The economics of grace

For those reading this from outside the UK, just to bring you up to speed… so we have a situation now where, due to the lamentable Brexit decision (which may as well have been made by the flip of a coin, opinion was so divided), we have lots of jobs that nobody from the UK is prepared to do for the obscene rate of pay we had been paying mainly economic migrants to do. And we have become so fixated on keeping “foreigners” out of the UK, we have created extra bureaucratic hoops which nobody in their right mind from anywhere else would bother to jump through in order to get a rubbish job with a terrible rate of pay which might help to get us out of this hole.

So I was listening to the radio the other day, and an economic commentator (white, middle class male) was explaining that we have several choices: either we pay more for the work, and employ British workers to do it – this was unthinkable, since then the cost would be passed onto the consumer, and we’d all have to pay more for things; or – and this was the best solution all round in his view – we designed machines to do most of the work, and employed far fewer people, increasing their productivity by using the technology better, thus getting more bang for our buck; or we do what our government is currently doing, and continue to pay rubbish wages, but get rid of some red tape and let the economic migrants in to do the slave labour for us again. (He didn’t use the term “slave”.)

The more I’ve reflected on this, the more angry I’ve become. Because no human being should be paid so little for work that has worth. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth paying for. And if it’s not worth paying for, why are we trying to get people to do it in the first place?

(As an aside, only a couple of weeks ago, I was asked to consider doing a piece of work. When I enquired about payment, I was told that the organisation would “find it hard to justify paying for this work”. Why? If it’s valuable and worth doing, surely it’s worth paying for?)

Going back to the radio programme, I was immediately really annoyed that the commentator’s reflection left no room at all for something that to me is a very powerful factor in it all. People will probably laugh scornfully at my naïvety, but I’m going to say it anyway. I feel measurably more satisfied when I know I have paid someone a fair amount of money for their work. And I feel measurably more at peace when I have been paid a fair amount of money for the work I have done. And I feel so much better about myself, about the world and the direction we are going in on the rare occasions when there is a policy decision that means that the most vulnerable people will genuinely be properly provided for at their point of need. These are strong feelings, which have the power to reshape the whole of our society for the better. And yet, they are not even considered in the line up of economic options. Why is that?

Every time I hear an ambulance go by (this happens a lot as I live near five hospitals), I give thanks that somehow, against all the odds, in the UK we chose to care so much for one another that we created a situation where there are ambulances to pick people up and hospitals to take them to and where everyone gets out of the way to enable this to happen as quickly as possible in an emergency. Nobody tries to hog the road when an ambulance siren is blaring. Nobody. Everyone gets out of the way as quickly as possible. Because human life is valuable and tomorrow it could be you or me in that ambulance.

In this world selfishness is rife, but the ambulances prove that’s not the only reality. I would love us to find a similar way with economics. I feel really bad that we have been paying economic migrants next to nothing for their hard labour. To me, that is akin to slavery, which we all agree now is wrong. It’s an expression of racism, actually.

Why can’t we actually pay people something fair, wherever they are from? And bear the cost of it? And while we’re at it, why can’t those who have amassed obscene amounts of wealth pay a really big percentage of that wealth in tax? How could that possibly hurt them at all? And why wouldn’t they love to do it?! Surely, to see people paid fairly and flourishing, living healthy and happy lives is such a joy! Why on earth wouldn’t we do this, when we so easily could?

And why can’t we listen to our feelings of disquiet when we know we are cheating other human beings out of a fair wage or denying them decent conditions to work in? Why can’t we let those feelings compel us towards a better way? The bottom line may not be the financial price we pay, but the human price.

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