What is enough?
A good friend of mine claimed that there was a Karl Marx quote in which he suggested there was only one class of people more obsessed by money than the rich; the poor.
I have tried searching for the provenance this quote but, strangely, it doesn't seem to exist and certainly cannot be attributed to Karl Marx though it could equally have come from Groucho!
That said it is a still a good quote; particularly in current times when everyone, most especially the least well off in our society, are being challenged to exist on less.
It begs the question of what is enough?
And it seems for the very rich there is never enough.
In the last week we had David Cameron minister castigating comedian jimmy Carr's use of what he considers to be the immoral use of a tax loophole.
Given that many business leaders, especially Topshop boss Sir Philip Green, who is a supporter of the Conservative Party, use a variety of tax avoidance measures, Cameron may have now have started open season for journalists to probe everyone who uses such practices.
I don't doubt that because Carr is a satirist who has had a go at politicians meant he was considered 'fair game'.
The morality of legal tax avoidance is emblematic of a divide in our society. Those who can afford to do so, the rich, will have advisors who can assist them in the most effective way to manage their financial affairs which, of course, will include reducing taxation.
For the rest of society (the majority), there is little choice but to pay whatever the rates set by the incumbent Chancellor of the Exchequer decides is needed to provide the level of expenditure on public spending .
There are currently many complicated (and politically driven) debates concerning the future of public services. The fact is that for the here and now, these services must continue to be paid for.
Therefore, if Cameron's argument is that all citizens of this country, there is always the issue of so called 'domicile status', should cough up their fair share, then I am right behind him.
However, if it is simply a matter of picking on individuals like Jimmy Carr (notably he chose not have a go at the more media-friendly Gary Barlow who alos avoids tax), he is in danger of being, as the old naval expression goes, 'hoisted by his own petard!'
More particularly, there is a danger that Cameron is seen to actively support the view of the late extremely wealthy American businesswoman Leona Helmsley who was regarded as a tyrant because of her behaviour to her staff.
Memorably, during Helmsley's trial for tax avoidance, her housekeeper quoted her as saying that people like should not be expected to contribute into the IRS (Internal Revenue Service):
"Only the little people pay taxes."
Hopefully the latest debate about 'morality' and contributions will result in the 'big' people paying more tax because, let's face it, we need every penny we can to get this country out of debt.
But what is really fascinating about all of this is to consider what might appear to be the simple question of how much money does anyone really need?
There's no easy answer. I accept that there are too many issues and complexities.
Indeed, as we know only-too-well, money is at the heart of much of what we do whether in terms of commercial relationships or the remuneration packages we receive.
Human resource managers tend to dedicate great attention to ensuring that what they pay is sufficient to create satisfaction. But as research consistently tells us, money alone is not a factor that motivates employees.
That said, believing you are being underpaid tends to demotivate. Therefore, as long as this 'hygiene factor' is sufficient, it is other aspects of the organisation's conditions that create the sense of satisfaction and well-being.
Those I come across who are most contented tend to be carrying out roles they feel offer them opportunities to advance, allow them to fully utilise their skills (especially tacit knowledge) and of course, provide recognition through a variety of 'rewards'.
Such people often, though not always, have a good work-life balance.
Sadly, as I would acknowledge, those who are really contented have a tendency to be the exception rather than the rule.
The objective that every organisation should strive for is to achieve the opposite. It creates happier workers and, by implication, a happier society.
Too much like utopia or just pie in the sky?
Interestingly, a new book suggests an alternative to the current system.
In the book has just been published How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life (Other Press) by eminent Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick Lord Robert Skidelsky and his philosopher son Edward, the argument is proffered that the main reason for our current economic travails is the inherent problem that the current system relies on greed.
As the Skidelskys assert, our present system is far too concerned with pursuing the dream of wealth over what actually makes us happy. Their book suggests that we urgently need an alternative.
Critically, they argue, the key objective is 'the good life'; a term that seems on face value to be trite. It seems too nebulous to be defined precisely.
Nonetheless, I would contend that the current state of affairs (both in terms of economic systems and societal values), in which greed is encouraged through never-ending consumption, and success is measured in personal wealth, surely cannot be regarded as virtuous?
