Ethics of collecting $400,000 for a speech, random notes

The context is here.

  • Reactions to detractors seem to be:
    • “Hey Ruth Marcus, let me know how many $400K speaking gigs you pass up after doing the toughest job in the world for eight years.”
    • “Seems to me only women and black men get criticized for paid speeches.”
  • About 60 years ago, Harry Truman noted, “I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable… that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency.”  To me, this sentiment is the virtuous one.  Cynics might say it is naive. That in “today’s world” you have to get the moola.  This cynical view still recognizes the virtue of the Truman sentiment.
  • Ex-President Clinton’s lucrative speaking fees were criticized, often and roundly in op-eds by right and left alike (eerily similar in their phrasing, I might add!).  Some of us are old enough to remember when ex-Presidents Reagan and Bush (the older) collected some very large speaking fees.  They were roundly criticized.  So this is definitely not something new to Barack Obama.
    • From 2007: “We learned last week that in the six years since Bill Clinton left office, he has pocketed a staggering $40 million in speaking fees. Tirelessly working the lecture circuit, he has delivered hundreds of speeches, often at a price of $150,000 and up. Two-thirds of his speaking money has come from foreign sources, according to the Washington Post, including a Saudi Arabian investment firm and a Chinese real estate development group run by a local Communist Party official.”
  • Collecting a huge sum sends a fuzzy signal that, for you, there is nothing wrong with markets for everything, and should be no ethical considerations regarding market transactions.  It says to others, “If people are willing to pay me, and I am willing to sell, then what business is it of yours?  Why should I care about the ethics of those willing to pay me?  Or the structures and institutions of society that led me to receive this payment?”  Is that so different then from saying, “If I get sick, well, lucky me, because I now have $400,000 and I can tempt you into selling me your kidney”?
  • Here’s the cartoon that got cartoonist Rich Friday fired from his long-standing gig at Farm News, the same week ex-President Obama’s speaking gig became public.  Those CEOs are private citizens, earning their “wages” freely in the marketplace.  Do readers really think the right response to the cartoon is to fire Friday for suggesting that maybe gross disparities in earnings is a public issue (to be discussed while repairing a barbed fence)?  Or was the management of Farm News right, “You have no reason or right to criticize someone for earning a very large sum in the marketplace.  Your cartoon crosses a line!”
  • farmcartoon
  • Does a huge speaker fee, or a high CEO salary, “hurt” anyone, anyway?  Would the world suffer if university professors were tipped after good lectures?  What business is it of ours?  Can we have a coherent sense of economic justice that is concerned about inequality and also concerned about freedom, and does not recognize that there is a tension (i.e. the “no business of ours position”)?  Robert Nozick, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, argued the point back in 1974 with his Wilt Chamberlain example.  His conclusion… “It might be objected that all persons voluntarily will choose to refrain from actions which would upset the pattern. This presupposes unrealistically (1) that all will most want to maintain the pattern (are those who don’t, to be “reeducated” or forced to undergo self-criticism”?), (2) that each can gather enough information about his own actions and the ongoing activities of others to discover which of his actions will upset the pattern,and (3) that diverse and far-flung persons can coordinate their actions to dovetail into the pattern.”  Exactly.  Anyone who thinks of themself as a “leftie” at core has this belief, I think, and so… President Obama should have known better.  Or else, he, and you, are not really lefties.
  • As Matt Iglesias noted a few years back, in his opinion “real” political discussions are about what the tax rate should be.  Not silly philosopher’s examples.  Because nobody anymore actually *is* a leftie with a “patterned” theory of justice.  Nozick already had a clear riposte back in 1974… would Iglesias agree that the state could “tax” ex-President Obama by making him do community service of ten hours for every hour speech he gave?  Is there a “forced hours” rate that Iglesias would agree to?  Why the asymmetry?  Something deeper is going on, and that is what the political philosopher is driving at.

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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