Friday, May 29, 2009

Misplaced Outrage - The UK Scandal That Isn't

So what do you think about the UK's MP expenses scandal that has forced the resignation of Speaker Michael Martin and several Ministers and MPs? The media reports talk of public outrage about these excesses and one poll shows the effect on UK voters. 63% have not been swayed by all this coverage and it won't change their voting preference, but a whopping 27% say that it has.

I think this whole controversy is deplorable, and a commentary on the quality of our media coverage. In an August 2007 post I disagreed with criticism of what we pay our lawmakers. I am strongly of the view that we should pay our apex lawmakers well, considering the enormous responsibilities and the public trust we place upon them.

That's not only fair but also expedient, as it will insulate them somewhat from the petty blandishments (like sports event tickets, rides on private jets, or stays in vacation homes of people seeking favors.) This won't prevent misdeeds by the heavily corrupt, but at least give the fundamentally decent lawmakers (hopefully the majority) the financial cushion to better follow their conscience. I'd also like to reduce the dependence of candidates to Congress (or Parliament in the case of UK or India) on special interests for raising funds for elections. This can be achieved, for example, by providing them public funding to contest elections, with the amount depending on their poll performance.

So how much should we pay them? I'd say $1 - $2 million a year to US members of Congress, and about 1 million GBP annually to UK MPs. For UK's 646 MPs it will work out to about 1 billion GBP including associate expenses, a drop in the bucket as compared to the UK central budget of 600 billion GBP. In the current MP scandal the total amount claimed by all MPs put together was 92 million GBP, not all of it improper. Given UK's population of 61M, that's less than 2 pounds per capita.

So yes, I consider this whole scandal to be a storm in a tea cup. And I know of no opinion leader or journalist of standing who has had the sense - or the courage - to pronounce it as such.

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