What are we worth

The article below is from a recent Lloyds List. A Wellington member has commented as follows

“I particularly like the reference to witnessing of a signature by some so-called upstanding profession that’s supposedly a pillar of our society. Very recently I have had a couple of formal documents that required my signature to be witnessed by a solicitor, MP or some other undesirable that even included a clergy.  The organisation that required me to have my signature witnessed was offended when I mentioned that I did not have the time to visit Rimutaka or Mount Crawford Prison to obtain a solicitor or a clergy to witness my signature. It must be the anachronism of the century that still requires a signature witnessed by the legal profession or a member of parliament.  Those vocations would have a larger percentage of dishonest undesirables then used car salesmen, real estate agents and brothel keepers. Hope I haven’t offended anybody by my direct regurgitation of facts”.

In a similar vein, many must have experienced trying to log on to a web site where the only selections for title are Mr, Mrs, Miss or Dr. Perhaps we should all sign in as Dr but I think my title is better.  

In the Wellington Dom Post 10 June 2009 was a letter from a Wellington member “Your newspaper refers to Dr Richard Worth MP as a retired navel captain. He’s a retired naval volunteer reserve captain. Members of the volunteer reserves serve part time, hence the colloquial name of part-time sailors, weekend warriors, or Rookies.  As a retired naval captain of more than 30 years’ service, I think the distinction should be made especially in the light of the revelations and accusations against Dr Worth”.

Monday 8 June 2009 Lloyds List 

Because you’re worth it!

by Michael Grey


THESE are strange times, when both capitalism and democratic government are being put under the microscope as never before. If you have half a brain, you can see the advantages in them both, and will be aware of all the inadequacies, let alone horrors, of the various alternatives that remain on offer in the unreconstructed parts of the world. It is just that both these great practical and philosophic movements, which have brought us prosperity and stability along with a measure of civilisation, have been grossly abused, and we urgently need to improve their performance lest they crash in flames.

It is probably overdue, this reassessment of the way we are governed and the way we organise our business, after the coincidence of the scandal of MPs’ expenses and the collapse of the banks. Perhaps it is all for the best. It is providing a forced examination of issues, such as worth, value and the gruesome sense of entitlement that has been fed by our adherence to market forces, which has encouraged everything from tax avoidance to the bonus culture, where people want extra for doing the job they are paid for.

I have never really comprehended why a man or woman who takes risks with other people’s money should be paid a gigantic bonus on top of a perfectly adequate salary. It is to retain his loyalty, we are told, and to prevent this person being poached by those who will offer more money. Is loyalty only secured by money? Evidently so, although large numbers of people who work without the bribe of bonuses from year to year for the same firm, somehow seem to soldier on. And now we have civil servants paid bonuses, which seems quite uncivil to me, although their remuneration committees seem to think it is a perfectly ethical way to behave, even though they don’t actually generate any wealth out of which this largesse can be derived. People who run local government departments seem to feel that they require the same recognition as entrepreneurs, who risk their own money.

The present introspection might just force us to think again about the principles involved when we reward people, although it is notable that just a few months from becoming effectively state controlled, the banks are already back on the bonus trail, awarding ridiculous sums to people who are now servants of the state. They don’t seem to understand what it is they have been doing wrong, and why we are so angry with them. Neither do the members of the political classes, although they must surely be getting a trifle worried, with all this talk of real voter anger, and a revolution in the way we are governed. It is time we turned our attention to Europe, which is far more of a scandal. Maybe they will be next.

It might be that we have sussed out the real lack of worth in both the City boys and the politicians, along with much of the commentariat and those who inhabit the world of celebrity in this country. We know now that these emperors are largely unclothed and are, quite simply, just not worth the money they are paid. Moreover, we have seen something of the way that they pillage the public purse, the huge divisions which have arisen between them and people who do far more important jobs, and there is now a public loss of patience and a demand for radical change.

It is refreshing that about eight months after things went pear shaped, some of the ridiculous decisions being made by lenders are at last being revealed and properly analysed. But why should we be even remotely surprised, when history informs us that banking is all too often a story of unfortunate loans, which the lender has a vested interest in making, and hopes that he or she will have moved on before it all goes badly wrong. These are the same sort of people who (albeit backed by governments) lost their shirts on shipping in the 1970s, developing nations in the 1980s and dotcoms in the 1990s. Then, after all this practice at applied fiscal imprudence and malpractice, they were able to excel themselves with sub-prime lending and the misuse of incomprehensible financial instruments.

