Since You Asked

You’re wrong – we are all wealth creators

“We will set public sector pay awards at an average of 1 per cent for each of the two years after the pay freeze ends . . . while I accept that a 1 per cent average rise is tough, it is also fair to those who work to pay the taxes that will fund it.”

The chancellor’s autumn statement

“Did you hear about that 1 per cent pay rise?”

“I did. Tough but fair, if you ask me.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, we in the private sector have to work to pay for you in the public sector. It’s only fair that you show some restraint.”

“Well, ‘show some restraint’ is not quite the phrase, is it? It’s not as if I’m choosing my own pay. You must be confusing me with the chief executive of a major PLC. No need for me to show any restraint; George Osborne is quite capable of showing restraint on my behalf, thank you very much.”

“Good job he is, too. I’m paying for your salary.”

“Is this the ‘hard-working private sector funds the bloated public sector’ line?”

“Funny you should mention that, I guess it is.”

“I’ve never understood that. I’ll admit that you pay for my salary, but I pay for your salary too.”

“How’s that?”

“You work in sales for a mobile phone company. I work as a teacher.”

“Yes, my taxes pay for your salary.”

“But my mobile phone bill pays for your salary. If the government nationalised Vodafone – stranger things have happened – and privatised the school system, my taxes would be paying for your salary while my employer would be sending you a bill for my teaching of your children. But we’d still be paying each other. This is a modern economy. Everybody pays for everybody else’s salary, except the subsistence farmers and survivalists, who look after themselves.”

“But…”

“Look, communism didn’t collapse because there wasn’t any private sector to pay for the public sector. It collapsed because the incentives were thoroughly screwed up. There’s no logical reason why an economy couldn’t be 100 per cent public sector. You’re making it sound like that’s impossible as a matter of simple arithmetic.”

“Still, communism is hardly an advertisement for the public sector, is it? The private sector creates wealth.”

“No, individual technologists, managers, scientists and entrepreneurs create wealth. Their natural home might well be the private sector but there’s no logical reason why they can’t be employed in the public sector. Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web while he was working in the public sector.”

“He’s not exactly representative of the public sector.”

“Sure, but Steve Jobs isn’t exactly representative of the private sector either. There are remarkable individuals who do remarkable things, and I’m happy to acknowledge that the private sector is usually the place where those remarkable things have space to grow. But the private sector as a whole is doing something more pedestrian: it’s providing goods and services. And so is the public sector. To suggest that some of these goods and services count as ‘creating wealth’ and others don’t, purely because some are paid for out of taxes and others are paid for in the marketplace, doesn’t make any sense.”

“Still, Osborne was right: we need to make savings. Public sector workers have to do their bit.”

“That’s a fallacious line of reasoning: it assumes that the public sector workers of yesterday are going to be the same people as the public sector workers of tomorrow, after several years of chipping away at their real incomes. They might not be. I might decide to become a mobile phone salesman instead of an economics teacher.”

“The way this conversation is going I wish you’d made that choice a while ago.”

“The question is where you want the best people. Trimming public sector wages might harm current public sector workers, or it might just persuade them to seek new pastures, to be replaced by over-promoted junior staff – or mobile phone salesmen who were sacked because of a sudden influx of better-qualified people who could do their job. It may well be reasonable for Osborne to squeeze public sector pay, but if he does, private sector workers will suffer consequences too. Sometimes when he says that we’re all in this together, he’s right – if only by accident.”

Also published at ft.com.

3rd of December, 2011Since You Asked • Comments off