Why do highly intelligent people do such stupid things?

Over the years, the main things I have learnt about David Laws is that he is extremely rich and extremely intelligent. A double first in economics from Cambridge, a VP at JP Morgan at 22 and multi-millionaire at 28. But he goes and does something which is mind-blowingly stupid. If he felt so strongly that he didn’t want to reveal his sexuality, he could have paid his own rent without claiming it. So why didn’t he? Why did he, since 2006, play with fire, relying on a finely nuanced interpretation of the rules which would have taken an extremely expensive barrister to argue successfully?…And that fire turned into an almighty conflagration waiting to burst into flames when he took over the Treasury secretary role. Why did he not do anything about it earlier? It is utterly baffling.

BBC Parliament yesterday repeated Osborne and Laws’ statements when they announcement the £6 billion cuts recently. There was Laws, at tremendous length, describing very precisely what cuts he would demand on, for example, things like rail fares for public servants.

It was then that I realised, with shattering clarity, that Laws had done the right thing, with great dignity, in standing down right away. He could not have gone on cutting jobs and expenditure while having this was hanging over him. It’s tremendously sad and I feel great sympathy for Laws and his friend during this terrible time. It’s a great loss for the country, as David Laws was almost uniquely to drag us out of the deficit in a humane way.

But, one has to say, all the Oxbridge double firsts in the world don’t seem to stop people doing the most unbelievably mind-numbingly stupid things.

And yes, I have changed my tune from yesterday. So there.

And yes, the answer to the question in the title above is that we all do stupid things sometimes, myself definitely included. Unfortunately all the degrees, money and position in the world don’t innoculate us humble humans from stupidity.

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9 thoughts on “Why do highly intelligent people do such stupid things?

  1. Why should MPs have to pay for their own living arrangements to guarantee their privacy?

    That’s a recipe for a return to a Commons full of people who can afford to be there – not people who have earned the right to be there.

  2. I suspect the answer to why may lie in a potential concern that suspicions about the nature of the relationship with his landlord would have been raised with officials in 2006 if he had stopped claiming when the rules were changed so leading to the outing which he was trying to prevent

  3. Laws and Lundie were house sharers for about 2 years before their relationship developed. House sharing involves an odd sort of relationship between the sharers, Paul: on the one hand you’re friends who share almost everything, costs, housework, cooking, meals, shopping, washing. It’s just like being partners without the sex. Yet on the other hand you must maintain a much greater degree of respect for each other’s personal space than partners do. Each sharer’s room is sacrosanct, their sole preserve where other sharers can only go on the rare occasions they’re invited. Strict accounts are kept too.

    Would such boundaries be sustained in a situation where a relationship developed between the sharers? I think that’s perfectly conceivable under Laws’ and Lundie’s circumstances where one man is 22 years younger than the other. I can easily imagine Laws being unable to get his head around the age difference, being convinced that Lundie would eventually find a younger lover and deciding to keep his emotional and practical distance to protect himself. That would certainly be my response.

    One means of reinforcing that distance would be to effectively keep the house share going, to keep his own rooms and emotionally behave like a house sharer rather than a lover. The claim Laws makes that they did not see themselves as spouses and maintained separate finances and social lives becomes logical in the light of the age difference.

    Isn’t that what Laws is saying he did in his resignation speech? He says he has immersed himself in his work too much and kept his emotional distance.

    To further complicate matters, one or both men have been running away from being up front about their sexuality. Repressed, Catholic Laws seems to me not to have really accepted himself as Gay until now.

    With so much emotional denial going on, there’s no doubt in my mind that Laws was being completely honest when he presented his claims as those of a house sharer: for that is not only exactly how he saw himself and the relationship, that is what he was. I think Laws was too fearful – of the implications of his own sexuality and that he could never hope to keep a young lover like Lundie – to allow the relationship to be anything other than a house share.

