Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Undervaluing politicians

The most interesting sorts of bloggers, I think, are the prolific ones that avoid groupthink and offer a non-standard combination of positions. S&M is as good an example as I can think of. And one of the valuable services he provides (to me, anyway) is that he has introduced me to a few of the arguments that I'm about to use against him.

For instance, here, when he argues that MPs don't provide incalculable value to the public, I think that he his general position of other issues should make it difficult for him to stand by this particular line.

The post implies a chicken-egg question: Do we get poor MPs because we don't pay them enough, or are MPs insufficiently impressive to make the case for higher salaries for themselves?

I'm a bit confused with Chris' argument here. On the one hand, he is (elsewhere) very keen on the idea that we aren't very good at spotting talent. Yet he's overconfident, I think (heh heh) about his own ability to recognise where MPs perform a worthwhile service.

Now, let us, for a moment, leave aside Chris' own caveats about whether salaries are hugely important in incentivising public sector workers to perform. It is much more productive to count the ways that MPs are undervalued:

For example, do MPs make the right decisions? I would generally pay top-dollar (if I had it) for the least-worst advice available to me, and this is what MPs - in aggregate - provide every day in parliament. I'd want my decisions to be made by a large-ish number of people who are sufficiently detached, not a hostage to pressure groups or any of the fanatics that keep Chris awake at night.

Yet our economy (and I'm a contributor to it) offers very lavish rewards to people who offer much poorer advice. CEOs of pressure groups, for instance. Lobbyists. Columnists.

I'd be keen for MPs not to be experts, but generalists who have access to a wide range of experts and an overview of the mechanisms that recommend particular policy decisions. This is the best way to make the big decisions that effect us all, and MPs are ideally placed to provide this service. We reward 'experts' more than we reward MPs.

In choosing experts and interpreting indicators (which is what they will essentially be doing when they make parliamentary decisions), they are all bound to make numerous mistakes, so I'd like those mistakes to be compensated for by the mistakes of others: I'd like an aggregated moral wisdom to prevail. From my extensive reading of Chris' site, I think that this is exactly what he would like as well.

Yet we all piss and moan about paying a few hundred MPs, while tens of thousands of people work in lobbying, campaigning, wonking - earning a great deal more than MPs do in many cases. These people make their living from an attempt to disrupt that aggregated moral process.

I'd like them to be the sort of people that lots of volunteers will turn out to support. Not the ones that will appeal to a small number of prissy wonks, or the ones that will wow couch potatoes. Better to have the ones that have enough personal traction to get the envelope-stuffers, the leafletters and the canvassers to give up their Sunday mornings. The ones who can appeal to activists as well as floating voters. So their lack of telegenics (?) is to their credit.

These are not bright stars that please a small number of paid commentators intensely. They offer a slight reward to a large number of active middle-aged folk that live in the constituencies that they hope to represent. Indeed, our revealed preference (heh heh heh) is for exactly the sort of people that we currently have in Parliament rather than ones that are more noticeably impressive.

So, I think that this makes the case for more politicians, not less. I could extrapolate it into a need for more competing parliamentary institutions, but I'll do that another time.

It also makes the case for them to be able to command more resources than they currently do, in order to be even more independent of pressure groups, and so on. The one fly in my ointment is MPs over-reliance on political parties (groupthink being the main enemy of any 'aggregated wisdom' formula). This could be solved by the particular decentralising form of state-funding that I've been advocating here for a while.

I'd qualify all of this by saying that - aside from signaling - there isn't a particularly strong argument for MPs to have their pay increased that much - I couldn't turn any of the foregoing into an argument that we would get better MPs than we have if we paid them more.

The signaling is important though. Plenty of lobbyists earn six-figure salaries. Self-esteem is an important incentive, and to be gloated at by someone who contributes a fraction of what you do to the public good (or even subtracts from it) can't be easy to stomach.

By their very existence, and the kind of people that they are, they are each worth more than dozens of lobbyists, pressure groups, professional commentators and bureaucrats.

MPs are - by a country mile - the UK's most undervalued workers.

6 comments:

Will said...

Stumblie Mumblie bloke is just a product of Oxbridge -- toothless horsefaced cunts without a shred of self-awareness. His 'marxism' is a mask for the most extreme rightist bullshit you could ever encounter.

Fuck him.

chris said...

That one fly in your ointment is a very big one. My problem is that MPs don't embody a disaggregated wisdom. Instead they are (increasingly?) recruited from the same background; in thrall to those overpaid bad advisors (managerialism?) and the mass media; and - to varying degrees - too bound to party discipline. So we get a narrow dumbed-down groupthink.
Higher salaries wouldn't solve these problems in the short-term - but would they do so in the very long-term?
Another question is: do we really want our brightest and best to become MPs anyway? Couldn't they do more good elsewhere?
And Will - I love you.

Paulie said...

"...they are (increasingly?) recruited from the same background; in thrall to those overpaid bad advisors (managerialism?) and the mass media; and - to varying degrees - too bound to party discipline. So we get a narrow dumbed-down groupthink."

Agreed. And there isn't a short term magic bullet for this either. But would you say that my version of state funding would provide a good way of starting to deal with all of that?

Also, ".. do we really want our brightest and best to become MPs anyway? Couldn't they do more good elsewhere?"

I'm not keen on the idea that there is a '*the* brightest and best'. There are people who may not do too well in other walks of life that would (and do) make very good MPs. I don't think that 'brightest and best' is an identifiable lump. As it happens, I didn't think you did either? ;-)

Shuggy said...

MPs are - by a country mile - the UK's most undervalued workers.

Heh - I often quote to my classes one ICM poll that revealed the number of people who were 'highly dissatisfied' with the job their MP was doing was significantly higher than those who knew who their MP was.

Paulie said...

Shuggy,

One thing I meant to add here (and didn't) was the hospital effect with pollsters.

Pollsters are always told that the NHS is a mess and that the medical profession is out of touch and remote from the needs of patients. The same pollsters report a public who think that their *own* doctors and local hospitals are great.

Ditto politicians. When asked if they've met their local MP, the personal approval rating goes right up. But the *all politicians are bastards* meme always trumps it in opinion polls.

Solution? Politicians need to have more light-touch contact with more people. Get 'em out a bit more in circumstances where they aren't going to be the focus for pent-up ire about local trivia.

stephen said...

Yet we all piss and moan about paying a few hundred MPs, while tens of thousands of people work in lobbying, campaigning, wonking - earning a great deal more than MPs do in many cases. These people make their living from an attempt to disrupt that aggregated moral process

I don't think there is any mystery why people resent MPs' perks and salary, when many others are paid more. It's the same reason why some politicians are despised when they get caught in adultery. People detest those who pontificate but fail to hold to the same standards themselves. John Major's government wanted to go back to basics but so many of his MPs failed to live up to moral standards he wanted to impose on everyone else.

In the last 30 years, when has Parliament failed to attack workers going on strike for more money? Labour or Conservative, there is always a Paqrliamentary mouthpiece to denounce industrial action. Whether people agree with the action or not, the notice that Parliament fails to demonstrate the discipline that it demands of others, especially of the public sector worker. And this is not unique to Parliament. Captains of industry who cut the salary or conditions of their workforce, but then are rewarded with massive bonuses come in for some pretty rough treatment from the tabloids. I think most people instinctively despise those who say do as I say, not as I do