On Being More Skeptical of Claims

On Being More Skeptical of Claims July 1, 2016

I had a phone call with a member of my family last night who made a claim about the EU civil servants in the EU getting paid too much. The claim was something like “Do you know that X EU civil servants get paid  more than our Prime Minister, David Cameron?”

The inference here was that this was a waste of money and utterly unacceptable.

Straight away, on that phone call, I insisted on being more skeptical and analytical. As soon as I hear claims like this, my brain kicks into skeptical mode. These are some questions which came to the fore:

  1. Are these figures for the whole of Europe (EU) and should they then be scaled down to the ones relevant to the UK, to make it a fair claim?
  2. Is David Cameron actually being underpaid?
  3. Do we get value for money from these people? Are you not just assuming, and thus begging the question (as a fallacy) in supposing that these people are not useful, to then claim that they are getting paid more than they are worth, to conclude they are a useless waste?
  4. Are the EU civil servants out of the ordinary, or do we actually have lots of these highly paid civil servants right throughout our own national bureaucratic and political set up?
  5. Have you checked the source facts and claims?

This is simply how I have trained my brain. Problem is, it takes a lot more time and effort than simply accepting, hook, line and sinker, everything you want to hear! It is not a prima facie counter claim that this is a bad argument or not true, but when one is dealing with claims that have probably emanated from the Daily Mail or Express, then one has to be very careful with how one deals with them.

Being skeptical is about having proper epistemic warrant for one’s own beliefs. Are our beliefs justified? It’s putting everyone’s claims to the test, including ones that are derived from one’s own psyche and all the biases that it undoubtedly contains. Remember the adage:

Image result for richard feynman easiest person fool

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool. Richard Phillips Feynman (May 11, 1918 – February 15, 1988)

Now, I cannot remember how many civil servants were originally claimed. One Daily Express article claims:

THE top 200 most highly-paid EU officials all earn more than David Cameron, an investigation by Ukip has discovered.

Scores of Brussels bureaucrats and EU Court of Justice judges receive more than the Prime Minister’s annual salary of £142,500.

The Telegraph claims far more, though the fact that differences in tax rates skew things makes these claims more difficult to directly compare, as well as other caveats.

Context, context, context

The top earners are claimed to be the President of the Court of Justice and judges on the Court of Justice. What is interesting is the person I was speaking to, and the Express, fail to take into account (at least in that article) what judges in Europe, and specifically the UK, are paid. It turns out that UK (indeed, Scottish) judges are the highest paid in Europe. In Scotland, the starting salary in 2012 was £123,941 (over 5 time the average salary). One would assume that the courts in Europe work hierarchically upon those in individual member states, so one would certainly expect the judges to be paid more. This year (2016), High Court judges in the UK have taken an inflation-busting 3% pay rise; it will take High Court judges’ pay from the current £177,988 to £183,328 a year. As the Guardian reports:

Lord Thomas will receive a one per cent pay rise under the proposals, taking his annual salary from £247,112 to £249,583 when the changes come into effect in April.

Under Government reforms introduced last year, judges born after April 1, 1957 will receive smaller pensions while those born earlier will remain on the old “gold-plated” model which offers index-linked payments based on half their salary plus a lump sum.

There are 106 High Court judges in the salary band awarded three per cent.

This, decided by the Tory PM candidate, Brexiteer leader and present Minister of Justice, Michael Gove, should perhaps be where anger is directed, no? But alas, seeing the EU out of this context, and not understanding what these civil servants are and do, is part of the problem. I guess there is some assumption that they just sit in an office nebulously pushing pencils.

But where the real damage (to the claim of outrageous pay in the EU) comes from is in looking at our own UK civil servants, and understanding that well over (when taking individual NHS trusts into account) 300 civil servants earn more than our PM:

More than 300 senior officials from publicly funded bodies are paid more than the prime minister, newly released government documents show.

The total is the highest in five years – despite a promise by David Cameron to cut the cost of politics.

Of the 319 officials who take home more than £150,000 – more than the PM’s £142,500 salary, eight are paid more than £300,000.

Another 11 take home between £250,000 and £300,000.They include 35 people working on HS2, the train line linking London with the Midlands and the north, including chief executive Simon Kirby who takes home £750,000.

Sir Jeremy Heywood, the head of the civil service who has proposed a clampdown on the freedom of information act, received a pay rise last year to £195,000.

Fifty people at quangos set up during former health secretary Andrew Lansley’s controversial NHS reorganisation are on more than £150,000.

Public Health England employs 26 people who are paid more than Cameron, including the microbiologist Frances Gould who receives £220,000. Another 24 are at NHS England, with the highest paid £205,000.

The NHS Trust Development Authority and Monitor, which regulates foundation trusts, have seven people each who are paid more than Cameron.

The Health and Social Care Information Centre, which collects statistics for the NHS, has six on the list; while NHS Blood and Transplant is on five.