So what would be better?
The central argument of the Skidelsky's book is that there is a need for the public debate to be much more focused on achieving a consciousness of betterment in society through income redistribution.
In effect, they believe that taxation offers the way to assist in providing a better life for all.
Given Skidelsky senior's belief in the doctrine of John Maynard Keynes, it is probably no surprise that this book places so much faith in the idea of an economic system that has greater teleology with respect to humanity and morality.
As we all know, the complexities of economic theory present a huge challenge to all but the experts. But it is worth considering some projections made by Keynes in an essay published in 1930, 'Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren'.
Keynes believed that within 100 years average standards of living would increase dramatically (he suggested four to eight times), and that industrial production would mean that as working fewer hours (15 per week), we would earn higher salaries and therefore be able to consume more.
Keynes saw this as entirely good for our well-being. Given the time of writing I don't doubt that it would have seemed like nirvana.
The reality is that whilst industrial production has provided many gains, there is an ever-increasing gap between those who are either time-rich or time-poor.
Indeed, it is highly that if you work you have to dedicate longer periods of time in order to cope with the array of tasks that are believed to be essential; such as dealing with information exchange.
But increased earnings are supposed to compensate for the additional time and these can be used to purchase things that are not essential but because they make statements about wealth; so called 'Veblen' goods (named after economist Thorstein Veblen who proposed the term 'conspicuous consumption' in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899).
I note recent reports that the market for luxury goods continues to increase.
So, in the pursuit of apparent happiness through such consumption, we need more money. Hence the incentive to either maximise earnings through being seen to possess special skills or through 'efficient' taxation schemes.
But, I suggest, happiness through consumption is an elusive dream. Indeed, if we look at the lifestyles of the fabulously wealthy one suspects that they are no happier than the rest of us; possibly less so and have a different set of values and priorities.
Hence the Skidelsky's book suggests that there is a need for limits:
"To continue accumulating beyond [actual need...] is a sign of pleonexia, the insatiable grasping after more - or avaritia, 'avarice,' as Latin moralists called it. We think that some restoration of the idea of moral limits to money-making would be no bad thing."
We know that any measure of happiness taken in the last 30 years indicates that there has been no notable increase; we may earn more but derive diminishing marginal return in terms of satisfaction.
For this reason the Skidelsky's believe that change is required through regulation of working hours, tax on excessive consumption, more control on the way that advertising takes place and 'unconditional basic income for all adult citizens.'
As they contend, there is a moral to attempt to develop a consensus about the 'the good life'.
Indeed, they posit, to continue without a view about the purpose of wealth is an 'indulgence' rich societies can no longer afford.
Keynes declared in 1933 that "Once we allow ourselves to be disobedient to the test of an accountant's profit we have begun to change our civilisation."
In what some may regard as overly-pious language, the Skidelsky's agree with Keynes when they state their belief that the greatest waste now confronting us is not one of money but of human possibilities.
The question is how might what the Skidelskys suggest be potentially achieved?
Perhaps as a start we should carefully consider the issue of executive pay and the ever-widening gap between them and average workers; in some cases the former being paid up to 100 times that earned by the latter.
The argument is usually advanced that the reason for the need for such 'economic rent' (which came from nineteenth century economist David Ricardo who defined it as the excess for using a that may be earned elsewhere for the same use), is that this is required to attract the brightest and best.
In effect, like professional footballers, for example, you have to pay the market rate to get 'the best' senior managers and executives.
But is this true?
In France the new finance minister Pierre Moscovici has suggested that a wage maximum of €450,000 (£365,000) for bosses in state controlled companies should be imposed; something that is needed as a matter of "justice and morality."
French president François Hollande believes that no executive should earn more than 20 times the lowest paid worker's salary.
Will it mean that these companies suffer a 'brain drain'? There is a view among many commentators that it probably won't.
It may not answer the question of what is enough, but it will be interesting to see the results if these changes take place and is certainly a step in the direction of the alternative that has been advocated by the Skidelskys in their new book.