Friday, September 12, 2008

 

Greed, Ignorance and the Very Well-Off


I've always wanted to use the picture, far left, snapped at Ascot in the 1980s, ever since my racing journalist mate gave it to me years ago. It so perfectly epitomizes the British class system and the expression on the tramp's face says everything a library of sociology books could never quite manage. The appearance of Polly Toynbee's book, has provided the opportunity for me to use the pic and the book's contents certainly deserve some attention.

Toynbee and Walker present their case, basically in the first 35 pages of their book. 'Parental income pretty accurately predicts whether a child will win or lose in life: the more unequally income is, the tighter the link becomes.' And income is distributed more unequally in Britain than anywhere apart from the USA. The top 10% of income earners get 27.3% of the cake; the bottom 10% get 2.6%. In 1988 'the average chief executive of a FTSE company earned 17 times the average employees pay. By 2008 the typical FTSE boss earned 75.5% the average' An ICM poll in February 2008 showed 75% of respondents think the gap between rich and poor is too wide.

Worryingly social mobility seems to have ground to a halt in that the middle classes have ensured the lion's share of the good jobs are occupied either by them or their children. Everyone is now aware of the mega, US-style salaries being earned by top executives, some earning more money than they could ever spend in a lifetime. Toynbee points out that the super-rich can employ super accountants to minimize their tax liabilities. Out of the 54 billionaires living in the UK, thirty two pay no income tax at all and the whole group paid only a tiny fraction of their earnings. Thereby, calculate Toynbee and Walker, the Treasury and the rest of us taxpayers are denied some £12bn a year.

In the next chapter the authors report on two focus group meetings with a clutch of lawyers and bankers on the subject of wealth and poverty. They displayed an astonishing ignorance of salary levels, claiming they were way down the top 10% of earners when they were easily in the top 1%. They also had no idea that 90% of people earn less than £39, 825, the higher tax limit. They seemed locked in a denial that they were even rich in the first place. When questioned on the morality of their high incomes they justified them by citing their extraordinarily hard work and desire to get ahead. They also seemed to accept unquestioningly the 'trickle down' theory, whilst even the Conservatives admit that it's wrong to 'pretend a rising tide raises all boats'. Toynbee and Walker conclude:

'Here were people who may be technically adept, or good at deal making, but as a group-with one or two exceptions- they were less intelligent, less intellectually inquisitive, less knoweldgeable, and, despite their good schools, less broadly educated than high flyers in other professions. With minds this coarse they wouldn't succeed in the higher ranks of the civil service, as heads of hopsital trusts or good comprehensives, nor would they match up to the level of good junior ministers. Most dismaying was their lack of empathy and their unwillingness to contemplate other, less luxurious lives.'

Comments:
Did Toynbee mention how high her income was or how much tax she paid in relation to it, or explained why she does not hand over more of her income in tax to make up the shortfall?

I get on OK with most Socialists - but rich hypocrites who preach Socialism while feathering their own nests I regard with utter contempt.
 
HBW
Not sure I agree with you here.
i) Toynbee does not, to my knowledge claim to be a socialist, though she is of the left.
ii)What she gets is a triny fraction of what the real fat cats take home every year. I doubt if she is paid more than £100K, a nice bit of wedge but not 'super-rich' level.
iii) aren't you shooting the messenger? If she is adducing facts and arguments that are valid, it surely doesn't matter what she earns?
iv) finally, it's a bit much to ask her to contribute more of her own income in tax to make up the shortfall: it would be a drop in the ocean and even Tony Benn would has never advocated such sacrifice.
 
Skipper

I take your point about not shooting the messenger. However, given that this particular messenger has been playing the system she is now attacking with such ruthless abandon, I'm not impressed by her; specifically:

1) "The middle classes have ensured the lion's share of the good jobs are occupied either by them or their children." This is a system entrenched by their affordable private schools - such as the one attended by first Polly Toynbee (before being sent to a theoretically "state" school patronized mostly by the wealthy) and then her children.

2) On such sources as I can find, despite reservations about their reliability, I gather her salary to be around £130,000 (so your guess was a fair one). Of this, she is thought to hide quite a bit by keeping accounts in Italy, where she has a second home. I will agree that that's not sufficient evidence to win a case in a court of law on her hypocrisy - quite a lot is surmise and conjecture - but if she is going to go off in a rant, she should be beyond suspicion herself. I would certainly say that every last word of that final paragraph you quote could be read to her with perfect justice.

Incidentally given that Benn was a staunch proponent of "confiscatory taxes," I would have said that he would be in favour of her handing over a huge amount of her income to the poor, even if it was only a "drop in the ocean" - certainly I can imagine that he would be opposed to her second home abroad.

3) I fully accept the point that billionaires indulge in colossal tax evasion, and I hate it and despise them for their greed and dishonesty. However - what do you do about it? If a way could be found to tax them, they'd simply jet off to Switzerland, Jersey or some other tax haven. At least while they're living here, they are spending money in Britain, and paying various indirect taxes. Moreover, it should be noted that among those 54 billionaires will be foreign nationals who under other circumstances would pay no tax to us at all. Do they have any suggestions - because if not, it is a meaningless point.

3) It is fair to note that I too have never heard her admit to being a socialist - nor did I accuse her of being one, saying that she "preaches Socialism." However, she is a good deal more than "of the left" - I would put her on the far left of the New Labour wing, despite an earlier flirtation with the SDP, alongside John Prescott. Certainly I think her famous ancestor Arnold Toynbee, who was undoubtedly a socialist, would find much to commend in her writings.

