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Johannes Müller SJ {*}

"Performance must be worthwhile!" ?


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 2/2011, P. 73 et sequ.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


"Performance must be worthwhile!" Who would seriously dispute this? Some people also think, "Performance must be worthwhile again!" An answer to these and similar questions requires some clarifications. These refer, first, to what is meant by performance. Secondly, the question arises, what is a reasonable "pay" for performance. Finally, it has to be examined whether there has been a disparity between performance and pay, and if so, in which sense.

Performance is something that most people spontaneously appreciate in many situations: e.g. a significant invention, the rescue of a company, a successful novel, an extreme mountain climbing, or the reconstruction efforts of the so-called rubble women after the Second World War. But these few examples also show that the reward for such services turns out to be very different. Sometimes, they have financially been worthwhile but often not, at least not for those who have delivered the performance - irrespective of a certain recognition that admittedly often occured posthumously.

With it the question is brought up, "When is a service worthwhile?" This requires criteria, by which it can be assessed. Such a criterion is, as already mentioned, recognition or perhaps even fame. It can first simply be directed at the performance as such or at those who have delivered it. The recognition can also refer to the fact that the performance was helpful for other people or has served the common good. Its reason can also be that the service was performed under difficult conditions, e.g. despite physical disability. As a rule, the recognition will even rise if the performance was delivered with great personal commitment or free of charge, perhaps even with risks to one's own life. But this is only the ideal or virtual side of a pay for performance, for which the statement "again" does hardly apply.

In a world determined by economic standards, and to a large extent also in the public opinion, performance is only then worthwhile if it is also financially recompensed. How questionable this criterion is and how soon it reaches its limit is shown by the fact that, due to market conditions or other reasons, the access to paid work is barred to some people (as e.g. many Hartz-IV recipients), even though they certainly perform socially important services. The fact that their adequate living is not secured contradicts the spontaneous sense of justice of most people and offends, in fact, human dignity and social human rights.

But one can consider this issue also from a different point of view. Are the existing "wage differentials" really justified? Do managers, bankers, great artists or top athletes earn rightly the income they receive?



And the performance of those who earn little or nothing, is it really of such little worth? In concrete terms: Is the performance of a top manager actually ten times greater than that of a Bundeskanzlerin? Does a banker with his bonus payments accomplish thousand times more than a worker at the refuse collection or a single mother? Or is the performance of a top athlete ten thousand times more valuable than that of a plantation worker in a poor country? Most people will probably say 'no' to this question.

But why do these great differences exist, which have been incessantly increasing for decades not only worldwide but also in Germany? The answer is often, "Because the market allows it!" This is often enough seen as justification. Many people therefore try by all available means (sometimes even punishable ones, as e.g. tax evasion) to make as much yield as possible. Sure enough, the market with its mechanisms becomes thus the paramount, if not even the sole standard. And a market without regulations knows no social or environmental standards. One example for it is the emigration of doctors and nurses from Africa to rich countries like the UK - with the result that in some countries of origin people can no longer be treated medically.

A mere market logic is naturally not only inconsistent with ethical criteria but also with economic expertise, at least when it thinks on a long-term basis and does not look only at the next quarterly figures. For example, the economies of most rich countries are dependent on parents who want children and are willing to rear them, and this requires today kindergartens and daycare centers. Only then it will be possible that the elderly can continue to live in decent conditions. The fate of future generations depends crucially on the fact that the economy is environmentally compatible, i.e. that scarce resources are used sparingly and a dangerous climate change is avoided. The market is certainly blind for such problems, unless it is politically correctly organized. At present, services in such areas are certainly "rewarded" inadequately, and so they are performed either not at all or only with great personal commitment.

The current income differentials have a huge imbalance in the wage-performance ratio. For instance, many people owe their wealth to an inheritance without any own performance. Conversely, no one is responsible if he was born into a poor family, perhaps even in a poor country, without the chance to develop his talents and to use them in the best possible way. It is all the more important to promote and widen the options of action of all people, so that they are able to live preferably by their own efforts in decent conditions. But this will require a more balanced and equitable distribution of opportunities and the means necessary for it. In this sense the dictum certainly applies, "Performance must be worthwhile again!"


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'