You have to ask whether they really know what they are doing (it being plainly obvious they don’t), how they are motivated, and the degree of supervision to which they are exposed. A shrewd first step at cutting these people down to their proper size might be to examine the way these masters of the universe are rewarded, just for starters.

To me, one of the most promising developments coming out of this great and sorry affair is the fact that we have at last ceased to offer respect and awe to these people who have made such a spectacular mess of our economies. For years these pillars of the financial world have trawled through the best universities, sweeping up the best graduates from every discipline by their enormous bribes, leaving everyone else with the second best. Perhaps they won’t be treated with such respect this summer.

My passport requires renewal next year and I note that only certain categories of professional persons are deemed suitable to verify my particulars. With the possible exception of ministers of religion, (and we should be selective here), most have been effectively disqualified by the recent events as representing probity and respectability. I shall ask some shipmasters to vouch for me, just as long as they have not been disqualified with criminal convictions.

I don’t suppose it will happen, but it would be nice if people who had real responsibility, as opposed to artificial status veneered on them by custom and practice (and their outrageous sense of entitlement), were better rewarded. My mind often goes back a few years to a meeting I had with the Indian captain who was master of the biggest ship in the world. He used to drive this monster, with some 560,000 tonnes of oil in its tanks, through the Straits of Hormuz and round the Cape to the Texas Loop, and back again, for the sort of money that one of these sharp City boys would earn in a couple of days. Contemporaries of mine, who had stayed at sea commanding giant containerships, enormous cruiseships and capesizes were earning a mere pittance, when you considered the huge burden of responsibilities on their shoulders. If they fouled up, they would be given the bullet, not paid huge sums to go away as a reward for their failure, like these reptiles ashore.

Shipmasters have always been risk takers, and continue to be so, even if they have powerful engines to keep themselves out of trouble, and electronics to take a lot of the guesswork out of position-finding. Their professional skills are always being tested, their judgement being, as it were, on trial, as they make decisions about whether to press on into the weather system, whether to stay at anchor or get clear of a lee shore, or simply what route to choose. You cannot compare the often life and death decisions made by a shipmaster with that of a banker, as he decides whether to lend money to some plausible chap with a great tale of potential wealth, or the decisions of some gambler in the financial markets, who is betting on future prices.

But it is the latter people, lauded regrettably by Margaret Thatcher as the future generators of wealth in this kingdom, who were regarded as heroes by the bulk of the population. People with real responsibilities, who took life and death decisions, and employed their professional expertise and skills to the best of their abilities remained and continue to remain as a second class; lumped in with the folk who made things and ran factories and engineering works. They weren’t the people buying new Porsches every bonus season, and splurging on Tudor mansions in the Home Counties.

Just as the upper classes in the UK used to regard those who engaged in trade as quite beneath them, the folk of the financial services, the politicians, the New Labour luvvies, the celebrities and media darlings had become the new aristocrats, looking down on people who made things, and made the infrastructure work. Not entirely coincidentally, the system of rewards was aligned in such a fashion, to attribute value and worth to those deemed deserving by a value system skewed utterly, and to ignore the rest.

Well, the times they are a-changing and just possibly, out of the present chaos and uncertainty, something rather better and fairer might emerge. It probably won’t amount to a New Jerusalem, but just possibly reward might just become rather better aligned to real value, so that some council administrator isn’t treated like a star, the quangocrats are cut down to size, and the financial services and their layers of tame consultants are rewarded in a more realistic fashion.

Out of this re-alignment, it might be that engineers and shipmasters and entrepreneurs, scientists and surgeons find life less of a struggle, with society acknowledging what it is they do for a living.

One wouldn’t necessarily want to return to the days of the Indiamen, when the commanders of these ships could become enormously wealthy on the strength of a couple of successful voyages. A decent salary and a package that reflected professionalism and responsibility would be a good start.

The days of the tea-clippers, when masters of these amazing wind-powered projectiles used to take extraordinary risks with their lives and those of their crews as they rushed their cargoes to market, is certainly not what we want to see replicated. But, come to think of it, it is not a bad analogy for what has happened in the financial markets, hubris and irresponsibility, recklessness and greed leaving us all fighting for our lives on the razor sharp rocks in the confused economic seas.


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