It's difficult to know. Things like super-fast broadband should be just means to an end. Surely our aim should be eudaimonia, or the leading what my Ancient Greek teachers called the 'good' life.
THE MEANING OF GOVERNMENT
A chorus of Julia Gillard’s critics have recently zeroed in on the idea that she lacks what a novelist might call a ‘narrative’. Little appears to hold her government together apart from a lust for power. It’s difficult, for example, to find a central ‘theme’ or a coherent set of ideals that justify her government’s existence. In fact, when it’s boiled down to its simplest construction, the last election result seems to accurately reflect ordinary voters alienation from both the main parties. There’s little to inspire, from either side.
Only this accounts for the massive rise in informal votes (the Latham option – up by 1.6 percent nationally, but topping out at a massive 2.35 percent here in the heavily disillusioned ACT). Voters were unhappy with Labor and yet that didn’t mean there was any more enthusiasm for the opposition. A whopping 5.4 percent of voters abandoned Labor, although only a mere 2.58 percent could bring themselves to embrace the coalition. Disillusionment is on the rise across the nation. How can the politicians turn this around?
The cause is, of course, the ‘death of ideology’. Labor has long since abandoned any pretence of its socialist past; but it’s difficult to find the intellectual common-ground between (terrific) Liberal promises to properly fund mental health and maternity-leave while still offering tax-cuts. In theory, now that the big philosophical questions about the organisation of government have been answered, the focus has supposedly swung onto which party is better able to efficiently manage our society. Unfortunately this means no-one is asking the really big questions. I’m talking about, of course, money. Or, more specifically, that age old question: the distribution of wealth in society.
This week came the news that Westpac’s Gail Kelly stands to gain $55 million in incentives over the next three to five years. One’s natural tendency is to say “good on her”, although one might also pause and ponder the amount. Which actuary has decided that (exactly) $55 million is the ideal amount to motivate her. Would she actually refuse to work as hard for a mere $52 million? Indeed, is money really so important to this (already wealthy) individual that she is actually deluded enough to believe that extra few million will help her find happiness? And what do the bank’s mortgagees’ feel about each chipping in their own contribution of up to twenty dollars each, just for her? Kelly’s personal salary package only reflected a tiny proportion of Westpac’s decision to increase interest-rates by nearly double the Reserve Bank’s quarter of a percent, but she’s gaining as a result. At the beginning of this month the bank announced its profit had increased by a whopping 84 percent but a survey in May found Kelly’s customers were the unhappiest in Australia. Could the two events be related?
The issue I find puzzling, indeed troubling, is why someone like Kelly is apparently only motivated by money. She’s presumably economically literate, so she’d be aware that the marginal utility of each extra million diminishes exponentially – yet she still appears to believe that she needs the extra cash. What for, one wonders. Does she bathe in it? And could any of this have anything to do with a disgruntled customer recent attempt to burn down a branch?
Over the past half-decade, remuneration of the CEO’s of the big four banks has jumped by 70 percent. They received $44 million between them this year alone. The average wage is just a touch over $65,000. Bankers are unrepentant. They insist they’ve earned the money, although this raises questions about the capability of their more poorly paid predecessors. Are they suggesting these people were incompetent, even though the metrics of profitability were much the same? Can the bank leaders really take much credit for managing their institutions through the financial crisis when these were fully protected by a government guarantee?
The link between CEO’s and their remuneration becomes more improbable when questions such as this are asked. The reality is, of course, that the bankers have suddenly realised they’ve got leverage and they’re supping at the trough until they’re beyond being satiated. No-one doubts bank executives work for their money, however did they really deserve an average increase of 17.6 percent this year when those working in the other top 300 companies averaged a 5.2 percent top up? The average wage rose by 2 percent. Kelly appears to want more and more – and yet the irony is she will never have enough. And there’s no one to stop her. Shareholdings are now so diluted that approval is close to automatic.
This is just one example of the increasing disparity of wealth in the community and, more significantly, the disappearance of any nexus between the job and the pay. Perhaps ironically, this inequality has soared under Labor. Yet when Treasury Secretary Ken Henry offered the government a blueprint for tax reform, Kevin Rudd abandoned everything apart from a politically stupid decision to tax the mining industry (although he failed to even implement that properly).
This litany of division (or multiplication, in the case of bank CEO’s) simply serves to demonstrate Labor either doesn’t care about relativities of wealth; or, if it does, then the party is incompetent at dealing effectively with the issue. This week revealed news the politicians are themselves angling for a significant pay-rise at taxpayer’s expense. This suggests that they don’t see any problem with the way the money is distributed, as long as they get their share. Justifications are trotted out, but notice the way MP’s compare themselves with leaders of industry and never the poorest in the community. Not everyone, of course. Malcolm Turnbull could be making as much money doing nothing, but he wants to serve. Others with smaller fortunes may well feel the same, but few have spoken out against increasing their own salaries, and it’s hard not to sympathise. The reality is the politicians are just as trapped in the cycle of longing for greater wealth as the rest of us. Even Kelly, seemingly unable to match her millions to her ambition, is caught in the gyre. It seems no-one can forego an extra dollar.
It doesn’t have to be like this – it’s just our politicians aren’t imaginative enough to think beyond the rectangle of the dollar. Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, has just announced he wants to focus on general well-being (GWB) rather than gross domestic product (GDP). The Greek philosopher Aristotle urged us all to seek eudaimonia (flourishing or living well). Labor isn’t doing very well at ensuring wealth is shared around equitably: perhaps Gillard needs to centre her narrative around concepts such as this. Pondering on the meaning of life might help invest her government with a bit of purpose.