Astonishment at a nurse being paid more than £100,000 points up an outdated idea of value
Shock horror. An NHS nurse has earned £100,000 in a year. Well, it was enough of a shock for it to make it on to the front page of yesterday's Sunday Times. This would have been fair enough if the tone of the piece had been positive - that finally, at last, nurses are being highly valued for their work.
But it wasn't. Instead the piece was all about "generous incentive schemes" and big bonuses. The implicit message was clear: it's bizarre and wrong for nurses to be paid a lot of money.
How anachronistic. At a time during which we as a society are collectively suffering from the greed and misdeeds of tens of thousands of bankers - almost all of whom would have taken home at least £100,000 and many more than 10 times that - shouldn't we be rejoicing that perhaps at least a few of those people who choose to care for the most vulnerable as a profession might not be going to struggle this Christmas?
The nurse in question seems to have earned £100,000 by, in effect, taking on two jobs - half her income was earned in overtime - and having reached the pinnacle of her profession. So she saves, lives and works incredibly hard. Good for her. But as far as nurses in general are concerned, the majority still earn so little that many have to take on third jobs, and most cannot afford to buy their own home. This is no nurses' pay bonanza. And it prompts a bigger question: how should we determine what is valuable in society today?
Up until a few weeks ago, this seemed straightforward. Apart from the public sector, where the state sets pay rates, we essentially left value for the market to decide. And the market not being an instrument of equity, justice or fairness, but a mechanism for wealth creation and distribution, rewarded bankers and hedge fund managers far more highly than almost anyone else in our society - despite the fact that the actual value they added to society was, it turned out, at best limited. At worst, it's now clear, their net value was negative - a huge pinata filled with paper money.
Partly because the layman could never fully understand it, and partly because it became so dominant in the global economy, the financial sector, over the past two decades, turned into a living metaphor for a growing chasm between value and worth, between pay and reward, between what we should get and what we do receive.
Which would have been rather academic up until a few weeks ago. But now the public own such a huge share in the banks (and soon become stakeholders in many other sectors too) that we as citizens not only have a right but an imperative to question who should be paid what - and why.
This debate goes beyond nurses and bankers. It stretches into the murky waters of why women continue to be paid well below their male counterparts, and why the relative level of ethnic minorities' pay remains so low.
But at its heart it makes us ask of ourselves and our politicians: what should be considered valuable? Only those things that add to economic growth? And if only these then over what time frame? A quarter? Clearly too short. One year? Two? Three? And what about those who help growth indirectly, those who stay at home and look after others - mothers, carers of elderly parents or sick relatives who save the state millions of pounds annually. What is their worth? How is their value to be determined?
Let's hope that one nurse's hard-earned pay will lead us to have such long overdue discussions. For do we really want to live in a society in which those who have gambled with our livelihoods end up driving Porsches, while those who save our lives can't afford the petrol to get to work?
© 2008 Guardian News and Media Limited