This title is borrowed from the title of a chapter on inequality from Ha-Joon Chang’s book “Economics: The User’s Guide”. It relates to an old Russian joke that goes like this:
“The peasant Ivan is jealous of his neighbour Boris, because Boris has a goat. A fairy comes along and offers Ivan a single wish. What does he wish for? That Boris’s goat should drop dead.”
Chang uses this joke as an example of how the pursuit of equality is a natural human emotion, and it also seems to me as analogous of a large section of the public’s attitude towards public sector employees and their decision to take strike action tomorrow over pay an pensions. Public sector workers have been offered a 1% pay rise this year which represents a real terms pay cut for the fifth year in a row. Despite this, many are pretty unsympathetic of those striking tomorrow.
Applying our story of Boris and Ivan to this, the goat would be a decent pension. Many private sector workers have lost access to a decent pension, and are quite happy to see the public sector worker’s goat die too, and are resentful of their efforts to defend what they have. This is not an attitude I really understand. Surely leveling up is better than leveling down?
The Government has been quick to exploit this instinct however and have used it to paint public sector workers including teachers as enemies of reform or coddled shirkers who don’t know how to work hard. They are the ones arguing that public sector pay and conditions should be leveled down to the level of the private sector, even though public sector wages are now barely, if at all higher than private sector wages.
The unions bear some of the blame for this too in my view. They seem to have been rather complacent about the erosion of private sector wages and pensions, not realising it would have an impact on public support for their efforts in maintaining and improving the pay and conditions of their members. I think they need to be aiming their message more towards private sector workers who may formerly have been unionised and working towards promoting a solution to the private sector pensions crisis. The public need to be on side with the unions’ aims if they want to arrest the decline in the labour share of national income across the board.
I don’t what proportion of union members will actually strike tomorrow, but with David Cameron saying today the next Tory manifesto will contain proposals to introduce a 50% turnout threshold before strike action can be taken, something needs to change, or the demise of organised labour could start to accelerate again.