In allowing the right wing to question, quite rightly, the maxims that Property is Theft and Profit is a Dirty Word, we have allowed them to move the debate from one ridiculous extreme to the other.
Obviously it is nonsense to regard my toothbrush or my spectacles as public property. The obviousness of the nonsense of that does not make nonsense of the whole idea that property may be theft in some circumstances, or even in many circumstances.
For a small business, in competition with other small businesses, to make a sufficient profit to encourage the entrepreneur is probably a good thing. That does not mean that profiteering out of a monopoly is a good thing.
Fat cats in general are NOT doing a good job, and are not worth their excessive remuneration. Any damn fool can make a profit out of a monopoly in a near-essential commodity. To claim that the small percentage of this profit returning to the treasury is an improvement on the taxpayer funding the previous losses misses the point that the taxpayers (who are also consumers) have suffered a nett loss: the increases in prices have cost them more than the savings in tax.
It is not enough to make barmy arrangements for competition between utilities. It would be crazy to have multiple sets of electricity cables and water and gas pipes in the road; anything less makes a mockery of any pretence of competition. Competition between railway services is even crazier. We must not be afraid to question these lunatic ideas.
In the interests of conservation gas and electricity prices should probably have increased anyway. This could have been achieved easily under the old system, by a policy decision. The loss to the consumer would have been a gain to the taxpayer – without anyone creaming off three quarters of it on the way. (Benefits should also be increased to cover claimants’ increased costs – that’s just money coming out of the public purse in one place, and going back in in another, but with the desired effect of introducing an incentive to reduce consumption.)
Profit is not the only possible motive for running an enterprise. Yes, you should pay a top executive what she or he is worth; but the main motive for them should be the satisfaction that they are doing a good job in the public interest. There are plenty of extremely able people for whom this would be quite adequate motivation, who would regard themselves as very well paid at a tenth of what the average fat cat is paid. Anyone who would not find this adequate motivation is not a suitable candidate for the post.
It is certainly in the public interest that the treasury should not be excessively out of pocket due to subsidizing industry. It is also in the public interest that the consumer should not be out of pocket due to subsidizing the City.
We have swapped the hypothetical lazy workmen leaning on their shovels for the very real fat cats creaming off the bulk of what is being robbed from Peter (the consumer) to pay Paul (the taxpayer). The lazy workmen, even if real, were much less of a drain. The problem, if it existed, could have been solved without the introduction of the fat cats.
Yes, I have seen workmen leaning on their shovels, or drinking tea. If I had to do hard physical labour I’d expect to have a rest for a while every now and then too. Half of those workmen are now unemployed, and we are paying them for doing nothing. We can’t call them out in the middle of the night in an emergency any more. (We often no longer have a spare train driver or a spare bus driver when one is taken sick at the last minute, either – that’s another, different, but related issue.)
Somewhere between my toothbrush and a large utility property becomes theft. Somewhere between the just rewards of running a small business and the profiteering of a tycoon, profit becomes a dirty word. Just where to draw the line, and how blurred to allow it to be, needs to be decided. It is time for right-wing presumptions to be brushed aside and a proper discussion restarted.