Please raise a glass – if you’re not doing Dry January, of course – to our nation’s exceptionally talented CEOs and their superhuman work ethic and skills. For the average executive to have earned the equivalent of a worker’s average annual salary by 4 January is surely testament to an unimaginable amount of hard work and graft. They must truly deserve the 11% hike in their salaries since last year, unlike millions of good-for-nothing slackers like nurses and teachers who have endured years of stagnating pay.
It is worth taking a moment to absorb how great the gap now is between the worker and the boss. Top executives now earn 133 times more than the average worker; in 1998, the ratio was 47. The salary of the average FTSE chief executive is the same as that of 386 Britons on minimum wage combined. This in a country where workers have suffered the worst squeeze in wages for generations, where most Britons languishing in poverty are actually in work, where child poverty has increased at its fastest rate for three decades, and where one in every 200 people are classed as homeless or in inadequate homes. It is not a trend restricted to Britain, of course: US top bosses earn 312 times the average worker’s wage.
We are indoctrinated to believe that the booming paypackets of the boss class are down to their get-up-and-go, their innovation, their phenomenal hard work. This is used to justify and rationalise the explosion of inequality, not as evidence of an utterly broken social and economic model, but as just desserts. It is a pernicious myth. This is the wealth collectively produced by the hard effort of millions of people, who labour by hand or by brain. All of these CEOs depend on lavish state largesse: whether it be an education system (and its teachers) who train their workers, the nation’s expensive infrastructure, a law and order system to protect their property, research and development whose products they can commodify, a social security system to top up their workers’ low wages – I could go on. That is why we should snap out of thinking that they somehow deserve these vast sums: they don’t. And that forms the basis for arguing that far more of that money should end up in the paypackets of their workforce, reinvested in their companies and invested in the nation’s public services and infrastructure.
The arrogance, the hubris of Britain’s booming boss class – living it up in a seemingly never-ending party as millions struggle – is so flagrant, so obscene, it is worth asking – are they inviting a peaceful social revolution? They must realise that this is not sustainable. They are drunk on their greed now, but they may discover that the hangover is painful indeed. Millions of people may conclude that actually, Labour’s current plans to hike corporation tax merely to 2011 levels, or to increase the top rate of income tax to levels lower than Sweden’s, or to have limited public ownership, are insufficient, and must go further. And then they may find themselves asking: all those fancy yachts, those luxury cars, those multiple mansions – was it all worth it?
• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist