I’ve been trying to conduct a thought experiment about life in Britain in recent decades. It goes like this. There are two identical twins. Both equally hard-working and both equally committed to their chosen careers. One is an NHS nurse. The other is an investment banker.
Assuming that they both finished their training 20 years ago here is how I think life might have gone for each of them.
The path of reward
The investment banker began at the bottom selling bundles of safe and unsafe investments to banks and financial companies. Her sales pitch was simple – putting together a mixture of loans would enable the buyers to receive high rates of interest whilst enjoying the security that came with spreading the risk across many different debtors. It was, she got used to explaining, almost impossible to lose money by investing in these exciting new products and everyone involved could enjoy the benefits of higher profits.
The sales rolled in. She pocketed some very nice bonuses and bought a good house and a very expensive new car. Then the 2008 financial crisis hit. Sales dried up, financial institutions all needed money at the same time and the products that her company had sold them turned out to be impossible to turn into cash. There was a horrible crash.
Just as she was worrying that she might be out of a job at a time when the entire western economy was entering a tailspin her company got a huge injection of cash from the Bank of England and help from the British government. It was too big to fail.
For a while she had to switch to a steadier job within the investment bank on lower pay but she was never asked to pay back any of those bonuses and before long the investment bank had found new ways to get back into profit. Soon she was busy advising banks on how to lend to a wide range of high-tech companies using yet another exciting new financial product her company had devised.
That turned her into a very valuable asset for her company. She knew which banks and finance houses were overexposed to any losses and so she knew when to sell off shares in those businesses. She became very good at selling shares her investment bank didn’t actually own in order to drive down the price before buying them back again at a lower price.
Her bank did very well out of this and they rewarded her accordingly. A new financial crisis broke out in banks exposed to risks in the high-tech sector but everyone said it was nothing much to worry about and entirely containable. In any case she had put enough by in offshore bank accounts and inheritable pension funds to mean that she was very nicely set up indeed.
The path of privation
Her sister had a different experience. Shortly after she finished her training the government declared that the country needed to tighten its belt. It was simply not possible to provide money for a proper public sector pay rise. Apparently the country was up to its neck in debt after bailing out the banks.
Similar reasons for getting a real terms pay cut were given to her every year for ten years. By which time she was struggling to get by. Yet she loved her job and felt she was doing something worthwhile. She could see how dedicated the team around her were and how much the patients needed her help so she struggled on despite all the endless health service re-organisations and the constant increase in the paperwork.
Then the pandemic hit. For the first time in her life she was scared to go into work because there were people on trolleys in the corridors coughing and it simply wasn’t possible to do what she needed to do and keep completely safe. There was no way of knowing how severe the pandemic would be or who it would strike down.
Nevertheless she went in for every one of her shifts, got marks on her face from wearing a surgical mask for hours, and struggled with intense workloads and intense emotions as some patients died despite her best efforts.
She was buoyed up by the enormous gratitude displayed by the public. At last, she felt, people were realising how important it was to preserve the National Health Service and were recognising the true value of the work she was doing.
Then the pandemic subsided. The workload continued to be relentless. The prime minister who had told the public to stay home and stay separated got fined for breaking those rules and then his colleagues dumped him because even they didn’t trust him. The health secretary who had spoken so kindly about her incredible efforts turned out to have been in the middle of a lockdown breaching affair before cashing in on his fame by appearing on I’m a Celebrity. Then to add insult to injury she discovered that she was being asked to take an even larger real terms pay cut than usual.
Each time she went into work she heard of a different person leaving to earn more money in private health care or to go abroad. Each shift seemed to be a fresh ordeal of skilfully juggled chaotic overwork. Then when she came home she got a letter from the mortgage company. Her payments were going up by hundreds a month to pay for the chaotic weeks of Liz Truss experimenting with the economy.
What do we value and why?
Which one of these two sisters has society rewarded? Which one feels like a mug? Which one have we let down?
As you reflect on that you might like to think on one other small thing. Fifteen years after the last banking crisis we are back in the middle of a new one. With no guarantee that a panic in the markets won’t inflict another ten years of austerity.
Is it perhaps time to rethink our priorities? Or is there really no such thing as society?