Howard Jacobson: You can never get enough sex, but you can have too much money

Society will always be unjust. The question is how great we can bear the disparity to be

Saturday 31 January 2009 01:00

And now Updike. So how many great writers is that who have died these past 12 months? In the meantime, the world's bankers are back with their noses in the bonus trough, their numbers barely depleted, and the titled fogeys of our Upper Chamber go on tottering avariciously into odious old age. Thus do we lose on the swings and lose on the roundabouts.

"Sex is like money," Updike wrote somewhere, "only too much is enough." Good joke. But I have a softer spot, myself, for the too much of sex over the too much of money. So does literature. Casanovas must suffer or repent ultimately, but we enjoy their promiscuity until ultimately comes along. There's something about the pursuit of too much sex that we relish: those who do it raise our spirits. About how many money men can we say that? Yes, the public has a soft spot for Dragons' Dens and Apprentices, but those are just game shows. Capitalism light. Otherwise, amassing just doesn't do for us what its opposite, profligacy, does. What financier singing to his money (or singing away ours) could ever please us the way Don Giovanni wooing Zerlina pleases us?

The weakest argument made for excessive earnings is that only by offering a fortune do you attract the right person. It should always have been obvious that that's a truism which proves its very opposite. If it's only the fortune that makes the job suitable for the man then the man is by definition unsuitable for the job. Even banking – the one place where the rapacity criterion might have applied – has proved that. The greedy, we now know, are not even good at greed. And were it true that we must pay the most to get the best, why do we argue differently when it comes to the jobs we prize above all others? Let teachers or nurses strike for half a day to improve their pittance and they are accused of irresponsibility and greed, of not honouring the sacred codes of selflessness we associate with their professions. Here the very opposite to the avarice principle prevails: we pay the least to get the best.

A sentimental assumption about job satisfaction underlies this double thinking. Teachers and nurses, we say, do what they do because they love to do it; for them the calling is its own remuneration. (An assumption that doesn't look the other way, with our pitying the poor banker for whom the only relief from the grinding unrewardingness of his job is the prospect of a seven-figure bonus.) But however true it is that the best of what we do we do because we choose to, and let money come or let it not, extreme inequalities in pay must create discontent. Society will always be unjust – not only unequal but undiscriminating – in its distribution of rewards. The question is how great we can bear the disparity to be; and when a banker gets more in his Christmas box than the entire annual teaching salary of a failing inner-city comprehensive – though not so failing as the banker's bank – we have passed the point of tolerance. I might have tried to calculate how many undernourished children could be fed with the money the average Premier League footballer earns every time he misses a penalty, but we indulge footballers. Like rock stars and actresses they get us through the grey days of life in an innocent reverie of emulation, which is I suppose preferable to envy.

The last people of whom this can be said are those who, with no visible or valued talents to justify their earnings – and I am not talking about Jonathan Ross – will sell their influence in either chamber of our Parliament. I am, I don't mind admitting, prejudiced against Lord Taylor of Blackburn, the peer alleged to have told the undercover Sunday Times reporter that £120,000 was not only routine but cheap for the sort of help he was prepared to give to change a law. It might be his municipally lean and hungry look I don't like, that air of knowing your way around committees and directorships. It might be that he was a town councillor before he was a lord, and no one loves a town councillor. It might be that it is difficult to understand why he is in the House of Lords at all. Whatever the reasons, I cannot give him a fair hearing in my heart.

It is not, anyway, as though the alleged conversation has uncovered anything we didn't already have a pretty shrewd idea was there. Since the Lords has even more local councillors in it than it has old lags, and since we have little faith in the probity of local councils, we are not likely to be surprised by any accusation of malpractice. So they earn a few quid for bending the ear of the law. Of course they do. It's their profession. What other skills ever justified their peerages?

One hundred and twenty thousand pounds, however, ups the moral ante rather. And not just by its size. And not just for what you have to do to get it. It's the reported boast that's ugly. The unembarrassed pride in it. Why, in these of all times, would a man swank about the money he earns, never mind about the things he does to earn it? OK, the boast belongs to bargaining, but how can a person enjoying public confidence and charged with democratically governing a country not choke on its utterance; whatever the legality, how can it not dismay any Labour peer in his soul to know that with a wink in the right direction, the merest tug at an ermined sleeve, he can pull in more than it takes to keep the families of four Blackburn warehousemen going for a year? And then to call such a sum a bargain!

Cheap at twice the price. Thus, with every allegation, as with each new revelation of the inducements dished out like dog biscuits to bankers, do we measure the difference between having and not having. So who is finally going to say it: that there is such a thing as too much, that while it might be true one never gets enough sex, one can get too much money? In fact excess of both makes you ill at last. Your knees and concentration go after too much sex. Your humanity goes after too much money. But that's between you and your maker. More importantly, the idea of a society for our mutual benefit goes. And then who can blame those who don't have influence to sell, or investors to bemuse, when they resort to cruder measures?

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