Another four officials at the Care Quality Commission, which has been severely criticised by MPs, earn £150,000 or more, including chief hospitals inspector Michael Richards on £235,000. The NHS rationing watchdog Nice has two high earners on the list.

At the Department of Health, five civil servants earn more than the PM, including chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies on £210,000.

The figures do not include chief executives of individual NHS trusts, many of whom will be on more than Cameron.

Again, taking the original claim out of context means that the figures are meaningless and can then only be viewed in isolation, where one uses basic intuition to conclude that something isn’t right. But in the scheme of things, this is pretty normal.

To work out whether these payments are value for money requires looking at each civil servant individually and asking whether what they do has any value. I simply don’t have the time to do this, unfortunately. One can probably assume that some degree of market forces is also defining the salaries.

On the logic of the original claim, that these salaries are higher and therefore wasteful/problematic (since no other information was really offered), one must also assume that the UK civil servants, too, are a waste. Let’s just get rid of everyone, High Court judges and all!

One must also remember that these EU officials are also legislating and doing their work for a half a billion people, so comparing their total numbers to a single member state politician is even more disingenuous.

Is Cameron paid enough?

One commenter has answered the claims of the Telegraph, linked above, as follows:

Because firstly, the prime minister’s salary (think it is about £142k currently) isn’t the relevant benchmark. I am supremely open to the view that out highest politicians are underpaid. We want our public services and state bureaucracies to be staffed by supremely competent, hard-working people. This necessitates paying them well. I don’t know the detail in the case of the EU, but this debates comes up all the time in the context of UK public sector spending and it is tiresome. By all means tax them a lot (but note that the arch-Thatcherite Brexiteers are never in favour of this). But before you tax someone, you have to pay them.

Because secondly, the idea of a public service ethos has been trampled into the ground by the New Right (again, of which the Brexiteers are a species). If your standard model of man is homoeconomicus, you don’t get to complain when this is true of doctors, hospital administrators and professional politicians as well as being true for hedge fund managers.

Because thirdly and finally, here is Boris Johnson, the King of the Brexiteers, describing £250k (which is over £100k more than the PM’s salary, fact fans. All of which was earned on top of his £140k salary as London mayor) as “chicken feed”. If it’s good for the goose …

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2009/jul/13/boris-johnson-second-salary-chickenfeed

The linked article refers to the claim, from Boris Johnson himself, that his salary of £250,000 from a second job is “chicken feed”. The Mayor of London, as was, earned £140,000 for his work there, and £250k for writing for the Telegraph. It is well worth including another very interesting answer:

Given that “Brexit The Movie” is quoted in the expanded question, I would seriously question the validity of the claim before knowing its original source. But I’ll entertain it:

Supply and demand.

As Peter Hawkins explains below, the right wing of the Brexiteers have done a fantastic job of arguing that high pay is perfectly fair and just for skilled labour in the private sector, but not in the public sector. For the avoidance of doubt, the EU institutions dont just hire any old Joe Bloggs and that walks in off the street and throw 150k at him. The EU is a very demanding collection of institutions when it comes to employing its bureaucrats. Just for fun, apply for a job at any EU institution. You will find that you need a (good) degree in a relevant, in-demand field, you will more than likely need to speak another EU language as well as your native tongue (but this wont matter anyway, because you will probably be elbowed out of the job by someone from another EU country that speaks 3+ languages fluently), you will need a good amount of professional experience if you don’t want to commit to an internship, and you WILL be required to either travel to Brussels/Strasbourg/The Hague every day, or move there. For these reasons, the EU offers very competitive salaries – it’s not an extraordinary situation.

Besides, I expect the point in question comes from this:

Half of European Commission workers earn more than £71,500 a year

Take note of the points: “Half of EU workers”, not all 10,000; and “71,500 p/a”, not as much as PM is paid.

Moreover, a lot of emphasis is placed on the size of EU bureaucracy, but it really is comparatively tiny:
EU Bureaucracy – 42,500
Derbyshire Bureaucracy – 36,519

EU debate: does Brussels employ fewer bureaucrats than Derbyshire?

If we take Brexit assumptions at face value, I would say that the EU is a highly efficient “superstate” considering that it only employs 42,500 to dictate the laws and lives of 500 million people.

You get the picture.

Are they value for money? Simple truth is that this depends on a lot of premises, as well as looking much more deeply at the context and the meaning of the question. It is simply very hard to say. Of course, if you think the whole EU project is a waste of money, then of course you will conclude that any pay, no matter how contextually appropriate, is a waste of money.

The larger point is that, in the marketplace of ideas, you have to haggle, and you have to check the goods very carefully before you buy. Check similar goods that other people are offering, and seek quality advice to see if the product you want is as good as you want to think it is for the cheap price you are paying. And yes, the Daily Mail and Express are intellectually cheap.


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