11 January 2010

There's no business like snow business

Although we woke up this morning to find (at least in Dublin) the snowy blanket of joy that had enveloped our fair city for the last few days as washed away into the gutter and all-but-forgotten as last year's X-Factor winner, the good news is that our Minister for Transport cut short his holiday in Malta where he sat out the worst of the nasty weather working up a rather nice tan, and arrived back in Ireland on Saturday night. He would have been back earlier on Saturday, but he had to reroute through Bristol as his direct flight was canceled, because, you know, the weather conditions were so bad that our nation's transportation systems had all but collapsed.

But still, its not as if his presence here would have made any difference to the situation, as he said himself "Ministers for Transport don’t actually go out and grit the roads", which is a good thing really given how embarrassed he would have looked standing out on the M50 and realizing that there was no actual grit left in the country.

On the 4th of January after much intense media speculation Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan confirmed that he had been diagnosed with cancer and was to begin immediate chemo and radiotherapy, but in line with the advice of his doctors would continue to perform his duties as Minister albeit with a reduced public speaking engagement. While he rejected the notion that this decision would lead him to be a "part-time Minister", he did suggest that he expected no further budgetary work to be necessary until December, so basically in the midst of the worst financial crises our nation has faced there's not a lot of impact for better or worse that he can make as a Minister between now and then.

In a previous life I worked for a large multinational internet company that had a sales office in Paris. Being the civilized nation that it is, most of France shuts down entirely during August for Les Vacances, and our Parisian office with its 100+ staff was no exception. Funny story though, during the month of August the company's French revenue actually rose by up to 20%, meaning that the business did better when none of the employees were actually there. My (unaccepted) sales plan for the following year involved shutting down the Paris office entirely. I'm not a huge fan of sales people.

The reaction of two of our Ministers in the face of both personal and national tragedies is telling. If their actual presence has little impact on the running of their department and its ability to react to national emergencies, why bother having Ministers at all? I'm sure the €150,000 salary plus pension each get paid could be much better spent hiring a few more folks who actually know anything about transportation or the economy.

In fact, what exactly is it that Ministers do to justify their large salary? In February of last year I looked at the rationale for the high salaries of corporate executives:
"The economist Tim Harford devoted a chapter in "The Logic of Life" to trying to understand why Executive pay is so high, and specifically if there is any contribution an individual could make to the success of a company that would justify today's astronomical salaries and bonuses. His conclusion, rather simply, is "No". Executive salaries have nothing to do with the abilities of the individual, and everything to do with their role as a motivational tool for those on the lower rungs of the corporate ladder to work hard and deliver strong results in the hope of moving up and one day reaching the executive level."
However this example doesn't translate well into the Ministerial world, where the Minister's subordinates are, by and large, civil servants with a hierarchy unconnected to the Minister's position.

A justification often offered in the corporate world is that a high salary is necessary to attract the best and brightest to a specific position, and yet clearly that is not the case with Ministers who usually have no previous relevant experience for the portfolio they are assigned. Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey was briefly a career guidance teacher but has been a professional politician since 1977. Brian Lenihan was a barrister and law lecturer, and inherited his Dail seat upon the death of his father. Neither of these Ministers have any relevant expertise for their portfolio beyond being professional politicians, or being born into a ruling national dynasty, and in the last seven days both have made public statements to the effect that by and large they are irrelevant to the day-to-day running of their department and that their physical presence isn't actually necessary in a crisis.

And don't even think of suggesting that a high salary is necessary to prevent a Minister from giving in to temptation and accepting a few backhanders. If this is the case we are obviously not paying our Taoisigh enough, let alone our overworked Ministers.

It is also worth noting that a UK Cabinet Minister currently earns £144,520 (€160,765), a US Cabinet Secretary earns on average $193,400 (€133,350), so while our worthy Ministers earn (before allowances and pensions) fractionally less than their UK counterparts who are responsible for the affairs of a country with almost 14 times the population of Ireland, they earn substantially more than their US counterparts, who watch over the affairs of a nation with a mere 68 times the population. With that in mind no doubt our Ministers are 68 times more competent than their US counterparts, or at the very least 14 times more competent than their UK counterparts? Unfortunately according to the Financial Times the UK's Alistair Darling ranks joint 7th in the 2009 list of EU Finance Ministers, our own Brian Lenihan comes in at 19th. Out of 19.

Value for money if ever I saw it.

So if we as taxpayers are not paying for a Minister's skills and expertise, or their motivational abilities either as leader or financial incentive, what exactly are we paying them for?

As Edwin Starr might have warbled, "Ministers. Huh. Yeah. What are they good for? Absolutely nothing."

While you ponder this somewhat rhetorical question I leave you with a link to some more photos of the winter wonderland that was our capital city this weekend. Please note the lack of passable roads, but remember that its not the Minister's fault, sure he doesn't control the weather now, does he?

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