Wednesday, 23 November 2011

If the State got out of the charity business, bankers might get into it

Last night, Ian Hislop followed up his trilogy of BBC 4 films about Victorian do-gooders with When Bankers Were Good, a one-off about philanthropist bankers from the same era. Not bad, but the comparison between past-time paragons and our present-day Scrooges eventually proved a trifle wearing – and lazy. I don’t relish the role of defending bankers – but much of the ritual rich-bastard bashing rang false. A few points in rebuttal:

1. They already gave at the office
The state confiscates 50% of the money bankers can’t be bothered hiding from the taxman.  The top 1% of earners in the UK pay 24% of all the tax. Without them, there wouldn’t be a welfare state (or, at least, it would be a sensible size). Victorians barely paid income tax – in 1874, it raised £6 million.

2. Victorian governments didn’t see it as their job to help the poor
Private philanthropy was just about the only means whereby the poor back then could be educated, fed, clothed and housed. The question that must have pricked the conscience of many a Victorian banker would have been: if not me, then who? Now the question must be: the state is spending £710 billion of our money this year – why don’t they stop wasting it on the EU and foreign aid and climate change measures and start spending it wisely here?

3. Philanthropists were only interested in those interested in helping themselves
As Hislop pointed out, to qualify for a Peabody Estate flat, there had to be a breadwinner in the family, and everyone had to follow a set of tough behavioural rules – transgress, and you were out. Nowadays, the state punishes you via the tax system if you get a job, and our judges think it’s perfectly all right to swear at policemen (especially if you have a name like Denzel Cassius Harvey – Scottish, I expect).

4. Many London bankers are foreign, or work for foreign banks
Winking computer screens signalled the end of any sense of geographical identity amongst the High Finance fraternity, so loyalty to a particular city or even the area where you live has probably evaporated entirely.

5. Bankers don’t have any experience of the urban poor
They live in the sort of areas from which the poor were physically escorted many years ago. In Victorian times, the poor lived hugger-mugger with the urban rich: the worst slums in London were to be found, literally, two hundred yards from the House of Commons. 

6. Why would you want to help people who, you’re always being told, hate your guts?
You’d have to be a saint to willingly give money to people who'll only turn round and tell you it’s not enough, or that it’s tainted, or that you only made it by exploiting the poor in the first place – you bastard!

7. Why would bankers embrace today's Anglican Church?
Hislop complained that bankers aren’t to be found in churches these days, unlike their mutton-chopped, God-bothering predecessors. Completely wrong, of course. Evangelical movements do a roaring trade in the city – it’s just the C of E, which is now in effect a part of the traditional wing of the Labour Party, which doesn’t appeal to bankers (see previous point).

8. The state’s army of salaried do-gooders wouldn’t like it
Many public sector workers rely on the poor to keep them in a job – and they see it as their God-given right to be charitable with our money. They’d hate it if rich folk queered their pitch, and would no doubt be quick to co-opt the service of lawyers and health and safety officials to prevents moves to privatise compassion - that's the preserve of the state!

9. Bankers haven’t been brought up to be charitable
The eye-watering tax rates imposed on the rich by a succession of essentially socialistic governments between 1945 and 1979 meant that accumulating sufficient capital to allow for large-scale charitable giving became almost impossible. Thus, the habit – and the knowledge of how to go about it – died out. (And I bet the vast majority of Victorian bankers - who, as Hislop demonstrated, were just as feckless and careless with our money as the present mob - didn't give a stuff about the poor in any case.)

10. Top bankers used to be a lot richer than they are now
Hard to believe, I know – but the sorts of fortunes Victorians used to accumulate – here and in the States – are beyond anything all but a few Russian gas billionaires could imagine these days, especially compared to the amount of money spent (usually incompetently) by the state (see point 2 above,  or, for full details of just how much of our money the state spends, read this post on the DMossEsq blog - and watch the BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson's BBC 2 programme, Your Money and How They Spend It tonight at 9pm, or on iPlayer thereafter).

Where I’m happy to agree with Ian Hislop is that bankers have shown a shocking lack of shame over the disgusting behaviour of many members of their profession - for instance, I can’t believe that, amongst others, “Sir” Fred Goodwin didn’t end up in prison for his grotesque stupidity, greed and incompetence. And it does seem rather rum that banks who have had to be bailed out with our money should feel justified in paying their executives the type of bloated bonuses that made us all despise the avaricious sods in the first place.

But then again, I see key members of the Blair and Brown governments on our news programmes, pontificating about what needs to be done to save the economy that they and a bunch of dim-witted bankers destroyed in the first place – so shame evidently isn’t currently the new black.

In any case, the problem with this country isn’t that it spends too little money on the “poor” – it’s that it spends far too much of our money on them to little effect. 

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