Most people worry about being low status. That makes sense. It really isn’t great to be low status. Academia is so status-obsessed it often makes me laugh. Doctor this, and professor that. I’m just waiting for carpets that non-doctors can’t walk on and we’ll have gone full-on House of Lords. This reminds me of the UK parliament which offers an example of where high status wasn’t the best thing. What then do we know about the perils of status?
Rigging Your Expenses
For this story cast your mind back to 2009. It was a simpler time in UK politics. People generally agreed that the Euro-sceptics were weird. Labour thought winning involved actually winning seats in parliament rather than ‘winning the argument’ while losing heavily. The Conservatives had a leader determined to look sensible, establishment, and, quite frankly, conservative. MPs (members of parliament — elected representatives) were busy putting in their expense claims. Some of the claims were not for things that the MP claimants would want everyone to see. Then everyone saw all the claims.
The press had a field day. The British press has many bad qualities. That said, I do miss that occasionally their desire to sell papers overrides any political agenda that they might have. There were MPs abusing their expenses and the press saw an opportunity to taste blood. They could attack MPs from each and every party.
As for the newspapers’ readers, be honest, who didn’t want to see how each MP had over-claimed? It was fascinating. (As an aside I’ve always marveled how petty some of the claims were. Risking your reputation for a lot of money seems one thing. Doing it for a few quid seems like a really bad mistake).
A Great Idea For A Paper
Thus, Scott Graffin and his colleagues saw an opportunity to investigate status, wrongdoing, and the reactions to it: the perils of status. They had two broad hypotheses:
- Firstly, that high status led people to abuse their expenses more.
- Secondly, that observers wanted more blood from those of high status who abused their expenses.
Basically, did high-status MPs put their hands in the cookie jar more? Or did the press try and take down the high-status MPs more when they were caught?
A Proxy For Status
The authors use a variety of ways to look at status including pre- and post-nomimal honours. If you don’t know about honours, firstly, well done. You are very lucky. Still, to understand UK honours note that pre-nominal honours are the best ones. They are your ‘Sirs’ and ‘Dames’. These are the highest status. Although it is worth remembering that often in the UK parliament those with the best titles aren’t necessarily the most powerful. The powerful politicians get important jobs. The high-status MPs, who went to posh schools and know the Queen personally, get silly titles but are often kept well away from jobs in which they could do real harm.
Post-nominal honours vary a lot from Commander of the British Empire (which is pretty high-status) to Member of the British Empire (better than nothing I guess. Still MBE would be a bit of an insult for an MP). The British Empire thing might seem old-fashioned to the reader but… Who am I kidding the reader would be 100% correct. It is ludicrous. It is hard to imagine this nonsense still goes on, but it does. (Over the years people have, pretty much, bought honours in the open. You can’t do that nowadays as subtlety has become prized).
Status (And Their Own Greed) Made Them A Target
Returning to the hypotheses, in this case, the second one, that high status made you a target, seemed to be true.
Half of all MPs were abusing their expenses. It wasn’t only the relatively high-status people that felt especially licensed to do it.
We find that high-status MPs were not more likely to abuse the expense system than were lower-status MPs, but they were more likely to be targeted by the press and voters for their inappropriate expense claims. As a consequence, high-status MPs were significantly more likely than non-elite MPs to exit Parliament when they had high levels of inappropriate expense claims.Graffin et al., 2013, page 313
High status led to the press wanting to get you and an increased chance of the MP going away. For example, losing their seat in the next election, retiring etc…
The Moat: Sympathy For The Pompous
The best story is one that might bring back memories. It got a lot of press because, well, you’ll see.
Douglas Hogg was the elder son of the 2nd Lord Hailsham and heir to a viscountcy. No one is 100% sure what a viscountcy is but it is a good thing, not a disease. (Or a biscuit — that’ll only make sense to UK people of a certain age). Hogg somehow battled against the challenges his background had presented him to become a Conservative MP. He did this job for many years.
As his constituency was a decent distance from London he could claim expenses for his second home. And did he know how to claim? He claimed for cleaning of “the moat” at his second home. Now moats around homes are rare in England. So the press, rightly to my mind, decided to mock him relentlessly for this abuse of the system. He was made the face of the scandal. His was a face of privilege produced from central casting. A many who thought the little people should pay for the cleaning of his moat.
Word Choice Matters
It was the idea of ‘moat’ that seemed to be the main problem. Hogg had used this pompous term when he could have used the term drainage ditch. It seems much more reasonable to clean a drainage ditch (which sounds like it is vital to keeping the building structurally sound) rather than a moat. A moat sounds like something a medieval baron, or indeed a viscount, would have. It was Hogg’s pomposity that put him in the sights of the press. If he had used a less pompous, less loaded, term he might well have got away with it. Indeed, his claim was technically outside the time period covered by the formal investigation into the abuses.
Hogg announced that he would not stand again for parliament.
Before you get too worried about Hogg having his career destroyed, calm down. David Cameron, the incoming Conservative Prime Minister almost immediately recommended Hogg for appointment to the House of Lords. (Think US Senate but even less democratically elected). The appointments commission advised against this. (It being a really silly idea). After a few more attempts to get into the Lords he finally managed to finagle himself into it through an appointment. The happy ending is that he went on to serve in the Lords with his wife who got there independently. (Although her father was also a Conservative Baron). Is there nothing this hard-working family can’t do? (I know the answer — they can’t pay to clean their own moat).
The Perils Of Status
With status comes the risk that people will want to take you down. Britain famously scapegoated an 18th-century admiral for a defeat that was widely not thought to be his fault. As Voltaire said (jokingly), “..it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.” Was Lord Hogg a bit of a scapegoat? Probably a little. It is clear that it wasn’t just him; the system was encouraging bad behavior. It probably seemed pretty normal to Hogg. Yet, the British press have hounded people who deserved it a lot less so I’m not crying too many tears. Maybe I’m just jealous because I don’t have a moat.
Read: Scott D. Graffin, Jonathan Bundy, Joseph F. Porac, James B. Wade, Dennis P. Quinn (2013) Falls from Grace and the Hazards of High Status: The 2009 British MP Expense Scandal and Its Impact on Parliamentary Elites, Administrative Science Quarterly. 2013;58(3):313-345.