It occurred to me recently that too much prosperity may blunt a person’s ability to make decisions, and that paying senior executives too well may render them incapable of making a choice and abiding by the consequences. This is a new twist to the argument that senior executives are paid too much. Every other argument boils down to the childhood wail that it isn’t fai-ai-ai-air. Me, I don’t give a toss what senior executives are paid so long as they make good decisions, but I’m coming to wonder if prosperity’s bad for our wealth.
If you have to budget and juggle finances, my theory goes, then you learn two very specific skills:
- the first is the art of deciding which option is best since you cannot have them both
- the second is the art of getting your children to accept that they cannot have something just because it’s shiny.
Likewise, if you grew up in a household where you could not have everything you wanted the moment you saw it then you learn that doing without is actually ok and that deferred gratification is in fact more gratifying.
This came to mind in a discussion with a friend about his frustrations at work. He has spent the last 18 months trying to introduce working practices which senior management say are worthwhile; for simplicity’s sake we’ll call them ‘weeding the garden’. However his senior managers won’t back up their verbal support with actions and won’t order their their minions to stop doing other things which are either more exciting such as building the patio or more familiar such as mowing the grass. As a result, none of them are putting any time weeding the garden. My friend is going spare with frustration and he said to me “I don’t mind if the bosses back it or kill it, I just want them to make a bloody decision. I wouldn’t mind but times are hard and getting harder and it’s pissing money away to go off half-cocked like this”.
It is this attempt to have the cake and eat it, this failure to make the choice and abide by the consequences, which I think may be the result of too much prosperity. If you live on a budget then you learn to make choices and abide by them. You learn to think about and understand consequences. You learn that you have to live with trade-offs. You learn to choose between laying a patio, mowing the grass and weeding the garden because you haven’t got enough people to do all three.
You learn other skills and attitudes too. You learn that lowering your sights may not mean lowering your standards and clean your carpets instead of replacing them. You learn to make trade-offs and how to communicate them when you tell your kids it’s a balloon or an ice-cream but not both. You learn to prioritise what you want because you cannot have it all.
You learn, in fact, to do what senior executives are paid to do which is to make choices and follow them through. So you make the tough choices and announce that we’ll all have to live with grass that’s mown once a fortnight instead of once a week, you decide to put in decking instead of a patio, and then you use the money you’d have spent on sand and cement to train a couple of super-weeders who can then train the others on the days when they would have been mowing the lawn. And you face up to the unpleasant discussions afterwards and actually deal with the complaints of the patio-buidlers and those that like bowling-green lawns. But if you’re not used to making trade-offs and getting your family to live with that reality then you tell everyone who comes by that their particular activity is ‘very important’ and that you ‘support it at the highest level’ and feel nice and powerful when they go away. But you don’t actually make the changes necessary to turn your words into truths.
This isn’t an argument for reducing the pay of senior executives because this isn’t some parallel universe prescribed by the Daily Express and the Daily Mail. It isn’t even a rose-tinted re-write of the issues of real poverty. It’s an awareness that the tough times that are on their way for most of us will, as tough times always do, very rapidly sort out the lean from the fat.