Friday, 3 April 2009

A Small Difference

The others were already ensconced in the library when I arrived at the Diogenes club last week. Manton was holding forth with such force that I could hear him from the lobby, as Henry took my coat and briefcase.

"I'll have a glass of Ardbeg, Henry, when you have a free moment."

"Certainly, sir."

"What's set Manton off today?"

"I believe Mr Manton is somewhat distressed by the news of Sir John Stafford's pension arrangements, sir."

"Ah, of course." Sir John Stafford had, until recently, been the managing director of the Royal Hibernian Bank, and had attracted much adverse comment in the press due to his recently publicised pension arrangements. I opened the door to the library, and flinched as the full force of Manton's invective caught me square in the face.

"....pearl-handled revolver, but I doubt if he would have the guts to use it. Are you seriously trying to defend him, Treworthy?"

"Not at all, Manton, I share your opinion of the man."

"Well what in blazes are you blathering on about?"

"Simply that, no matter what you say, the fact remains that his pension was contractually agreed. There is nothing that anyone can do about it now."

"But he led his company to destruction. He expanded the company so far beyond what it could afford, it collapsed in on itself. He has actually destroyed the entity that was paying him the pension. If it wasn't for the fact that the government - us taxpayers - bailed them out, he wouldn't have a penny."

"That's not actually true, old boy," said Travis. "The money was set aside during his tenure."

"Well it's a pity that he didn't take the same amount of care over his employee's welfare as he clearly did over his own. I mean..... dammit all, he was using a private jet for corporate travel. Since when have bank managers used private jets?"

"There speaks a man who knows little of modern finance." I said, as I joined the group and sat in my chair. The others nodded their greetings as Manton drained his glass and motioned to Henry for another.

"Sorry about that," he said, "was I audible from the lobby?"

"You were probably audible from the end of the street. I take it that you are less than impressed with the recent news."

"Don't set him off again, please." said Abrahams, who had long since given up trying to do the crossword. "We are all of the same opinion, Manton. There just doesn't seem to be much that anyone can do about it."

"I know, that's the bloody annoying thing." snarled Manton.

"Yes, it's not like you to react this way to the news, Manton." said Travis. "If anyone is going to lose their rag, it should be me, given that I lost my job last month."

"I didn't know that, Travis." I said, turning to him in surprise. I could see by the looks on their faces that this was news to the others as well.

"No one did. That's why I haven't been in for a while. With the current situation, I'm amazed that I managed to hang on at the firm as long as I did, but the axe has finally fallen."

"I'm sorry to hear that, old boy." I said. "If there is anything that I can do..."

"The same goes for all of us," said Treworthy, as the others mumbled commiserations, "how are you going to manage?"

"Oh, no need to worry about me. They gave us all a fairly hefty golden handshake, so I should be ok for a while."

He was putting a good face on it, but none of us were fooled.

"Still, I'm going to have to start tightening my belt. This will probably be my last visit to the Club for a while. The annual subscriptions are due soon, and as we all know, they aren't cheap."

That dampened the atmosphere quite a bit. Manton seemed to have suddenly become tired, as if the anger that had been sustaining him had gone. We spent a few minutes silently meditating on the brave new world that seemed to be unfolding, and then Manton spoke, his voice unusually quiet.

"This sort of thing has always bothered me really, but I've always tucked it away in the back of my head, like we all do, and tried to forget about it, so that I could get on with life. But all this has put me in mind of old Kropotkin."

"The Russian anarchist?" asked Abrahams.

"No, no, a chap I knew at University. Joe Kropotkin. That was what we called him. I can't remember his real name. He was a real class warrior. Hated the rich with a passion - he actually argued that they were a different species."

"What, on a genetic level?" I asked. "Surely he wasn't serious?"

"Oh, deadly serious. He got sent down after a particularly lively sit-in when we occupied the Vice-Chancellor's office back in the Seventies."

"Manton, you never fail to surprise me." said Treworthy. "I've never seen you as a political activist."

"It was a long time ago, Treworthy. The cynic that currently sits before you didn't spring out of the ether fully formed."

"So what happened to him? Kropotkin, I mean." I said.

"He ended up living on an commune up in the Pennines, somewhere. You know, the sort of place where all property is held in common. We stayed in touch for a while."

"What brought him to mind?"

"Well, we used to have conversations about society, and our place in it, long into the night, as one does at that age. As I say, he always had a thing about the rich. He said that they really did regard ordinary people as dirt, beneath contempt. They were simply there to be exploited, used to generate wealth that the rich could then steal, so that they could stay rich."

"That's a bit strong."

"Oh, he absolutely believed it. He was the only person I have ever met who has actually read all three volumes of Das Kapital - and that includes all the academics who really should have read it but who made do with 'Marx for dummies' when they thought no one was looking."

"What evidence did he offer to support his hypothesis, Manton?" said Abrahams, ever the scientist.

