In January this year the Dutch Minister of Home Affairs, Ronald Plasterk, presented an overview of the salaries of public sector employees in 2011, and it turned out that 2651 people exceeded the limit of what is known as the Balkenende norm – that is an annual salary of 193,000 euro. He pointed to the fact that from January on a new law has come into force, which states that the people at the top of the public sector – called the veelverdieners, the ‘big earners’ – cannot earn more than this limit, which is 130 percent of the salary of a minister. Plasterk expressed the hope that this law will ensure that these excessive salaries will be reduced within a few years to an acceptable level.
Since January this issue has remained a hot topic. The focus on the high salaries of managers and television celebrities can of course only be properly understood within the context of the financial crisis. Many low salaries have already been reduced, so it is considered fair – and rightly so – that the high salaries should also be reduced. This reflects a deep longing for justice.
But even when people earn a lot, I think it will be impossible to force them by law to be satisfied with a lower salary. One of the most important reasons for this is the fact that the amount we earn has become a reflection of how we are valued in our society. And because most people can only attach a positive value to a salary increase, earning less will immediately feel like becoming a less valuable person.
Originally ‘value’ was a qualitative, immaterial concept, but we have become used to quantifying quality. Often this works out fine. In schools and universities we rate quality through quantitative figures. And we give presents to others to express our gratitude. But it becomes problematic when we focus too exclusively on quantity. Attaching a positive value to a constant increase in the amount of money one earns, shows there’s something fundamentally wrong. If we really want the ‘big earners’ in the public sector to be satisfied with a lower salary, we first have to find other ways to express our values: we have to go back to the source.
The fact that even these ‘big earners’ still aim for a salary increase reveals something important: the expected salary increase is really an exterior substitute for our innate longing for inner development. Or perhaps more accurately: a substitute for our lack of inner development. But a substitute, of course, can never fully replace the original. If we (collectively) manage to rediscover that the real value of life lies in inner development – in making our lives gradually richer in an immaterial way, increasing our enjoyment of ’little things’, opening up to others, pursuing a personal interest, going for a good walk, etc. – rather than focus on the importance of earning an extravagant salary, then the need to exceed the salary of other people might become less. It’s true that work can also be a source of inner development, but money doesn’t contribute to this very much.
I think these ‘big earners’ will passionately want to hold on to their high salary – preferably with an increase and probably still getting it one way or another – so long they haven’t fully realized that the quality of their life comes from another source. A new law to try to reduce their salaries to an acceptable level will not be enough.