If the claim is that big bonuses reflected only transient profits, the flipside is that the variability of bonuses in response to changing conditions is a healthy feature of the free-market system. Economists squabble among themselves about many things, but they usually agree that wage and price flexibility ease adjustment to fluctuations in demand. On that basis, the bonus culture should be applauded rather than condemned.
The truth is that the attack on bankers' pay has been largely motivated by envy and resentment. Film stars and Premier League footballers receive sums of money which are even more outrageous relative to average pay than what bankers earn, but no one has the guts to advocate income controls for them. The FT has so far not dared to suggest that Ofcom should curb how much is paid to TV personalities, that the Football Association should impose limits on top players' remuneration and that the Arts Council should restrict the bonus culture for world-renowned opera singers.
Why are the Pavarottis and Domingos of bond trading somehow more reprehensible than the Pavarottis and Domingos of international opera? On what grounds should the David Beckhams and Wayne Rooneys of corporate finance be penalised relative to the David Beckhams and Wayne Rooneys of football? Despite a common misunderstanding, bank bail-outs are loans which must be repaid and are not "government expenditure" at all. The notion that the City of London receives official subsidies is preposterous. But who can overlook the fact that many TV stars benefit from licence-fee money, and that opera and sport attract an assortment of government handouts?