    Something, however, has clearly changed in Laws and the relationship. My guess is that the current trauma has forced both men to properly confront these issues for the first time, the spectre of a separation may even have been raised and forced Laws and Lundie to recognise what has been repressed: their emotional commitment to each other

    • Colleen. Thank you – that’s very plausible. But it still leaves the question of why Laws, in 2006, couldn’t see that he was sitting on a time bomb and then take the relatively simple route of quietly dropping his rental claims with the House of Commons authorities, thereby paying the rent from his own huge resources (he’s said to be the richest, or nearly the richest, man in the House of Commons). It’s highly unlikely that anyone would have noticed this change. Even if they did, it could easily have been explained by saying that he had decided to make private arrangements about his accomodation in London – just as several MPs do – My own MP does this.

  4. Well, the age theory’s gone out of the window as my friend says the age gap is much less than I thought. In that case I think it really has to boil down to Laws’ inability to accept his sexuality and inablity to believe that the relationship would last.

  5. I think that Tony may be right. It’s illogical to think that anyone would have noticed the change, but when one is trying to keep such a huge secret one does not think logically. However, I also agree with Paul. He was fatally compromised in terms of making cuts. He had become the political equivalent of Angus Deyton, unable to do his job properly because any time he tried to people would throw this back into his face. A very sad loss for the coalition.

  6. “… it still leaves the question of why Laws, in 2006, couldn’t see that he was sitting on a time bomb and then take the relatively simple route of quietly dropping his rental claims with the House of Commons authorities, thereby paying the rent from his own huge resources (he’s said to be the richest, or nearly the richest, man in the House of Commons). It’s highly unlikely that anyone would have noticed this change.” (Paul)

    I think it possible that this would have been discovered and that Laws would have been viewed as changing his arrangements to cover up his prior expense claims: the perception would then have been that those prior claims must have involved abuse.

    The absurd thing is that Laws could have claimed far more than he did by claiming for his house as his second home and no one would have had any grounds to accuse him of abuse.

    Laws’ claim reminds me of Jeremy Hunt’s: another example which demonstrates the irrationality of the parliamentary expense system and of the public perception of MP’s claims. Hunt could have claimed for his expensive London home against expenses, but instead switched his second home designation to the far cheaper constituency home he purchased within months of his election: because the constituency house was the home he specifically purchased to do his job. This decision saved the taxpayer thousands every year.

    Labour activists, or the Labour candidate for his constituency (forget which), then accused Hunt of 1) flipping homes for pecuniary advantage (!) and 2) of wasting taxpayers’ money on a second home when, in view of his Surrey constituency, he should, it was claimed, have got a train to parliament every day. Yet when the travelling expense claims of MPs in nearby constituencies who did use the train every day were compared with the cost of Hunt’s second home expenses, Hunt’s housing allowance and travel costs together proved to be around £3-4,000 lower than the other MPs’ average travel costs. I bet the work schedules and exhaustion levels of MPs were affected by commuting too.

    You seem to be questioning why Laws claimed any expenses for his second home when he’s – allegedly, I’ve never seen any proof of this – a very wealthy man. I imagine the answer is that people who become rich do so by being financially astute and do not tend to be the sort of people who would subsidise their employer unnecessarily. And why should they? When second home costs are incurred specifically due to the unique nature of an MP’s job, aren’t they entitled to reimbursement? What I would take issue with is MP’s keeping any profit made on second homes.

    I do also think that people generally do not appreciate how high the expense of an MP’s job is. The month I spent campaigning with my candidate (now my MP) during the election campaign was a huge eye opener regarding how appallingly costly it is to become an MP. Much of that expense does not end once they’re elected. I was very hostile to MP’s expenses prior to that experience, but having seen what they’re forced to spend I’ve changed my view. MPs now have a 10K communication allowance, of course, but Laws did not have that in 2006. MPs surely deserve fair reimbursement of reasonable out of pocket expenses?

  7. Pingback: Top of the Blogs: The Golden Dozen #172

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