It is Bad for Former Public Officials to Ostentatiously Profit From Having Held Office

A few days ago Matt Yglesias made the obviously correct point that it is bad and ill-advised that former President Barack Obama is taking $400,000 to speak at bond firm Cantor Fitzgerald. This has, bafflingly, led to a backlash. Because the question at stake -- "what's so wrong with Barack Obama taking $400,000 to give a speech to wealthy financiers?" -- is so mind-bogglingly straightforward, the defenses offered are astoundingly weak. Here are the core points offered by the defenders, so much as I can identify them:

  1. Everyone does it;
  2. Obama is now a private citizen;
  3. It is legal;
  4. Not taking the money would be purely symbolic;
  5. As a meta-defense, people only care about all of the above because of Obama's race.

Oh, and lest I forget, Daniel Gross with the dumbest defense of all

Obama will take all of his earnings as ordinary income. Which means that thanks to his own policies, which include the extra .9 percent Medicare tax that was part of the Affordable Care Act, he will be paying a marginal rate of more than 40 percent on that income. Sure, he’ll keep the other 60 percent for himself. But he’ll pay a much higher rate than most fat cats pay and a higher rate than corporations like Cantor Fitzgerald and Penguin Random House pay. So, in effect, he’ll be channeling large sums of money from corporations who pay far below their fair share in taxes and converting it into income that will be taxed at a substantially higher rate. Converting private resources into public goods—some might call it populism.

The first three defenses are easily dispatched with: lots of things are done by people in their capacities as private citizens that are legal and un-virtuous, or less than admirable. If not taking the money would be virtuous or admirable, "everybody does it" is not much of a response.

It is also not true. "Buckraking" post-presidency is a new phenomenon, as the Washington Post pointed out in their write up. The Intercept provides more detail on post-presidency buckraking here

What about the symbolism of the act? Gross argues that, "If the only thing keeping left-of-center politics viable is the rejection of a set of symbolic, virtue-telegraphing public behaviors, it has much bigger problems than Barack Obama’s income streams." In fairness, these are roughy the terms Yglesias laid out: that it would be better for progressivism if Obama didn't take the money. This is probably true, but also beside the point: it is not unreasonable to expect our leaders to be virtuous. The fact that this doesn't even occur to Gross -- that the only way he can think to understand not profiteering to the absolute maximum off of having held public office is in terms of "virtue-signaling" is genuinely wild and makes me sad.

Some of the reaction to this is probably about President Obama being a black man. Yet, a continuing theme of our last presidential election was the various ways in which the Clinton family enriched itself post-presidency. That debate, in fact, had many of the features of this one: defenders of the Clintons would point out that nothing they did appeared illegal; that many wealthy people sell access; that many public speakers accept large speaker's fees to address odious groups; etc. The rest of us sat here, thinking to ourselves: "well, yes, that's true, but it remains the case that before Bill Clinton became president their family was not fabulously wealthy, and that afterwards they became so." 

And now we have arrived at the point, or the main question: is, or why is, it bad for public officials to ostentatiously profit off of having held public office? While after a millennia or two it is cliche to invoke The Republic when answering political questions, dumb questions deserve rote answers. Thrasymachus, of course, claims that justice is the advantage of the stronger; that "justice and the just are really someone else's good, the advantage of the man who is stronger and rules, and a personal harm to the man who obeys and serves (343c)." Socrates' response is that the true ruler looks out not for his own interest, but for those over whom he rules (346e). The prominence of financiers drawn from Wall Street throughout the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years, the chumminess and comfort figures from one orbit obviously feel with those from the other, the fact that -- to use that word that seems to be everywhere nowadays -- we've normalized the idea that the president, post-presidency, should be for sale; well, these are things that might lead people to ask which vision of justice our politicians are committed to.  Which really gets to the heart of the matter. What accepting the money reveals, yet again, is that President Obama thinks big-money special interests are fine, most especially the interests of finance-capital. He is wrong about that, and he should be criticized for his indifference to our interests.