Banknotes aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. The entire economy relies on the suspension of disbelief
I’m no financial expert. I scarcely know what a coin is. Ask me to explain what a credit default swap is and I’ll emit an unbroken 10-minute “um” through the clueless face of a broken puppet. You might as well ask a pantomime horse. But even an idiot such as me can see that money, as a whole, doesn’t really seem to be working any more.
Money is broken, and until we admit that, any attempts to fix the economy seem doomed to fail. We’re like passengers on a nosediving plane thinking if we all fart hard enough, we can lift it back into the sky. So should we be storming the cockpit or hunting for parachutes instead? I don’t know: I ran out of metaphor after the fart gag. You’re on your own from hereon in.
Banknotes aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. If they were, they’d all have identical value. Money’s only worth what the City thinks it’s worth. Or, perhaps more accurately, hopes it’s worth. Coins should really be called “wish-discs” instead. That name alone would give a truer sense of their value than the speculative number embossed on them.
The entire economy relies on the suspension of disbelief. So does a fairy story, or an animated cartoon. This means that no matter how soberly the financial experts dress, no matter how dry their language, the economy they worship can only ever be as plausible as an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants. It’s certainly nowhere near as well thought-out and executed.
No one really understands how it all works: if they did, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Banking, as far as I can tell, seems to be almost as precise a science as using a slot machine. You either blindly hope for the best, delude yourself into thinking you’ve worked out a system, or open it up when no one’s looking and rig the settings so it’ll pay out illegally.
The chief difference is that slot machines are more familiar and graspable to most of us. When you hear a jackpot being paid out to a gambler, the robotic clunk-clunk-clunk of coin-on-tray, you’re aware that he had to go to some kind of effort to get his reward. You know he stood there pushing buttons for hours. You can picture that.
The recent outrage over City bonuses stems from a combination of two factors: the sheer size of the numbers involved coupled with a lack of respect for the work involved in earning them. Like bankers, top footballers are massively overpaid, but at least you comprehend what they’re doing for the money. If Wayne Rooney was paid millions to play lacrosse in a closed room in pitch darkness, people would begrudge him his millions far more than they already do. Instead there he is, on live television: he’s skilled, no doubt about it.
Similarly, it may be tasteless when a rapper pops up on MTV wearing so much bling he might as well have dipped himself in glue and jumped into a treasure chest full of vajazzling crystals, but at least you understand how he earned it.
RBS boss Stephen Hester, meanwhile, earns more than a million pounds for performing enigmatic actions behind the scenes at a publicly owned bank. And on top of his huge wage, he was in line for a massive bonus. To most people, that’s downright cheeky: like a man getting a blowjob from your spouse while asking you to make him a cup of tea.
But Hester earned his wage, we’re told, because he does an incredibly difficult job. And maybe he does. Trouble is, no one outside the City understands what his job actually consists of. I find it almost impossible to picture a day in Hester’s life, and I once wrote a short story about a pint-sized toy Womble that ran around killing dogs with its dick, so I know I don’t lack imagination. Class, yes: imagination, no. If I strain my mind’s eye, I can just about picture Hester arriving at work, picture him thanking his driver, picture the receptionist saying “Hello, Mr Hester”, and picture him striding confidently into his office – but the moment the door shuts, my feed breaks up and goes fuzzy. What does he do in there? Pull levers? Chase numbers round the room with a broom? God knows.
Maybe if all bankers were forced to work in public, on the pavement, it would help us understand what they actually do. Of course, you’d have to encase them in a Perspex box so they wouldn’t be attacked. In fact, if the experience of David Blaine is anything to go by, you’d have to quickly move that Perspex box to somewhere impossibly high up, where people can’t pelt it with golf balls and tangerines. On top of the Gherkin, say. If Hester did his job inside a Perspex box on top of the Gherkin for a year, this entire argument might never have happened.
The row over bonuses has led some to mutter darkly about mob rule and the rise of anti-business sentiment. Complain about mobs all you like, but you can’t control gut reactions, and you can’t dictate the mood. And when you try to fart a crashing plane back into the sky, you only succeed in making the atmosphere unpleasant for everyone. And spoiling the in-flight movie. And making the stewardess cry. Looks like I’m all out of metaphor again. Time to end the article. Article ends.