• Nick

The less likely the benefit, the more likely the cost.

I have spent a lot of time considering why someone would want to go into politics. To me, the emotional toll of being under constant public scrutiny would be incredibly high. A salary of several hundred thousand would not be enough for me to weather that storm. The obvious question is why would you want to do it? and to a lesser extent how much ($) would you need to do it?

Why do politicians say they want to do it?

Consider some of the following:

  • I will be satisfied if I can be remembered as someone who will stand up for the interests of my electorate”- Australian Prime minister Anthony Albanese’s maiden speech to parliament;

  • Former Australian politician and billionaire businessman, Clive Palmer mentioned the ‘economy’ ten times in his maiden speech to parliament and further said “Public service has no reward other than the service of others”;

  • In the opening speech of (then) United Stated Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton “To be right across the water from the headquarters of the United Nations… and in a place… with absolutely no ceilings…. lasting prosperity must be built by all and shared by all”

Clinton’s tune changed slightly closing in on the election date: “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? ... The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”

Why do politicians actually do it?

Australian Commonwealth politicians have a base salary of $148,000 (US) and United States senators have a base salary of $170,000 (US). For the bulk of the politicians, the reasons would be predominantly financial. It is a very decent salary, and it doesn’t require someone to work in an inherently dangerous, underground or remote environment. How can you tell which politicians are mostly motivated by the financial reward of the salary? You can’t, but a pretty good clue is that you have never heard of them.

A politician who wants the good salary will keep his or head down and ass up, avoid risks and retain their seat as long as possible. They will not vie for the top job or engage in underhanded hierarchy games because they don’t care, they innately want to keep their job and avoid risking their salary. In other words, they don’t aim for the highest office.

Looking to our example above, Clive Palmer doesn’t care about the salary- it is a drop in the ocean against his business turnover. His ability to shape the Australian economy on the other hand, can theoretically make or break his businesses. It is a pretty obvious benefit that he derives from his political involvement.

Clinton and Albanese on the other hand, noting that both of them are shrewd business investors in their own rights, are on the more progressive side of politics. Albanese suggested the reason of representing his electorate was paramount, and Clinton (who did not proffer one particular reason in the fore-referenced speech) referenced several different progressive motives from breaking glass ceilings, representing the United States at the United Nations, to wealth distribution.

The motive-trustworthiness scale

What is the motive of a politician who seeks to enact large-scale change on their nation? Obviously, they have a problem with the current status quo, however, assuming they are able to make their sought changes, how significant is the nexus between their intention and its benefits.

If Clive Palmer was able to make wholesale changes to the economy (as a politician) it would benefit him greatly. His speech indicated this intention, and it came off as truthful. If he were to say that his intention was to give his wealth away and to make large corporations pay more tax, I would question his motive and be apprehensive.

The no-name-politician who is in the game to get his weekly pay cheque says he wants to represent his electorate well, because if he does this, he retains his wealth. If the no-name-politician came out and says he wants to save the world from climate change (when in fact they have no individual power to do anything towards this) I would posit it is far more likely that they are in it for their own grandeur and it is very important for them personally to be seen for their virtues.

Where Clinton spoke about the need to share wealth between all citizens, and then a few months later criticized around a quarter of the voting population as deplorables, it is easy to see that there are some real shortcomings in her perceived truthfulness. Perhaps this is one of the fundaments occasioning her loss to Donald Trump? Love him or hate him, Trump is a man who obviously embraces power and has an economic and grandiose interest in attaining presidency; I don’t think he makes any apologies for this.

I have included a rough drawing of this scale above. If someone’s motive is cloaked and not obvious from the outset, particularly where they claim their motive is noble and argues against them receiving some sort of benefit, their truthfulness is particularly questionable. Contrarily, if someone derives an obvious benefit from something, their motives are particularly clear. True, it may come off as crass and unsophisticated if they flaunt their desire for money, however, this is favourable to someone of mixed and hidden motive.

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