Yesterday, the former Manchester United superstar Gary Neville announced that he would be opening his hotels to members of the overburdened and at-risk NHS staff. According to the BBC, 176 beds will be made free, the hotel will be closed to the public and thus no sales, and that no staff will be made redundant or be forced to take unpaid leave. This comes a day after the Chancellor of the Exchequer set out measures aimed at abating the economic impact of the coronavirus.
This cast my mind back ten years ago when we had just suffered the worst economic downturn since The Great Depression. I remember the rows of closed shops, hearing the stories of defaulted loans in their hundreds of thousands that forced people out of their jobs and their homes, and the general spirit of despair. Ten years ago, however, we suffered because of government deregulation on a banking sector voracious in its greed, and the immoral loan structures set out by banks in the name of profit, to put it briefly. Furthermore, we watched them walk away with their fat bonuses while hundreds of thousands were losing everything. Even now, ten years on, I still ask myself the question ‘What will the bankers do for us in the next crisis after causing the last?’
Well, now we’ve got the next crisis – the coronavirus. It looks like history will repeat itself in a general way – the economic effects will be considerable including job loss, the suspension of salaries, and despair, not to mention the mental health burden that comes from isolation. The government looks like it will do what it can to get us back on our feet. Then you have those like Gary Neville, who through nothing but the care in their hearts for society are willing to pay the price of their own fortunes for the greater good. Well done Gary! But what about those who don’t have to do anything, but still should? What about the richest who caused a major problem out of greed and got a second chance through the government bailout, and at our expense?
There is a moral debt that the banking sector specifically owes to society, and I believe now is the time to demand it. As we go deeper into the coronavirus crisis, we can ask the banks to demonstrate that they are also in the moral dimension with the rest of us, and not just in monetary one.
There are two arguments for this. First, they are one of the few industries that will be minimally affected by this. Banking will always be safe. Too much simply depends on it. This security must count for something in social terms. Secondly, there is the moral debt itself. Society paid a price for their greed, and now society needs what they can give back. People like Gary Neville have shown that this moral incentive is felt even by those who don’t need to do anything.
So just how can this moral debt be paid? It could simply be a case of the entire banking sector pairing up with the government to beef up the stimuli on the hardest hit industries affected by this virus. For example, the banks could simply tell the government ‘We’ll take care of the airlines and hospitality! You do the rest.’ Hundreds of thousands of jobs could be saved and/or restored. Alternatively, the banks could take on the burden of unpaid leave and pay at least 50% of the value of salaries in the hardest hit sectors. They could help in small ways as well, including increasing overdrafts temporarily, not allowing accounts to close down due to lack of payments, to putting an extra £30 a week in the accounts of those earning below a certain amount or who have just been forced to take unpaid leave. Surely these small measures are at least highly plausible, if not readily implementable. Gray Neville is deliberately putting his business at a loss when he does not have to. Banks are surely far more morally obliged to do much more than he, and so far they have done nothing.
Bankers may then ask why it is so important for the moral debt to be paid. ‘Typical!’ we all say. ‘That’s exactly the sort of question amoral people ask.’ Well, maybe we owe them this rationale. Here it is (and I hope it is not too much of a shock to them) – people have higher value than money. People need money, but at the end of the day the felicific calculus must conclude that people are happier because of money, or at least that they do not suffer because of it. This sort of message is all over their adverts - ‘The bank that cares for you’...and such like. Ten years ago we learnt what that meant; that we were still less than what we’re worth monetarily. That kind of treatment is never forgotten. Society must believe in the value of people again especially where money is concerned, and the banks are in the only position to make this claim believable again. Otherwise, what on earth are we trying save?