Thought for the Day - Rhidian Brook

Good Morning,

If you’re ever at a dinner party and the conversation is getting dull, and people start talking about schools or showing funny clips from the Internet because you’ve run out of things to say, just ask the guests how much they earn. I guarantee this will either lead to the complete death of the evening or, perhaps, to a proper grown-up conversation about money and values, maybe even life itself.

My wife did this recently and after everyone had finished choking on their lemon chicken, it opened up a dicey but decent discussion. The question maybe have been a bit rude and one or two (noticeably the wealthier) reserved the right not to disclose their earnings; but behind the whole thing there was a desire to break a taboo – the sacred cow of personal finances - and ask some important questions: how do we earn our money? What do we do with it? And how much is enough?

Questions that have come into sharp focus this week with the announcement that the chief executive of RBS Bank – Stephen Hester - is being paid a million pound bonus on top of his million pound salary. Judging from the outcry most people seem to think that this is more than enough - for him or anyone.

Keeping bankers accountable is a good thing, but there’s a complicated mix of a desire for fairness and good old-fashioned envy at work here. And in the middle of this opprobrium it would be a shame to miss asking ourselves the same question. How much is enough?

So how much is enough? One proverb suggests that not too much and not to little is not a bad place to start: ‘Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. For riches come with their own troubles.’ Another suggests that large salaries are not to be envied because ‘the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep.’ I don’t know how well Mr Hester is sleeping but if we are up all night thinking about his millions, whilst bemoaning the lack of our own, are we any better off?

In the end it’s not what we earn that is going to define us. It’s how we earn it and more importantly, what we do with it. A poor man won’t sleep any better for envying the rich man. Whilst a rich man’s abundance might not keep him awake at night if he does something interesting with it.

I want to live in a society that asks how much is enough; and I want to sit at the table and never be afraid to ask what someone earns, how they earn it and what they do with it. If we can be more accountable with the person we sit next to at dinner then perhaps we’ll be better equipped to make decisions for society at large. So let’s keep having the conversation.

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