Misguided protests won’t change the world
Another protest, this time by a group called OccupyLSX. Even now the tents are pitched by the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Having not done their homework they didn’t realise that the offices of the London Stock Exchange are within a private square that may have public access but can be kept secure if needs be.
Similarly the protesters have not worked out that the London Stock Exchange is a computerised trading system and not really a place. It’s not as if it’s hard to find out who does what these days. The internet is a free access tool and contains a lot of information on companies, markets and the financial system and how they operate.
It may be that you consider their campaign has been a success. They have put the economy, banking and bankers back at the top of the news agenda. Yet what I discovered speaking to the protesters is a pit of ignorance so large and cavernous that it’s as concerning as it is dangerous.
Our financial system is based upon one simple idea. If you work, you will be paid. The money you receive can be used to buy goods and services. If you earn more money then you will pay tax which is there to provide what society thinks is required. Those decisions are determined by the government of the day. Come the election, if you don’t like what the government proposes, you can vote them out. It’s not a perfect system but it is at least a Parliamentary democracy. Which is the best system society has established to date for governance. Even though we are concerned about a lot of issues at the moment, that central unit of money still works. You are probably happy to receive pounds for doing what you do and certainly the providers of goods and services are happy to take them from as a means of exchange. Given how serious the economic situation, that’s quite an achievement.
So what is the protest about? Is it that some people are richer than others and that’s “unfair”? Is it that you don’t want to see things taken away from you that others are paying for? Or is it even more serious than that?
Having heard every commentator jump on the bandwagon, I thought I’d better find out more. After all to dismiss what seems to be a groundswell of public opinion is a tough thing to do. Especially if one is in the fortunate position of being a broadcaster.
Here is the website. http://occupylsx.org I was expecting some cogent arguments. What I read was a nine point plan. So horrified was I that the British public might actually have support for these individuals that I thought I would set out their demands and explain why you should not have even sympathy, let alone support for this pathetic little protest.
1) “The current system is unsustainable. It is undemocratic and unjust. We need alternatives; this is where we work towards them”
The opening statement from the group. The current system isn’t any of these things. It may not be perfect but if you are going to suggest an alternative, perhaps you should do so and convince everyone that it is better before getting rid of what you have. I remember a phrase from my grandfather. “In striving for better, oft we mar what’s well”. Indeed the financial system is very democratic. A market is probably the most democratic place on earth. If you don’t like something you don’t have to buy it. If you don’t like a company you don’t have to work for them or buy their services. If you don’t like their ethics you don’t have to invest in them. The current system is sustainable, it is democratic and it works within a legal framework which may not be perfect but it’s the fairest way of operating.
2) “We are of all ethnicities, backgrounds, genders, generations, sexualities, dis/abilities and faiths. We stand together with occupations all over the world.”
So? Doesn’t make you right. Opinion isn’t fact. Often the two are confused.
3) “We refuse to pay for the bank’s crisis”.
A flippant response may be that if you are camping at the foot of St Paul’s Cathedral, let’s face it, you aren’t really doing very much to pay for it anyway. You are leaving others to do that for you. But to be more serious, this isn’t a bank’s crisis alone. This is a consumer crisis because economies are suffering as a result of reduced demand. The money being spent on non productive services has been increasing. As a nation and other nations too… we were spending more than we could afford and the economic production within the economy simply could not keep up. If you are to provide public services, you need to pay for them. Indeed this is more about what the state should be paying for and what individuals should take responsibility for paying themselves. We are very lucky in this country that many of the things we take for granted are paid for. By someone else.
4) “We do not accept cuts as either necessary or inevitable. We demand an end to global tax injustice and our democracy representing corporations instead of people”
So hang on a minute. You want money to be spent but you don’t like where it’s coming from? Attack the companies that pay the most in tax and wages and that somehow makes the economy more rather than less successful? And the only way to end tax inequalities would be by having a one tax system fits all for everyone across the world. A world government. Is that what you demand? Really? We have enough problems trying to get the EU to agree on anything and now you are calling for a single authority to work the world over? No thanks. This is where the arguments begin to fall down. On one hand you don’t want global corporations and governance and then you do when it suits your purpose of one simple ideology. This is about wealth redistribution on a massive scale.
5) “We want regulators to be genuinely independent of the industries they regulate”
Not only are they independent but they failed before and regulators are only as good as the people who work in them and the laws made to support them.
6) “We support the strike on the 30th November and the student action on the 9th November, and actions to defend our health services, welfare, education and employment and to stop wars and arms dealing.”
Again to protect spending, the revenue has to come from somewhere. Of course we’d all like to see the end of war and conflict but just as you take the moral high ground, someone else will fill the void and not play by your rules. This is simply becoming a utopian, altruistic vision of life that has so many contradictions it’s not only naive, it’s unworkable and ridiculous. When it comes to pension reform, it’s quite simple. If you don’t put enough money in, you won’t get the right benefits at the end. With people living longer and the cost of living having risen, so the cost of providing a proper pension has gone up too. If someone is going to live ten years longer is it really wrong to ask them to work a little longer to pay for their retirement? I think not. Not if we all have to do the same. The problem we currently have is that deals signed in the past allow people to retire at a relatively young age on a pension that defines what you will receive at the end of it. There has been no costing of that promise and no attempt to even out the imbalances that exist as a result of us living longer. Reform is the only way forward. This group talks about sustainability and at the first fence fails spectacularly in that regard. Their proposals are simple not sustainable. Even with a limited grasp of economics and maths you should be able to work that out.
7) “We want structural change towards authentic global equality. The world’s resources must go towards caring for people and the planet, not the military, corporate profits or the rich”
In essence take everything away from people who work hard and do well and give it to people who don’t. Is that it? What about the person who’s a multimillionaire as a result of their own skill or trade? Doesn’t matter if they are a musician, a footballer, an inventor or a hedge fund owner… inequality will always occur. We have people who work at different paces. We have differing levels of intelligence and work ethic. Not everyone is equal. Not because of the system. Because of our DNA. That’s not to say we should not ask those who do succeed to do more for society. They do. And so they should but to protest about something as basic as this is perplexing. Care and compassion should be an individual choice.
8) “We stand in solidarity with the global oppressed and we call for an end to the actions of our government and others in causing this oppression”
And here we live in a nation that is protesting against foreign aid. Need I say more?
9) “This is what democracy looks like. Come and join us.”
How about? No. This isn’t democracy they are protesting for. It’s communism with a degree of anarchy.
When you read the group’s demands, you begin to realise that this protest isn’t about the failings of our system at all. It’s a group of people with disparate and sometimes contradictory demands. These demands are unworkable. Many of them unrealistic and most of them futile. What’s even worse is that a number of highly intelligent and articulate commentators have jumped on the bandwagon to support this dysfunctional group. For their own political ends. They are interpreting the demands in whichever way suits them. That’s even more dangerous. Ranging from newspaper columnists to politicians, they are hijacking the protest from positions of privilege and power. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.
Whilst I really do understand that people think banks and bankers have been bailed out to continue giving themselves large salaries and bonuses, that isn’t the reality. Investment banks are different from retail banks. Companies listed on stock exchanges around the world are different from private companies and partnerships. It’s not to say that change isn’t required. What I am saying is that the demands of this group are totally misguided. We need to get away from the notion that banks gamble. It’s irresponsible to compare what they do to the activities within a casino. It’s similarly irresponsible to look at a company’s gross profit and suggest that all of their income should be susceptible to income tax within the jurisdiction that happens to be their HQ. It’s too simplistic, the analysis is wrong and most of the people arguing their case have darker reasons and motivation for agitating.
On the face of it the headlines in newspapers look great. Plausible even. Yet they play on the very human affliction of greed and envy. If there are people who genuinely want to change the system, then why not do so from a position of actually making a contribution? If you want to go and invent a new product, lead the world by developing a cure to disease or entertaining the world and taking your profits and redistributing them. That’s up to you. However is it really your place to demand that others who do use their skills or endeavours to profit for themselves, their family or indeed the people who work with them, that should not do that?
Back to reality
Although I am very much a defender of our financial system and how it operates. By no means is it perfect. There are many faults in the way our companies are run, our tax system operates, in the money that is spent by our government and others and indeed there are solutions. However we have to go back and find out what is actually broken, what really caused the financial crisis and ensure that as we set about fixing things we don’t go making a difficult situation, worse.
It’s even sadder that many of those who will march and strike have no understanding of our financial system. What banks do. How markets operate. What large companies bring to society and how our lives are enriched socially, culturally and intellectually by our system. For all its failings it’s the best one anyone has developed to date and if anything this crisis is sending out a signal. That signal is education. Education on financial services. Education about business. International trade and arms. Opinions are all very well. Based on little or no actual knowledge opinions are just that. Soundbites that sound good, until you dig a little deeper. In essence we are hearing a line that so many applaud, being used and twisted to fit an old adage that we should take from the rich to give to the poor. That’s not a bad argument in itself as I agree that for those more fortunate in society they have a role to play and a moral obligation. It’s simply that the rhetoric and solutions won’t improve anything.
Many of the listeners to my shows are hard working, sensible and intelligent people. They have the ability to hone in on a topic and to provide analysis of the major news stories on a personal level. In that regard they are spot on. There’s no doubt this recession is hurting. It is hurting with bills going up and at best salaries staying stagnant. Indeed I am no one’s stooge and some of the arguments resonate. Many might support this action because they believe it stands for what they think is wrong in society. That, however, is not the case.
