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Good Value?

Are politicians worth what we pay them? Are they worth anything? Why are politicians treated with such deep disrespect and distrust by so many people? These are a few questions I have been considering recently, main because of the politicians payments scandal, then the CEOs payment controversy (which I have blogged about recently), some comments from various people I have discussed this with, and a news item today where an accountant calculated what MPs really cost us.

Its fashionable and just too easy to criticise politicians but I think most of the criticism is misplaced. Many criticisms made against them are unfair and for those that are fair many apply equally or more to other professional groups in society.

So first of all, are they worth what we pay them? Of course, like any other group some are worth very little and others are probably worth even more than what they get. Also it would depend on what you expect. For example if a government decides to spend more on health and less on education then doctors would probably say the politician’s salary was well spent whereas teachers might question that assertion!

For many years most governments have done a reasonable job running their respective countries. OK there are some really bad ones (Zimbabwe’s springs to mind as an example) and even the greatest western democracies could have been a lot better (I hesitate to mention George Bush here) but in general things are OK considering the potential disaster we might expect if we were going to be totally cynical regarding human nature.

Even when major disasters do occur (the financial crisis for example) most governments handle the situation in a reasonable way. Sure the right criticise Obama’s handling of it but that’s really just their job and I doubt whether they would ever be happy with a policy the ostensibly left oriented US government would be likely to implement.

Inevitably I’m going to compare our politicians’ performance with other leaders’ in society to see how they stack up. Let’s compare the prime minister of New Zealand with the CEO of Telecom (no surprises there right, he’s my number one public enemy at the moment!)

The politicians are ultimately accountable to the people. We can vote them out at any election so (at least theoretically) we have ultimate control. The CEO is only accountable to the board, who are accountable to the shareholders, but those shareholders are mainly foreign and not associated with the way Telecom operates, so effectively the people affected by Telecom have very little control compared to what we have over politicians.

What about the services the government and Telecom offer? Well that’s a hard one to measure of course, but from a technical and consumer perspective I would say Telecom is somewhere between barely adequate and quite poor. The government, on the other hand, I would say are just average. OK, “just average” isn’t exactly a glowing endorsement but its a lot better than what we get from Telecom (and other large companies).

So now we come to salaries. The CEO of Telecom gets $5 million per year which is over ten times what the prime minister gets. Obviously the PM gives us far better value for money yet he (and other politicians) are always criticised for their expenses. As I have said before, the old argument that the private sector has the right to spend money any way it likes doesn’t work for me because we have no real choice except to use their products and services which means the money they have comes from us in almost the same way as tax money goes to the government.

So it seems to me that its really unfair to criticise politicians too much. Sure they get a few perks which they probably shouldn’t get but compared with some other sectors of society I think they provide good value. CEOs could learn a lot from them!

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