The price of everything and the value of nothing…

Oscar Wilde In Lady Windemere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde had Lord Darlington quip that a cynic was ‘a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.‘ As with so much of what Wilde wrote or said, it’s more than just a nice turn of phrase – it hits at the heart of the problems of society. Lady Windemere’s Fan was written in 1892, but what Wilde wrote is even more true now than it was 122 years ago. These days, our government, our businesses, our media and more seem to be dominated by what Wilde would have described as cynics. The idea that anyone in the ‘real world’ should even consider ethical, moral, philosophical or cultural values to be on a par with financial or economic ‘value’ appears whimsical, sentimental, even romantic. Hard-nosed, sensible, rational, practical people ‘know’ otherwise. It’s the economy, stupid.

And yet have we really thought through the implications of this kind of attitude? For my sins, I used to be an accountant – in the 80s, at the height of Thatcherism – and if Wilde’s saying applies to cynics, it can apply twice as directly to accountants, at least in their professional capacity. Accountants are taught, amongst other things, how to put together models of systems – in particular things like expense systems or tax systems – that allow you to ‘test’ different scenarios so as to get specific outcomes. Turning a set of rules into an Excel spreadsheet makes this easy – in some ways too easy – so that you can easily work out how to get the best from a system. You can look at the probability of getting a particular outcome, and look at the ‘downsides’ of this outcome. You can use this kind of logic to determine the best price to charge to a product – perhaps you’ll be better off selling a smaller number at a higher price, perhaps a larger number at a lower price. You can use it to decide whether to buy a cheap product with a greater chance of breaking, or an expensive product that will last longer. You can use it to work out whether it’s worth breaking the law – looking at the probability of being detected and the penalties if you are detected, and compare that with the extra expense of complying with the law. With a ‘good’ accountant all these kinds of calculations become relatively simple. You need to know prices, have a little bit of expertise in Excel, and be good at estimating probabilities (which is particularly easy in the era of big data) but not a great deal more than that.

Life’s a game….

This can be very useful – and was one of the reasons why, when I left university in the early 80s the accountancy firms were the biggest recruiters of graduates in the UK. The problem is that its ease and attractiveness can be seductive and misleading. To borrow an old idiom, accountancy is a good servant but a very poor master. Being able to quantify things, to measure things, to compare and analyse can make it easy to miss the underlying issues. Focusing on the price makes it easy to miss the real value – and can turn what should be complex decisions based on combinations of ethics, morals, culture, empathy, philosophy and understanding of society into much simpler games based on numbers and calculations.

That word game is the key – when all the values are removed, these things just become games. Mathematical games – where the key is to maximise your results. In the 1980s, when I began my working life, this attitude seemed to pervade almost everything – the growth of the use of spreadsheets mirrored what felt to me like a hardening of attitudes. The idea of ‘efficiency’ was king – and efficiency was intended in a very narrow sense. Cutting costs, maximising income, improving the bottom line… and this was seen as the key to almost everything in life.  I remember friends who didn’t just record their mileage in their cars for business purposes, but who kept little books with exactly when they bought petrol, where from, at what price, and what mileage their cars had done, so that they could enter them onto spreadsheets and work out exactly how efficient their cars had been, so they could make better, more efficient decisions about purchases in the future.

So what’s the problem with this? It seems sensible, doesn’t it? You can save money. You can make sure that you live an efficient, practical life – and maximise your results. In fact, you’d be stupid not to do it, wouldn’t you? Ultimately, it becomes a mantra, something basic and unquestioned. It becomes a way of life.

MPs’ expenses and tax avoidance

In these terms, the MP’s expenses scandal is quite easy to understand – and so are the reactions of Maria Miller and indeed the media to the whole affair. Where there is a system for expenses, the sensible, practical and efficient person looks at the rules and finds a way to maximise their benefit. Of course they do. It would be stupid to do anything else. That means things like flipping houses is only sensible. So is claiming expenses for a second home even if you don’t need it. Again, you’d be stupid not to, wouldn’t you?

The story is pretty much identical on tax avoidance – though of course the word ‘avoidance’ wouldn’t be the one that springs to mind. ‘Tax management’ or ‘tax efficiency’ would seem much more appropriate. What might look like ‘avoidance’ if there is any sense of moral or ethical value inserted is simply a matter of efficiency. Lowering your ‘tax burden’ makes perfect sense – and if that means using off-shore investments, getting paid in gold-bars, putting your investments into Scottish forests when you really don’t give a damn about forests or Scotland, that’s neither here nor there. Maximising returns is all that matters.

Doing all of this makes perfect sense – and not doing it would be simply stupid. Anyone brought up in a world where this kind of logic prevails can see that – which is why to MPs, the expenses scandal doesn’t really seem like, well, a scandal. That’s why David Laws was allowed to come back into government after a short penance, and why many MPs seem to expect the same from Maria Miller. She’ll be back as soon as the public furore has quietened down a bit. That’s also why the media – or at least the Westminster media – doesn’t really understand the public anger about this. For many of the Westminster journalists – and you can see it particularly when people like the BBC’s Nick Robinson talks about it – this kind of logic makes perfect sense. Many of them may well have been gaming their own companies’ expense systems in just the same way – and managing their investments identically. This is just a game, and a game that anyone with any sense should be playing.

Thinking on their terms…

That’s where things get even worse. The game is so ingrained in so many of them that they seem to assume that everyone is playing. That, I suspect, is why so many of them think that benefit claimants are cheating – because they assume that everyone is playing the same game. If they were in that situation they’d be gaming the system – so they assume that others must be too. It stands to reason, doesn’t it?

And yet, it doesn’t. Not everyone does think on those terms. Many can’t think on those terms – because they’re too busy struggling just to keep going. The games of expense maximising and tax minimising are luxuries only available to people with the time to play them, or the money to employ others (accountants, lawyers etc) to play them for them. Many people – perhaps most people – don’t have the inclination to play these games, the time to play these games, the skills to play these games – or even the knowledge that these games are available to be played. It doesn’t fit into how they live – or how they would like to live.

Can anything be done?

It’s hard to know what, if anything, can be done about it. For me, this kind of logic is so ingrained in the system it’s almost impossible to root it out. It’s not a party political thing – which is why MPs and MEPs of all parties (very definitely including UKIP) have been found out. They really are all in it together. It’s not just in politics. It’s in businesses, from banks and their bonuses downward. It was one of the key factors that fuelled the toxic debt crisis that lay behind the financial crash in 2008. It’s in government agencies and operations of all kinds, from things like the Bedroom Tax to the target-driven cultures of the police (see the massaging of statistics) and education – and in parents, trying to game the catchment area system. It’s in universities trying their best to achieve official ‘REF’ results rather than encouraging imaginative research. Almost everywhere you look, the same kind of thing prevails.

It’s hard to see anything changing – but I don’t think that means we should give up.  Where we see it, we should complain, loudly and clearly. We should not let ourselves be convinced by any arguments that those caught are a few rotten apples – this is far, far deeper than that.  We shouldn’t let ourselves be fobbed off with a few little enquiries and a few nice words – we should look for root and branch change. I’m not holding my breath for any change, though.

One thing I won’t do, however, is play their game. I may not know the price of everything, but I do know that there are many things more valuable than money.

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5 thoughts on “The price of everything and the value of nothing…

  1. Didn’t Oscar also say that rebellion is humankinds original virtue. How do “we” who don’t milk the system get it across by rebelling against our deference, acquiescence that some have innate right to fleece all and sundry?Are we born equal? Obviously not because some mothers can buy their son a house worth millions as a present, others just have love to give.

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