"Well, one of the distinguishing features of the rich is that they show no shame whatsoever. They are not in the slightest bit embarrassed to possess grotesquely greater amounts of money than most other people, or embarrassed about the way that they have to treat those people in order to get their money. Indeed, their great masterstroke was to remake the world into a place where they are the normal ones, and it is the ordinary people who are at fault because they are so poor."

"It all sounds a bit far-fetched."

"Well yes, but we don't really complain about this stuff, do we? Unless something goes wrong, like it has recently. Why aren't people out on the streets? These idiot money men have brought the global economy to the point of collapse and it is only in the last couple of weeks that people have started to protest. There ought to have been riots on the streets by now."

"Well, there still might be. Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better." said Travis.

"One of Kropotkin's notions was that there ought to be, not only a minimum wage, but also a maximum wage."

"Don't be ridiculous, that would never work." said Treworthy.

"That's what I used to say," replied Manton, "I would point out to him that a company has to be free to pay whatever wages it wants, so that it can attract the right calibre of people."

"Yes, it must be difficult to find people who are able to bring the global economy to the point of meltdown. They don't just grow on trees, you know." I commented.

"Perhaps we could apply this idea to teachers and nurses? There are shortages in many areas. Maybe we ought to pay them the wages that the market demands." said Abrahams.

"Don't be ridiculous, old boy," said Travis, getting in the spirit of the thing, "that would cost a bloody fortune. Maybe as much as much as one percent of what the Government spent on bailing out the banks."

"And yet no one complains. They just accept it. That was what Kropotkin was getting at," said Manton. "Let's say that we set the maximum wage at £500,000 .. no, make it £1,000,000 a year. Now you can understand rich people complaining about that, because they get more, but why do any of us? None of us, in our wildest dreams, will ever be able to earn that sort of money in a year. And yet we disagree with the very idea of a maximum wage."

"Ah, but there is just the smallest chance that we might be able to earn it." said Treworthy. "That's why."

"And that's how they do it, according to Joe. That's how they make themselves the normal ones, and shape society accordingly. We are all complicit in it. Why do you think the national lottery is so lucrative?"

"Well, because people like the idea that they can get huge amounts of money by doing nothing."

"Exactly. That's also why they have tried really hard to promote the idea of everyone being able to own shares. A nation of small investors. To the extent that they turned building societies into banks and gave shares to people whether they wanted them or not. That really used to get Joe frothing at the mouth. 'Can't they see that they are just turning themselves into cannon fodder for the big investors?' It's like the lottery - it's just another way of harvesting money from the masses. He used to get really wound up about it. He always said that making money without actually contributing anything useful to society had always been the province of the rich, and you expect them to do that, but he couldn't understand why everyone else bought into that dream - especially as the rich would never allow more than a few people to ever actually achieve it."

"But hang on Manton," I interjected, "surely if someone has started up a company, and provided employment, they have a right to a decent wage."

"Yes, but he wasn't talking about entrepreneurs with a few paltry millions, he was talking about the sort of people who can spend £30,000 a night on drinks or £20,000 a night on a hotel room. Even if I was able to get Joe to agree that they should earn more than the workers, he could never agree on the proportions. Even a managing director isn't worth 1,000 times more than the workers, he'd say. There are always ambitious, up and coming managing directors out there who are willing to do the job for less. We had some great arguments about that. But we did agree on one thing - that it isn't a sustainable way of doing things."

"What, the idea that anyone can do it? - that we should all aspire to becoming rich ourselves?"

"Exactly. That scheme only works for the few at the top of the pyramid. They can get away with it as long as most people are putting in the effort at the bottom. But if everyone tries to make money by doing nothing, then nothing will get done, and the money stops being generated."

"As Bernard Madoff's investors have discovered." added Treworthy.

"It's like my place", said Abrahams, "we have hundreds of managers and employment liason officers, and equality administrators, and openness focus groups, but they don't seem to have enough money to pay us lecturers."

"Well, at least you've got a decent pension scheme." said Travis, rather morosely.

"True, but for how much longer?" replied Abrahams.

"Yes, you'll never guess what I heard on the radio the other day." I said, "A banker complaining about how unfair the public sector pensions are, and how we were all in this together and how we all ought to be sharing the pain."

"I don't seem to remember 'us all being in it all together' when they were all earning about ten times what I do." said Abrahams, somewhat sharply.

"Exactly what Kropotkin used to say. And what do we do about it? Do we make it illegal to make money by doing nothing? No, of course not. How are the rich and powerful supposed to maintain their position at the top of the heap if we do something like that? They trot out the old line about how their money-making abilities are what keeps our country at the forefront of world trade, and if we upset them too much, they will up sticks and take their expertise elsewhere."

"I think if you asked the man on the street at the moment, the message would be 'Goodbye and good riddance'," I said, "and I would be inclined to agree with them. Why should I wish to share my planet with these people? What do they contribute to society - to any of our lives?"

"Oh come now, it's easy to say that now that they have messed everything up..." started Treworthy.

"Ah but old Kropotkin went further. He said it's actually true all the time, no matter what the economy is doing. In fact it is more true when the economy is booming, but no one cares then."

