The VO is going a bit mad these days. And before you say ‘Nothing new there, then’, this is mad with a financial twist. Fresh from giving out stink about the cost of B and B for big-shots in the public service, today the Organ is focusing on the pay of top managers in the health service. It seems sixteen of them are paid over £100,000 – “almost three times as many as in the PSNI, where officers operate under death threat from dissident republicans”.
Apart from the confused syntax ( are they saying that the manager’s job is tougher in the PSNI because the cops on the beat may be under threat?), the VO takes as a given what is in fact totally not-given: that some jobs deserve higher pay than others. That’s not to say that some jobs aren’t paid more than others; they obviously are. What we’re talking about is, do they deserve it?
To answer that you’d need to know what you’re measuring when you say, for example, that a newspaper editor is worth more than a sanitary worker. The usual answer to that is ‘The editor is more intelligent than the sanitary worker’, or sometimes ‘It takes longer to become an editor than it does to become a sanitary worker’.
The first of these is a non-starter. There are things called intelligence tests, but since they measure only a small area of mental ability and even then they’re unreliable as predictors of future performance, they’re not worth the paper they’re written on. So since we can’t measure the difference in intelligence between the editor and the toilet cleaner, intelligence can’t be offered as a reason why the editor should get paid more.
The second – that it takes longer to become an editor – is generally true, although that might say more about the slow-learner quality of editors rather than the level of talent called for by the job. But even we say that editors are as quick on the uptake as toilet cleaners, does length of training mean you should be paid more? It takes approximately the same time to become a teacher as it does to become a doctor, but the doctor can look forward to a salary that’s over twice that of the teacher. So length of training can’t be the yardstick either.
What about saying we pay according to the value of a person’s work to society? (Let’s move away from editors, shall we? We’re talking about value to society.) A brain surgeon, you might say, is of more value to society than a toilet cleaner, and therefore deserving of his/her bigger pay packet. But answer me this: how many people have a brain operation every day? And how many use a toilet every day? If we’re going for the greatest happiness of the greatest number, the toilet cleaner wins hands down.
The truth is, it’s impossible to arrive at clear, unequivocal, agreed criteria for judging the worth of a job, and what someone should be paid for doing it. And since that’s impossible, the only just course of action is to pay everyone the same. ‘Nobody’s going to agree to that!’ comes the chorus. Not from the people generally. Just from the people who take home a fatter pay-packet, who know they can’t defend getting it and are terrified that someday, somehow, they’ll be found out.