I hope that clarifies my remarks. Incidentally, the main point about schooling is one I feel very strongly about, so it is possible that that is what colours my view of her. I come from a lower-middle-class family and I went to a genuine comprehensive school, a tough one in the Forest of Dean. Nothing riles me more than the idea that one "comprehensive" school is much like another. Holland Park would be about as unlike Newent as one could conceive, despite the fact that they were around the same size, because Holland Park was run by rich and powerful people, while Newent was dependent on the Council (who refused it all bar the absolute minimum of funding due to a long-running feud with the then Head). I reckon Iain Gray could probably tell her a thing or two on that line as well!!

Thanks for replying anyway.

Best wishes

HBW
 
[for some reason this comment by HBW had not appeared, even though I approved it, so I've copied and pasted it as it's a fair comment and I wanted to respond]

Skipper

I take your point about not shooting the messenger. However, given that this particular messenger has been playing the system she is now attacking with such ruthless abandon, I'm not impressed by her; specifically:

1) "The middle classes have ensured the lion's share of the good jobs are occupied either by them or their children." This is a system entrenched by their affordable private schools - such as the one attended by first Polly Toynbee (before being sent to a theoretically "state" school patronized mostly by the wealthy) and then her children.

2) On such sources as I can find, despite reservations about their reliability, I gather her salary to be around £130,000 (so your guess was a fair one). Of this, she is thought to hide quite a bit by keeping accounts in Italy, where she has a second home. I will agree that that's not sufficient evidence to win a case in a court of law on her hypocrisy - quite a lot is surmise and conjecture - but if she is going to go off in a rant, she should be beyond suspicion herself. I would certainly say that every last word of that final paragraph you quote could be read to her with perfect justice.

Incidentally given that Benn was a staunch proponent of "confiscatory taxes," I would have said that he would be in favour of her handing over a huge amount of her income to the poor, even if it was only a "drop in the ocean" - certainly I can imagine that he would be opposed to her second home abroad.

3) I fully accept the point that billionaires indulge in colossal tax evasion, and I hate it and despise them for their greed and dishonesty. However - what do you do about it? If a way could be found to tax them, they'd simply jet off to Switzerland, Jersey or some other tax haven. At least while they're living here, they are spending money in Britain, and paying various indirect taxes. Moreover, it should be noted that among those 54 billionaires will be foreign nationals who under other circumstances would pay no tax to us at all. Do they have any suggestions - because if not, it is a meaningless point.

3) It is fair to note that I too have never heard her admit to being a socialist - nor did I accuse her of being one, saying that she "preaches Socialism." However, she is a good deal more than "of the left" - I would put her on the far left of the New Labour wing, despite an earlier flirtation with the SDP, alongside John Prescott. Certainly I think her famous ancestor Arnold Toynbee, who was undoubtedly a socialist, would find much to commend in her writings.

I hope that clarifies my remarks. Incidentally, the main point about schooling is one I feel very strongly about, so it is possible that that is what colours my view of her. I come from a lower-middle-class family and I went to a genuine comprehensive school, a tough one in the Forest of Dean. Nothing riles me more than the idea that one "comprehensive" school is much like another. Holland Park would be about as unlike Newent as one could conceive, despite the fact that they were around the same size, because Holland Park was run by rich and powerful people, while Newent was dependent on the Council (who refused it all bar the absolute minimum of funding due to a long-running feud with the then Head). I reckon Iain Gray could probably tell her a thing or two on that line as well!!
 
HBW
Fair points made to a degreee. Polly is open to the charge of hypocrisy, as all well heeled 'class rebels' are, but without such people, the labour movement would not have made the progress it has. I prefer to regard her- and she has annoyed me in the past by her tone and apologias for Blair- as someone who is not especially leftwing- she does not advocate any major systemic changes for example as far lefties do by definition- but as someone who is chiefly motivated by inequality. You may recall she wrote a very good book on low pay after working as a cleaning lady for a spell on the minimum wage. Her articles are the best researched of any of the major columnists and she is consistent in her views. I see these qualities as more important than any hypocrisy of which she might be guilty. I feel rather similarily about Frank Field, demonised by some in the party but always speaking sincerely and sensibly, even if it outrages left and right alike. We're all hypocrites judged by the most discriminating of yardsticks: e.g. instead of criticising inequality, why should we not give up our jobs, sell our belongings and emigrate to Africa to work for the poor over there?
PSDid you mean Iain Dale?
PPS I've checked out all my sources-reference books, wikipedia etc- and can't find any evidence that Polly's grandfather, the famous historian, was a socialist; more of a non partisan historian it would seem. But I've not got any proper biography of him so could well be wrong.
Thanks for your thoughtful comments.
 
No, Iain Gray, new leader of Scottish Labour and a former comp teacher.

THat's a fair enough point about her research and the fact that she does have some dim idea of what she is talking about - but I still feel that being consistent in her views is one thing, being consistent with her actions is another. I also have a high regard for Frank Field, but so far as I know, does not have a second home in Tuscany and therefore is not quite open to the same charges!

Incidentally, you are right about Arnold Toynbee, I apologise - I was confusing him with R. H. Tawney.

Many thanks for the continuing education - it's certainly an important issue, and that is why I wish it had come from a better messenger!
 
HBW
Tawney was a senior thinker in the party and when asked by| MacDonald if he would like a peerage, replied: 'What have I ever done to the Labour Party to deserve such an offer?'
 
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