"That's all well and good, Manton," said Treworthy, "but as I said before, there are no legal obstacles to this man Stafford's pension. It was all arranged perfectly properly - no matter how distasteful we find it, and even if it does throw a rather shaming light onto how these things tend to be arranged amongst the great and the good - there is little that the government or anyone else can do about it."

"Oh I agree. What makes me angry is that he feels no moral impulse to do so himself. Joe was right: they have no shame. Absolutely none. If I had been responsible for managing a company so badly that I had destroyed it, thrown thousands of my own employees out of work and been part of bringing the global economy to the point of collapse, resulting in lots of other people being thrown out of work, I'd be too embarassed to keep my state pension, let alone a private one worth half a million."

"Oh come off it, Manton. That's easy to say, but I bet you would hold onto that money if you were in his place. It's just human nature." said Treworthy.

"I'm sorry Treworthy," said Manton, a tightness in his voice that wasn't normally there, "but you clearly don't know me as well as you think you do. I would be too ashamed to show my face in public, never mind siphoning off half a million a year of what is effectively taxpayer's money."

"Well, that's why you will never be a leader of industry, Manton." I said, trying to relieve the tension.

"Stafford wasn't a leader of industry. He was in charge of a bank. Not that he had any formal banking qualifications, from what I can gather." added Travis.

Manton gulped down the last of his drink and banged his glass down.

"Well I'm sick of the idea that these people are movers and shakers, that can generate wealth from nothing, and that we are supposed to revere them, and pay them obscene amounts of money just in case they decide to take their so-called 'expertise' elsewhere. I didn't believe it before the crash and I certainly don't now. As far as I'm concerned, they can all f..."

"Steady on, Manton, remember what your doctor said about your heart." I said, genuinely worried, as his face seemed to be turning an even more worrying shade of crimson than normal. He paused and took a few deep breaths.

"In fact it's not just that. I'll tell you what makes it even worse. It's the politicians that buy in to the myth, instead of regulating the money men properly. I'm sick of them, and I'm sick of all the people who vote for the politicians, who also buy into the myth. Especially as it's the tax money of those same voters that is now being used to pay for all the greed and incompetence. We don't bloody deserve an economic recovery. Everyone trying to get something for nothing, treating their fellows with contempt. No one seems to want to do what's right. It's a shambles. It's a bloody shambles, the whole thing."

"Come now, Manton, calm down. This isn't like you." said Travis.

After a few seconds Manton got up.

"No, you're right. I'm sorry Gentlemen, I'm not fit company at the moment. My cynicism seems to have temporarily deserted me. Please forgive me." and with that he left.

The room was silent for a moment, while we recovered. None of us had seen Manton let things get the better of him before.

"Well I wasn't expecting that." said Treworthy.

"I don't think any of us were."

We carried on talking for a while, but our hearts weren't in it. As the clock struck eleven, Travis said:

"Well, I'd better go and settle up my accounts and resign my membership. I hope you'll allow me to buy you all one last round of drinks, gentlemen? Where's Henry?"

"This is a sad day, Travis." said Abrahams

"Won't be the same without you, old boy." added Treworthy.

Henry glided over. "Yes, sir?"

"I'd like to buy one more round of drinks for my friends, Henry, and then it is my sad duty to resign my membership."

"Resign, sir?"

"I'm afraid so. Financial constraints have placed me in an impossible position, and I simply cannot afford next year's subscription. I have become a victim of the recession."

"If you will forgive me, sir, I'm afraid I can't accept."

"I beg your pardon?"

"What on earth do you mean, Henry?" I asked. "Have you taken leave of your senses?"

"I hope not, sir. I simply mean that Mr Travis's membership subscription for next year has already been paid, in full."

"What? This isn't some sort of joke, is it Henry?" exclaimed Travis.

"I am not normally given to impromptu witticism, sir."

"Well ... explain yourself then."

"It is quite simple sir. Mr Manton paid your subscription as he was leaving."


"Yes, sir. And he instructed me to give you all a message."

"What did he say?"

"Simply that he apologised once more for his outburst, and that he hoped this small gesture would be some small comfort in the difficult times ahead. He also said that even if men like Sir John Stafford did not know how to behave decently, knighthood notwithstanding, someone needed to start setting a better example."

"Good Lord." exclaimed Abrahams.

"He's not such a cynic after all." said Treworthy.

"Well I for one won't complain. I'm very grateful to him." said Travis.

"I must admit that I had always viewed Manton as the first man among us. The cynic's cynic. What about you, Henry? Have you ever seen this side to him?"

"It's not for me to say, sir. Although I do know that he does not regard himself as a cynic."


"Yes, sir. He once described himself to me as 'a constantly disappointed optimist', which I have always found to be a more appropriate description than 'cynic'. It is a small difference, but one which I suspect will serve him well during the financial difficulties ahead."

"Well, he's certainly cheered me up." said Travis. "Now what about that drink?"