The disruption caused by the coronavirus has raised basic questions about how people should be paid for the work they do.
If you have never thought about this for more than a few seconds, now is as good a time as any to assess what really matters.
A recent Herald Sun investigation revealed that the (coronavirus-reduced) pre-tax salary of even the one-hundredth most well-paid AFL player is around $400,000.
My colleague's mother, a full-time registered nurse at a Melbourne hospital, receives just under $80,000 a year before tax.
I can tell you that a former politician who is now the executive general manager of corporate affairs at a large conglomerate once expressed amazement to his friend - one of my old school teachers - at how little work he had to do for his mid-six-figure salary.
It is possible to make $50,000 a year as a night filler at a big supermarket.
In the style of a Family Feud game, we could easily come up with a list of roles that the vast majority of Australians would agree are among the most socially vital at this moment.
We could probably also, after a little more thought, get majority agreement on a list comprising the least socially useful roles.
Some number-crunching would, I am confident, show that the first list gets paid, on average, much less than the second.
And most of us could probably agree that, by and large, list one has less pleasant working conditions than list two.
Even if all salaries were competitively determined, something would still not feel right here.
This is because of a common instinct that says people whose work involves protecting and sustaining their communities should be paid a premium.
The coronavirus has brought into sharp focus the fact that this does not usually happen.
We can probably do better than the current income allocations, in the sense of better satisfying most citizens' judgements of what constitutes reasonable pay, without destroying living standards.
Suppose, hypothetically, we decide to get serious about these issues during our post-coronavirus economic recovery by building up a much more dominant public sector - but we ditch the old public sector pay model.
In a new process resembling jury duty, imagine randomly selected citizens are summoned at least once a year to sit on a public remuneration tribunal, which operates at arm's length from government.
Groups of selected tribunal members are required to deliberate and decide on, first, the norms by which the salaries of different categories of workers should be determined. In turn, they must translate these norms into specific increases or decreases in pay rates.
Relevant authorities are legally bound to implement all tribunal decisions. For instance, the sports minister duly pays AFL players, the communications minister pays postal workers, and so on.
Interested parties such as unions, politicians, and ordinary citizens could make submissions to the tribunal. All decisions are published along with associated reasoning.
Suppose in-house political economists are tasked with providing relevant information to tribunal members in an advisory capacity. This includes the modelling of commonly raised norms, such as danger money, pay in proportion to contribution, and equal pay, for different sectors. Outlines of general economic conditions, sector balance sheet summaries, local and global remuneration trends, and relevant government policies could also be provided.
Crucially, any advice would have to include broad predictions of the effects of alternative decisions. For example: "A pay cut for AFL players risks reducing labour supply in this sector, assuming players care most about income. However, the work characteristics of the AFL are highly coveted. Job openings would likely be quickly filled by others. So, a modest pay decrease is unlikely to reduce labour supply significantly."
An immediate objection to this proposal is that the impulsive masses will pay professions into which they have no deep insights next to nothing. In addition, pay could oscillate wildly from year to year. This is to court economic and social disaster.
The public's myopia is vastly overstated here.
After being briefed on the economics of alternative paths, and considering detailed testimony from workers themselves, tribunal members appreciative of the gravity of their role can be expected to arrive at judgements no less reliable than the public office remuneration tribunals which now exist at the state and federal levels.
The typical such tribunal consists of three people appointed by state governors or the Governor-General based on the recommendation of government ministers.
It may be further objected that one of the virtues of the status quo is that people can fight for their own interests by bargaining with employers or by complaining to and voting out MPs. How can we hold this monstrously powerful tribunal to account?
Relatively small groups of people controlling economic decisions which affect much larger groups of people are inevitable in any complex society. The question is with whom ordinary citizens would rather be confronted.
The tribunal's rotating random make-up is far more likely to reflect the life experiences and values of ordinary citizens compared to current boardrooms and parliaments. In this way, it is more likely to arrive at judgments which would be arrived at were ordinary citizens in the room. This is an indirect, but no less potent, form of accountability.
The proposed tribunal is also less susceptible to corruption - though, like any jury-style body, not perfectly so.
Could there be clashes between government plans and the binding decisions of the tribunal? Yes. But we handle such clashes now. Governments regularly swallow the bitter pill of compromise when assembling coalitions to pass key planks of their agendas. The outcomes are generally more responsive to the public mood as a result. Governments will also learn to factor in potential tribunal decisions during policy development.
- Chad Satterlee is an independent political economist.