In this report NEF … takes a new approach to looking at the value of work. We go beyond how much different professions are paid to look at what they contribute to society. We use some of the principles and valuation techniques of Social Return on Investment analysis to quantify the social, environmental and economic value that these roles produce – or in some cases undermine.
Our report tells the story of six different jobs. We have chosen jobs from across the private and public sectors and deliberately chosen ones that illustrate the problem. Three are low paid – a hospital cleaner, a recycling plant worker and a childcare worker. The others are highly paid – a City banker, an advertising executive and a tax accountant. We recognise that our incentives are created by the institutions and systems around us. It is not our intention therefore, to target the individuals that do these jobs but rather to examine the professions themselves.”
So, to what extent do rates of pay reflect the ‘true value’ of what is being created? How could we establish this ‘true value’? Does pay even reflect marginal productivity in the narrow private sense? The report and the articles look at these issues.
A Bit Rich New Economics Foundation (14/12/09), (see also)
Top bankers destroy value, study claims Financial Times, Chris Giles (14/12/09)
Hospital cleaners ‘worth more to society than bankers Telegraph, James Hall (14/12/09)
Cleaners ‘worth more to society’ than bankers – study BBC News, Martin Shankleman (14/12/09)
Cleaners worth more to society than bankers, says thinktank Guardian (14/12/09)
Hospital cleaners ‘of more value to society than bankers’ Scotsman, Alan Jones (14/12/09)
Bankers and accountants a drain on the state, says think-tank Management Today (14/12/09)
Are cleaners worth more than bankers? BBC World Service (14/12/09)
- What is meant by the marginal productivity theory of wage determination? Does the NEF study undermine this theory? Explain.
- Why are elite bankers, tax accountants and advertising executives paid so much more than hospital cleaners, waste recycling workers and childcare workers?
- “Until the prices of goods and services reflect the true costs of their production, incentives will be misaligned. This means damaging activities will be relatively cheap and profitable, while positive activities will be discouraged.” Explain this statement and whether you agree with it.
- To what extent can the misalignment of pay and social worth be explained by externalities?
- What is the basis for arguing that tax accountants and City bankers have negative social worth? Do you agree? Explain.
- What would happen if hospital cleaners were give a pay rise and bankers given a pay cut so that cleaners ended up with a higher pay than bankers?
- In the light of the NEF study, what policies should the government adopt toward pay inequality?
Life must be very hard for bankers in the UK. Not only are they being partly blamed for the current financial crisis, but they may now have to survive on just their salary. Imagine trying to have a happy Christmas when you’ve only earned £200,000 over the past year: it really will be a cold and hard Christmas for them. Unless of course, the government does call the bluff of the RBS directors who have threatened to quit if an estimated £1.5bn bonus pool for staff at the investment arm of the bank is blocked. Let’s not forget that RBS is largely owned by the public: 70% or an investment of £53.5bn. It’s our taxes that will be used to pay these bonuses giving 20,000 RBS bankers a salary that is at least 3 times greater than the national average.
RBS directors have threatened a mass walkout if the government does withhold the ‘competitive bonus package’. Given that many blame bank directors for plunging us into the credit crunch, some may laugh at their argument that if the bonus package is withheld, then ‘top talent will leave the bank’. However, it is a serious threat: pay out or we leave and you’ll see the profitability of the bank decline, making it less likely that taxpayers will see a ‘return’ on their investment. RBS needs to make profits to repay the taxpayer, but is the taxpayer willing to pay out? RBS directors argue that if its bankers do not receive bonuses, then RBS will lose out in recruiting the best talent. Why would a banker choose to work for a bank that doesn’t pay out bonuses?
Lord Mandelson said: “I understand the point that RBS directors are expressing – they say they have to remain competitive in the market in recruiting senior executives, and this is why it’s important that all the banks are equally restrained, and RBS is not singled out.” One solution here would be a one-off windfall tax on bonuses, or even a permanently higher rate of tax (a ‘supertax’) on bonuses.
Over the past year or so, not a day has gone by when banks are not in the news and the next few days look to be no exception. This is another issue that affects everyone, so read the articles below and make up your mind! The government has an important decision to make, especially given than it’s the taxpayers who will decide on the next government.
‘Bankers need to join the real world’ minister says BBC News (3/12/09)
UK seeks to calm fears of RBS walk-out over bonuses Reuters, (3/12/09)
RBS chief Stephen Hester set to walkout over bonus row Scotsman, Nathalie Thomas (3/12/09)
RBS directors threaten to quit over bonuses Big On News (3/12/09)
Thousands of Bankers paid £1m in bonuses Sky News (3/11/09)
Barclays bankers to get 150pc pay rise Telegraph, Jonathan Sibun and Philip Aldrick (3/12/09)
PM reacts to RBS Director’s threat ITN (3/12/09)
Banks criticise plans for windfall tax on bonuses BBC News (7/12/09)
Will biffing bankers also biff Britain? BBC News, Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (3/12/09)
Roger Bootle: Bank reform hasn’t gone far enough (video) BBC News (25/12/09)
- How are wages determined in the labour market? Use a diagram to illustrate this.
- Why do bankers receive such a high salary? (Think about elasticity.)
- What are the main arguments for paying out bonuses to bankers?
- If bonuses were blocked, and the RBS directors did walk out, what do you think would be the likely repercussions? Who would suffer?
- One argument for paying bonuses is that bankers need an incentive. Excluding monetary benefits, are there any other methods that could be used to increase their productivity?
- When we consider the labour market, we look at economic power. Who do you think has the power in this case and what do you think will be the outcome?
The rapid growth in the use of overseas and agency staff for many lower paid jobs has been a contentious issue for many in the trade union movement. Unions have demanded the same rights for agency staff as for permanent staff, but the government is reluctant to do this, arguing that the use of agency staff encourages flexibility in the workforce.
Underpaid, easy to sack: UK’s second class workforce Guardian (24/9/07)
||Explain the impact that the use of agency staff has on the supply curve for labour. (N.B. You should consider both the position and shape of the curve in your answer.)
||Discuss the government’s view that “the flexibility provided by agency workers has been a vital part of Britain’s economic success“.
||Discuss the impact on the UK labour market of giving agency staff the same employment rights as permanent staff.