Fair play and unfair pay

Dr Bryce Wilkinson
Insights Newsletter
8 April, 2022

Too many people think that what people get paid should bear some relationship to effort, merit or responsibility. Useless economists think it should have something to do with supply and demand.

As all right-thinking people know, both propositions are absurd. What matters instead is that people are fairly paid -- or at least they would be if someone could afford to hire them.

Imagine for example, if athletes were paid in proportion to their ability to attract an audience and to sell sponsored products. Imagine if actors were paid in some proportion to movie revenues. Obscene and unjustifiable income differentials would be the result.

Sadly, some of that malaise is creeping into New Zealand government policy. I am referring of course to the proposal that painters be given a proportion of the price at which their paintings subsequently change hands.

That path is a slippery slope. It will lead to richer and poorer painters from patently unfair differences in audience appeal.

We only have to look overseas to see the end result. A Michael Jordan or Elvis Presley get obscenely rich at the expense of every other basketballer or entertainer. No right-thinking person could call that fair.

In short, discerning audiences are unfair. Fair play produces unacceptable outcomes.

Back in the 1990s, then Prime Minister Jim Bolger came under fire for his outrageous salary – of under $200,000 a year. An unemployed chap offered to replace him at a fraction of the cost to taxpayers.

Happily, for Jim, unions are there to protect the likes of him. They know there must be no race to the bottom, “dog don’t eat dog”. That unemployed chap should have been levelled up.

Two recent cases illustrate the impulse to put supply and demand ahead of fairness. Desperate kiwifruit orchardists are offering $60 an hour for workers, plus cash bonuses and Auckland DHBs are paying nurses and midwives a bonus of $500 per night shift.

Such developments are obviously unfair to all those unable to do that work. There should be a law against it. All or none is fair.

Happily, Jim Bolger has put his shoulder to that cause. He chaired the Fair Pay Agreement Working Group. Government legislation is to follow.

Admittedly the initial scope is small. But it is a step towards the ultimate goal of equalising pay regardless of supply and demand. Fairness is everything.

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