26 May 2009

Swallow A Camel, Strain At A Gnat

I don't know what to make of the great expense scandal playing itself out in Westminster. For those who aren't following, what I gather is this:

1. Like Congressmen, Members of Parliament are reluctant to vote themselves raises;

2. Like Congressmen, Members of Parliament want to make more money (at least for Congressmen, I think this is less greed than an assumption that everyone should get a raise every year, which explains a lot about the laws they enact);

3. Unlike Congressmen, Members of Parliament arranged to get more money by enacting incredibly generous expense reimbursement policies for themselves, which they were expected and encouraged to take advantage of to the farthest reaches, leading many (most? all?) to collect about 18,000 Pounds per year for things like dredging the moat around their castle;

4. Recently, Britain passed a Freedom of Information Act and now the public knows about the entirely legal expense scam.

So, this is something like the House bank scandal, but with more of a sense of a pox on both your houses, in that all MPs, no matter the party, seem to have participated with both hands.

On the other hand, this is a group that corporately has, over the last few decades, moved quite a bit of regulatory power, authority and responsibility to international bureaucrats in Belgium who never need to answer to the British electorate, so what's really the bigger scandal?


Susan's Husband said...

That's typically human. People just like to reify abstract things like the waste in Brussels in to similar if much smaller things like abusing expense reports. It's because it's far more personal, not in spite of it.

Peter Burnet said...

I for one would be so tickled to have an M.P. with a castle that I would happily turn a blind eye to his using public money to dedge the moat. Gotta love the Brits, they sure have a je ne sais quoi compared to our predictably boring North American legislators stealing funds to renovate the family room.

David said...

The problem people have with big numbers is clearly part of all this; just as it is with people who get all excited about AIG bonuses but not about trillion dollar deficits.

David said...


Don't the Brits see everything through the lens of class while Americans see everything through the lens of race or Canadians through the lens of not being Americans? So cleaning the moat on the public dime is just poking them right on a sore spot.

It's as if a Congressman claimed his all-white country club's fee as an expense. Of if a Canadian MP claimed that his family vacation to Orlando was official business, or it came out that he served Budweiser to his constituents.

Brit said...

There are three types of naughty MP in this second-homes expenses scandal.

In descending order of naughtiness, they are:

1) the outright defrauders claiming for mortgages that had already been paid - which is probably (and hopefully) a criminal matter.
2) the piss-takers, such as the moat man and the duck island guy. They apparently stayed within the (very lax) rules but had no conscience whatsoever about what might be reasonable to claim on taxpayers' money and what might not.
3) the rest, who, to varying degrees, milked the system a bit.
There are a few angelic exceptions who claimed nothing or nothing unreasonable but rather too few, it seems.

I reckon the first two sets deserve all the crap being thrown at them. The third set are just being humans, but public anger is such that these fine distinctions have rather gone out the window.

Peter Burnet said...

Yes, the third group falls into the nebulous category of the "honest cheat". When I was a student, I worked as a pedicab (bicycle-rickshaw) driver at the Montreal World' Fair. We charged by the minute and had little mechanical timers, which we soon figured out nobody checked. Most of the passengers were Americans, God bless 'em all, and they would happily pay whatever they were asked and add a fat tip. Some guys routinely charged double, but I was one of the virtuous ones who only added 15% and preened about our honesty. Nobody charged the actual rate except for one nerd we all came to hate. One day I made the mistake of adding the mark-up to the fare of a Canadian, miserable misers to a man, who objected loudly within earshot of a supervisor. I was forced to lock up the bike for a shift, which in retrospect was pretty lenient, but I can still remember the outrage and indignation I felt overwhelm me.

erp said...

Peter, there are so few castles here in the states (there may be more in Canada) that dredging the moat of one wouldn't have raised an eyebrow.

Had you given the pedi-cab riders a sob-story about slave wages and putting yourself through college, ugly Americans would have given you huge tips and Canadians and others from countries where they only spend OPM could stick to the metered charge. That way you wouldn't have to have "fudged" and your supervisor wouldn't have had to ground you.

I'll bet that was a fun time.

Harry Eagar said...

The British are very traditional, I hear, and plundering the Exchequer from the House sounds very trad to me.

Isn't that what the 18th c. was all about?

Ali said...

There's not much outrage about shifting authority to Europe because it's entirely domestic regulation like Health & Safety that attracts all the ridicule.

Gaw said...

My hope is that having choked on the gnat the British public will be prompted into doing something about at least one of the many camels they've swallowed.

It'll be fascinating to watch what the British political classes do now about the desire for parliamentary and electoral reform, much of which is US-inspired (recalls, fixed term elections, open primaries): go with the flow, divert it into something harmless, try to stop it up.

The 'yes, but...' response is already being judiciously deployed: 'Recalls would be a good idea. But we'd have to strictly limit the terms on which they could be implemented. I mean we wouldn't want to have to rely on the good sense of the public now would we?'