From my experience, these are the problems that need solving. And in the spirit of the best business lesson I ever learnt, I have some solutions too: Feel free to submit your comments as I’d like to hear whether you agree.
Rewards for failure
With the system we currently have, those who lead companies can often be paid significant sums for not doing a very good job. In addition to that if they do fail, there isn’t much to stop them walking away with a bucket load of cash, some rather tasty incentives and a pension package the rest of us would (rightly) drool at. When pay packages for the top rise and the general workers are not rewarded for their toils, then I agree, there’s something rather rotten at the top. There are some who say people have not performed because their share price has dropped. Do you really want people rewarded in that way? In the longer term, perhaps rewards should include some aspect of that so as a company does well so staff will profit. That’s all well and good but I would banish annual bonuses based on share price performance alone. The bottom line is where we should be looking. Real pay for real performance.
The system of governance particularly for listed companies is somewhat outdated. The merry-go-round of appointments of grandees who sit on the boards of each other’s companies is not only rather odd but it’s unsettling. Whilst many will do a good job and effectively hold the executive board to account the governance of our largest companies is somewhat ineffective. With votes going en masse to institutional investors who often allow significant pay deals through without seeing the performance required, it does require a better system. There should be a maximum number of appointments that any non-exec should be able to take and it should not just be the domain of those who have retired or completed their career. A system that encourages our brightest and best rather than one that picks people for their connections and past experience may produce better results.
The tax laws not only in this country but across the Western World have become so complex that the loopholes outnumber the tax raising measures. Rates have gone up but so have the measures to offset these rises. Men and women on the street, as it were, cannot avoid these higher rates and the general taxation on income, goods, services, transactions and property. Corporations and the super wealthy, it would seem, can. Agreement on simplifying tax and reducing the loopholes is where we should start, not a globalised system of one size fits all.
Whilst government interest rates remain at record lows (0.5%), the effective rates of interest for those who take mortgages remain high. Indeed the ability to borrow what you need at a rate that works for you is increasingly difficult. Governments continue to pump billions into economies around the world but effective borrowing rates remain high and ability to secure finance are at best tortuous. However step away from simple loans and into the realms of the credit card and interest rates rise substantially. Money is expensive yet there appears to be no legislation to curb this rampant profiteering. Similalrly with the likes of the pay day loan companies with APR’s at well over 1700% again there is no regulatory intervention. It is not only a national disgrace but deeply worrying that ordinary people are being penalised when it comes to the simple notion of borrowing money. Of course we need to balance that with an ability to repay money borrowed but whacking up interest rates for those least able to afford it – isn’t going to help.
On those four areas, I want action. Indeed that action can come from government and it should do. Changes in employment legislation and contracts should allow companies to stop the packages that continue to reward failure. Although Ed Miliband sought to portray private equity firms as “asset strippers”, we could learn a to from their pay structures. A “bad leaver” is ejected with nothing, rewards are granted for those who perform and salaries and bonuses are kept down, ensuring that investors and creditors receive returns before management. When it comes to non-executives the way companies are governed requires change, scrutiny and transparency. How votes are placed and used by the massive institutions particularly when voting by proxy for their investors… we could easily see those who actually own the shares have their say on corporate matters if they want. Why should a pension holder have to hand over the voting rights to their provider without scrutiny on how votes are placed when it comes to governance of our very largest companies? With the technological advances it would be very easy to change the system we have to become more accountable to those who really own the beneficial shares. On tax, we need to bring rates down and simplify the system. get over companies and individuals making profits. Instead of ideological tax decisions a streamlined system that shows Britain is open for international business would benefit us all. In my mind a tax should only be applied if there is a sound ideological reason for doing so or that money raised will actually increase. And on money? instead of legislating on the wider regulatory issues alone, scrutiny of sharp business practises at the customer end of the banking industry should be the focus of our attention.
However none of that is what the protestors are interested in protesting about. They want banks to pay more tax. They say it’s the banking system that got us in to this mess and they also seem to think that big companies serve nothing other than their own pockets. When will we learn that money has a cost? When will we learn that investment banks don’t gamble? When will we rid ourself of the notion that big business is what will help us out of this mess and that jobs will come when we free ourselves from the shackles of over regulated and over taxed frameworks of operation? Indeed this ghastly word “fair” has become so overused it’s eroding personal responsibility and opportunity. Life isn’t fair and protestors and others had better get used to it. A “fair” system is one where regardless of your background, ethnicity or any other social form of judgment, you can make it with the talent and hard work. If you do succeed? So you should be able to freely enjoy the benefits of your success.
The protestors have stated what they think democracy looks like. I suggest you have a read and see if you agree. I have and I don’t.