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Friday 5 January 2007
Letters: Company chiefs' pay
Company chiefs' pay explosion points to a market failure
Sir: Jeremy Warner writes (29 December) that he disagrees with one of the central premises in my report The Risk Myth, that escalating CEO pay is a perversion of market principles. If market principles worked then the over-supply of willing and able people who aspire to be CEOs should help drive down CEO pay or at least keep it in some sort of check. The point is that winner-take-all effects ensure that market principles don't apply. This is not a market but a cartel.
Mr Warner is right to say I do not comment on the stars of private equity - that is for another report. Suffice to say we get the deal-makers we encourage. As for sports stars and entrepreneurs I state that the "public" put a different value (rightly I think) on these individuals from those who manage, steward and direct. All should be subject to a more finely tuned tax system that redistributes wealth more effectively and fairly.
It is clear that since 1980, CEO and other directors' pay has exploded at the same time as those institutions such as trades unions that put a brake on such rising inequality have been weakened. I believe there are institutional mechanisms (why not a High Pay Commission) we can encourage and develop that would work - even in a global marketplace. And as Mr Warner implies, at least public companies are public. Private equity is a whole new frontier of excess.
DIRECTOR OF ADVOCACY, THE WORK FOUNDATION, LONDON SW1
Sir: I cannot let pass the proposition that it's OK, desirable even, for a group to bulldoze their way to a massively disproportionate slice of the cake. Mark Curtis (Letters, 30 December) seeks to argue that City bonuses benefit the whole country. Far from being altruistic paragons bringing wondrous skills, "fat cats" enrich their personal pots on the flaky pretext of market forces, while threatening to decamp and sabotage British commerce if any attempt is made to curtail them.
In the Seventies, Britain came to its knees with runaway inflation, caused partly by unions employing the same tactics. "The absolute rule of market forces" could describe the ensuing economic anarchy, with its anthem: "Give us what we say we are worth or we'll shaft everybody."
Now I hear that old song resurrected - albeit by a better-dressed choir. Now, as then, only the naive or depraved believe that corralling unmerited riches to hostage-takers is victimless, or represents proper functioning of democracy.
WESTPORT, CO MAYO, IRELAND
A rail policy beyond understanding
Sir: Earlier this week we heard that train fares are going up and now we hear that a National Express coach has turned over, killing and injuring a number of people.
I just cannot comprehend Britain's transport policy. With the correct investment, maintenance and R&D, rail travel could be the safest, least stressful, greenest form of transport available to mankind. So why does Britain allow low investment and sky-high ticket prices on the rail network? The goal should be to use taxation and subsidies to get a maximum number of people out of the air and off the roads on to the railways?
I often take National Express for the simple reason that I am priced off the rail network. My deepest sympathy goes out to those people on that coach and I am sure that many of them would rather have been on the train.
Sir: In December 2005 I paid £418 for a rail-only 12-month season ticket; last week the renewal cost me £468; anyone buying the same ticket this week will be paying £520. This is an increase of 24.4 per cent in just two years. For this I stand on every journey and count myself lucky if I have air to breathe.
Like many others, I do not have any choice about method of travel; it is train or train. This is why they get away with such increases and don't bother to increase the capacity of the lines so that more people could get on the trains - there would be less profit made.
Any increases in capacity are only talked of in the context of the Olympics and will involve a surcharge on my rates, for a service that I will not use.
Sir: In the year 1850 the English engineers Henry Swinburne and Robert Stephenson were employed by the Swiss to help them get started with their railway system. Those of us who use the present-day railway in Switzerland cannot help but wonder if it might be the time to invite the Swiss to help us get our chaotic system back on track.
Rights and wrongs of killing animals
Sir: In her desire to prove that meat-eating is bad for ecosystems, Adele Brand (letter, 3 January) cites the adverse impacts of livestock-based farming systems on the North American prairie, which she claims was once comparable in its wealth of wildlife to the Serengeti.
She ignores the fact that this diversity was achieved at a time when the prairie supported a sustainable meat-based economy - the hunting of buffalo by the plains Indian tribes. The buffalo were later wiped out by white hunters for their hides, not their meat.
There are many other examples of species-rich grassland and heaths, including some of the most sensitive and valued habitats in the UK, which are dependent on grazing by livestock raised for meat. It is not meat eating per se which is the enemy of wildlife but ignorance or greed, characteristics which are not confined to carnivores.
BROMPTON-ON-SWALE, NORTH YORKSHIRE
Sir: Edward Pearce (letter, 4 January) makes the mistake of assuming that his reason for opposing hunting - that he considers it sadistic - means hunt supporters' motivation must be the same - that they also consider it sadistic but unlike him have given in to the sadistic impulse.
I have been following hunts for about 30 years and have only seen a fox killed once - the Saturday before the Hunting Act came in to effect. If I was motivated by sadism and bloodlust, I have had a very poor return for my efforts.
The questions are, is killing foxes necessary (and he appears to agree that it is), and is it carried out efficiently and humanely? If the fox is caught it is killed very quickly, and if it escapes it does so uninjured.
There is more objective cruelty in one prawn sandwich consumed for the pleasure of the taste than in a whole season's foxhunting, but when the poor things are boiled alive to meet your whim that's All Right because the dead bodies end up in your mouth as opposed to the mouth of a foxhound, which is somehow for reasons beyond my understanding Not All Right.
A green hero driven to despair
Sir: On Wednesday, after digesting The Independent, I decided to abandon all my green resolutions. They were honourable, but, unusually for a resident of Britain, I expected no honours.
