The budget yesterday is scarcely worth commenting upon, delivering as it does a hefty dose of human misery, combined with some cheeky opportunism, and the usual sops to petrol heads and The Daily Mail. No surprises there.
What has been exercising me is perhaps more philosophical. It is the question of value, or worth.
Both of these terms are moral concepts, yet they infuse the vocabulary of economics, finance, money. “Shareholder value” is held to be sacrosanct, whilst “high net worth” individuals command a raft of services to protect and defend all that dosh. Whilst I’m always happy to attack the short-termism of “shareholder value” thinking, and mock the “How To Spend It” vacuity of the super-rich, I’d like to begin by attacking someone at the bottom of the pile.
That person is a nail polish operative from Southend. She was one of a group of people interviewed by Channel Four News last night for their responses to the budget. She caught my attention not so much because she was so abrasively in favour of Tory measures to punish the poor, especially the working poor, but because of her unshakeable assumption that she was one of the nation’s finest – a business person, an employer.
The filmed section of the C4 report showed the woman in her nail bar, splodging enamel onto podgy toes to make them fit for flip flops. My own hand-eye coordination skills are poor, but even I can paint my own toenails, so I will admit that I wasn’t greatly impressed by her technical abilities or artistry. But I accept that if other people want to spend their money on having other people handle their feet, that’s their choice. But this woman ran her business by employing an “apprentice” nail painter at a pay rate of around £2.60 an hour. The “business woman’s” equanimity in the face of the prospect of Osborne’s new National Minimum Wage seemed to consist of a complacent knowledge that she’d never employ anyone other than a teenaged “apprentice” at pocket-money prices.
Why am I so exercised by this woman when the world is awash with oligarchs and arms dealers, tax-havens and money launderers, and the politicians and newspapers who serve them?
It’s a fair question. The unfair answer is that the moral universe that permits raptor banks, planet-wrecking oil extraction, blood diamonds, and all manner of economic evils, is built upon the notion that all private enterprise, if not actually illegal, is by its very nature good. We are supposed to hail the go-getting entrepreneurialism of the nail painter.
The flip side of this is the vilification of labour, especially in the public sector. Heap “austerity” onto local councils, cut back welfare budgets, sack the pen-pushers of Whitehall and the town hall.
I can think of no public sector job with less value than painting nails. In terms of who deserves the esteem of society, let’s forget about the obvious candidates, the medics, the teachers, the firefighters. In the public sector are the people who plan for civil emergencies, who ensure public safety, who keep vulnerable people safe, who ensure that our streets are lit at night, who plan for the collection and disposal of our rubbish.
It is time to reclaim words like “worth” and “value” from those who have devalued and made worthless the concept of the public good. The nail painter of Southend is nothing more than someone probably scratching a fairly marginal living in a way that doesn’t do much harm, but scarcely merits praise. That politicians seek to make us think otherwise is an indictment of them, and of us, if we go along with such a distorted moral world view.