Bankers replace Bombers

Back in my yoof, when we wanted to make the point that something noble but apparently expensive like science or education or foreign aid was actually Rather Cheap if you Looked At It The Right Way, the standard unit of comparison was the B52 bomber. Why, we could have that telescope for little more than the annual repairs on one bomber  ! Now, thanks to Jocelyn Bell-Burnell (Praise Be Upon Her) we have a new unit of evil : the Banker’s Bonus. At last week’s hearing of the Select Committee of Science and Technology, when our Profs were asked what it would cost to keep those northern telescopes going, Roger D said “2-3M”, meaning per year. Jocelyn B-B said “a banker’s bonus”.

I liked this, so I gave it another outing at a rather fun public event on Sunday. Four astronomers were given ten minutes to make a pitch for their favourite project in front of a random selection of punters in the science activities gallery of the national museum in Chambers Street in Edinburgh. Said punters were given Monopoly money and voted for their favourite by putting money in different boxes. Very jolly. Round-1 was me pitching for LSST versus Catherine Heymans pitching for Euclid. Well, she had dark matter and dark energy, and did amusing things with beach balls, but I had killer rocks in space, and you can’t beat that, so I won.

On my last powerpoint slide, I told them how much it costs – about $800M to build and then run for ten years. A full UK share might be £50M (unfortunately not looking likely now..). Still a lot… but spread over seventeen years (start in a year, six years to build, ten years of operations) thats 2.9M per year. Guess what. A banker’s bonus.

So when they added up the monopoly money, Euclid had 1.2M and LSST had 2.4M. What a spooky coincidence …

Of course, really, I was hoping someone in the audience would come to the front afterwards and say “Hi, I’m a banker, and I’ve been wondering what to do with my bonus”.

No such luck.

Get ready for Episode Two by the way.

17 Responses to Bankers replace Bombers

  1. The difference, of course, is that bankers’ boni are not paid for out of tax money. (If the government bailed out a bank and didn’t limit the salaries, then the government is stupid. At least some countries which bailed out banks stipulated a maximum salary not much higher than that of an astromomy professor.)

    It is also rather one-sided. Yes, bankers’ boni are large by the terms of the typical boffin. But what about footballers’ salaries? Some probably spend more on their wives/girlfriends etc than building a telescope would cost.

    In general, though, the point is valid is that it is not much money. As Carl Sagan said with regard to the cost of planetary space probes, “a penny a world for each person on Earth”.

    Would it be a good idea if a banker, footballer, producer of popular but buggy software etc decided to finance astronomy? In the short term, of course, but in the long term we would be back to the days when patrons financed what they fancied. It would be preferable to convince the public to spend more money on science.

    • telescoper says:

      Actually, not “boni” but “bonuses”. It can’t be a properly formed latin word – because “bonus” is an adjective not a noun – so there’s no justification for giving it a latin plural.

      In latin the noun form “bonus” could be a “good man”, which clearly can’t apply to a banker. However the latin word closest to the English use would be the neuter “bonum” (i.e. a good thing) and have a plural “bona”.

      Not that I’m pedantic or anything.

      Anyway, aren’t the crocuses lovely this year?

  2. andyxl says:

    For the avoidance of doubt : (i) I think the public purse should fund astronomy (ii) it is indeed about showing its not much money (iii) Re your first point, see RBS.

  3. Michael Merrifield says:

    The difference, of course, is that bankers’ boni are not paid for out of tax money. (If the government bailed out a bank and didn’t limit the salaries, then the government is stupid. At least some countries which bailed out banks stipulated a maximum salary not much higher than that of an astromomy professor.)

    Surely, the point is that tax money underwrites bankers bonuses: when bankers gamble on an investment, if they win then they get to keep the money, and if they lose then the taxpayer picks up the tab by having to bail out the bank because the country cannot afford to let it fail.

    Since we are providing a blanket insurance policy that allows bankers to place any bet they want, we have an interest in the level of bonuses whether or not the bet pays off in any particular case.

    • Good point (and one that is rarely made in public discussion). I see too consequences: 1) avoid allowing banks which are “too big to fail” to exist and 2) outlawing boni (i.e. only fixed salaries would be legal). 1) is probably easier than 2). In practice, if 1) is not implemented, and one tries to implement 2), then instead of betting on boni, the bet would move to betting on the (fixed) salary.

      So, in practice, probably only 1) is viable.

      • That’s an interesting use of grammar, which prompted me to brush up on my rusty O-level Latin. Here’s some examples of Latin words incorporated into English that conventionally take the Latin plural: maximum, minimum, premium, optimum. These are all gender neuter in singular and plural, which I think is what normally happens when they’re sucked into English (though there’s not a physical or constitutional law against doing something else). To follow the same pattern, we’d use bonum not bonus, for which the plural is bona (as in bona fide). Having said that, language evolves, and I’m just as happy to split infinitives as I am to use “data” as singular, as long as it’s understood. Especially -in the case of data- if it annoys, tee hee…

      • andyxl says:

        Steve, thats ok, I think Norman settled the argument. Data is a mass noun, like water, and therefore singular.

      • telescoper says:

        Stephen: see above comment for “bonus” – it’s actually a malformed derivative which should really be “bonum”. There’s no justification for giving it a latin plural, so I think it should be “bonuses”.

        Andy: I disagree. “Data” can be a mass (or non-count noun) but isn’t always. Moreover even if it is used in non-count form, it doesn’t follow that it must be singular. E.g. “Clothes” is a non-count noun, and is most definitely plural. It’s all to do with the pluralia tantum.

      • Peter: I tend to agree, no need for Latinised plurals unless it’s common usage (like maximum/maxima, nova/novae) or unless you’re trolling for fun. Maybe it should be pluralia tantrum?

      • telescoper says:

        “Status” is another one that was sent to try us….

        …the correct latin plural of status would be status (with a long “u”) as it is 4th declension rather than the 2nd declension suggested by the -us ending (which would have plural -i).

        Anyway “statoose” sounds weird in English, so I definitely prefer statuses.

  4. andyxl says:

    Or you strictly separate retail banking and investment banking. That was what Cable said when he was in oppposition, and he was right. Now it looks like the Coalition government is backing down …

    Now. Surely, some more discussion of how wonderful Euclid and LSST are ?

  5. telescoper says:

    RBS is 83% owned by the UK taxpayer. It made multi-billion-pound losses in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Yet last year 323 RBS staff shared a payout of £375m, thats an average of £1.2 million each, and about half the entire STFC budget.

    Now tell me this country isn’t completely fucked up.

  6. Paddy Leahy says:

    The sad thing is that replacing B52s (1998 unit cost $58M)* with bankers bonuses accurately represents the scaling down of our ambitions since a decade ago.

    *Isn’t wikipedia wonderful?

    • Albert Zijlstra says:

      Give those bankers a B52 as bonus and everyone is happy.

      Now – whichever telescope we want next, it should clearly be made too big to fail (JWST?), and bankrupt STFC in the process. So we can collect our well-earned bonus/boni. LSST just isn’t expensive enough. The particle physicists know how to do things properly. What could we do with a spare 10 billion?

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