I read your interviews with the happy fliers; I absorbed your articles on the apathy of New Labour in driving people away from the trains; I was shocked at the letter from the Air League, which is determined that the whole of Britain should become an airstrip.
I tore up my resolutions. I switched on all my lights; I turned up the heating as far as it would go; I threw my old newspapers and bottles and Bag For Life in the dustbin; I searched for a quiet leafy lane in which to dump my old fridge;, I perused the car advertisements for a 5-litre 4x4 with a dirty engine; I vowed to stop walking; I booked a return flight to London, although I don't really want to go there - it's full of politicians and railway executives and liars.
I don't want to be a hero; I have no children to think about, no worries about the next generation. In other words, I can't be bothered any more with the plight of the planet; it's too stressful to contemplate, and nobody gives a damn.
Sir: Dennis Harrison (letter, 30 December) suggests building wind farms alongside motorways, a neat solution to the objections on grounds of aesthetics. Unfortunately, it's unlikely to work, for two reasons.
First, a 200-metre cordon is required around a large wind turbine to mitigate the danger of falling ice, perhaps more for a busy road. Second, the most important feature of a wind turbine's location is wind speed. A doubling in wind speed yields eight times the power, so it's irresponsible to waste the concrete and steel on generators that aren't in windy places - a point that David Cameron would do well to consider.
Wind power can contribute some proportion of our future energy needs, but advocates need to understand the limitations of the technology.
LEWES, EAST SUSSEX
Real astrology really can work
Sir: In warning people not to be taken in by astrology, Dominic Lawson (2 January) is himself falling for the propaganda peddled by so-called scientists who toe the establishment line and dismiss things that they personally have not investigated.
I'm not referring here to newspaper horoscopes. You don't need a chart (or even a brain) to see that dividing the world's population into 12 is an extreme generalisation of limited value. But in "real" astrology, the sun sign is merely part of a vastly complex picture whose accuracy depends on the exact time as well as the date and place of birth. Three or four minutes out and the first inaccuracies creep in.
I am not an astrologer myself but my introduction to the subject 25 years ago was a revelation. In the spring of 1964, said the astrologer, I would have "discovered rhythm". The sun was progressing to Mercury in my chart, indicating "something rhythmic, tuneful, tapping, finding a voice through the fingers". This pinpointed the time when, aged 13, I bought a drum kit and spent every waking hour practising drum beats. The same astrologer (who knew virtually nothing about me) talked of a "break in my education" in 1969 (I dropped out of university that year).
When two different astrologers saw my infant son's chart, one told me he would be musically creative; the other said he would not find his true vocation until he was 29. Interestingly, as a young adult, he was in two signed bands; he is now 29 and about to embark on a career change.
It would be ludicrous to suggest that all such examples are the result of good guesswork.
How we managed to lose the Ashes
Sir: James Lawton, in his review of the Ashes fiasco in Australia (29 December), is right to see the poor performances of all three of our major national teams (cricket, rugby and football) as symptomatic of some kind of national malaise. He sees a moral collapse, whereas for me it is more cultural.
We have become a nation fixated on management: systems and strategies, missions and messages. In sport we submit our talented and gifted stars to stultifying, inhibiting management regimes, believing opponents have to be out-thought: baffled rather then beaten at their own game.
It is a philosophy based on crippling self-doubt. Games are won in the head and the heart, not on the drawing board. We have players up for that, if they are allowed to play creatively as only they know how.
Blair's next challenge
Sir: Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki says he doesn't want to be PM and would like to retire. British Prime Minister Blair doesn't want to stop being PM and is concerned about his legacy. Surely the solution to both problems is clear. I am sure a grateful Iraqi nation would welcome their liberator as Prime Minister, and the climate should suit the Blairs as well - the Green Zone is hot enough for anybody these days.
Saved by gay sheep
Sir: Johann Hari ought to welcome the use of hormones to re-orient mammalian sexual proclivities ("The intriguing tale of the gay sheep", 4 January). More gay men and women being born would result in a lower level of population as homosexual activity cannot produce offspring. This should surely please both Mr Hari and the environmental movement.
Words of peace
Sir: During 2007, we shall not be advocating violence against anyone who uses a word or phrase in any way different to that which we may prefer. Obviously, as long as we understand the message, we celebrate linguistic diversity and freedom of expression. The antics of grammar fascist correspondents will only strengthen the resolve of my wife and myself to spread linguistic peace, love and understanding.
Nice job of work
Sir: Your "Freeze Frame" article on 3 January highlighted the fact that thousands of workers decided not to attend their places of work on 2 January. We were however reassured that "experts" were predicting that the majority of people would be back at their desks on Wednesday after their day off. Do you mean to tell us that there are experts in skiving ? How did they gain their qualifications ? And how can one become a "skivologist"?
Sir: I share Terence Blacker's interest (3 January) in how the sixth earl of Durham renounced his title so that he could sit in the House of Commons but continued to insist on being called Lord Lambton. These days it is the other way round, with some prominent peers insisting upon being addressed by their names rather than their titles - except, presumably when seeking an upgrade with BA, booking a meal at the Ivy or picking up their expenses for attending the House of Lords.
Sir: Major General William Caldwell says the Americans would have performed the execution of Saddam Hussein "differently" (report, 4 January). Does he mean that they would have bombed him from 30,000 feet?
LONG EATON, DERBYSHIRE
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