… in which student leaders at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (a school that’s a perennial source of ridicule on this blog, by the way) object to the – everyone’s trotting out the usual adjectives – obscene, outrageous, grotesque – payment she’s getting to give a speech at the school. The students, who attend a university constantly and, uh, outrageously raising tuition and fees, a school about to build a billion dollar football stadium, are shocked that anyone would be handed $225,000 to read an hour’s worth of platitudes (an hour? maybe less) written by someone else. (UD will enthusiastically vote for Hillary when she runs, so look elsewhere for an anti-Clinton screed.) (And don’t get me started on the mystery of who wrote her memoir.)
Not long ago, Clinton got $300,000 to do the same thing at UCLA.
UD ran the give a speech for $300,000 thing by Mr UD, and though far from a populist, he too was shocked. For him too something in this transaction – you fly me out, put me up in a nice place, watch while I read a speech, have one of your fund-raising arms give me $300,000, and fly me home – seemed very wrong.
The dustup has me thinking about John Edwards, a presidential candidate with … call them money problems. Remember? This is a from a long profile in Esquire:
Edwards was taking a beating in the press. The two $400 Beverly Hills haircuts that were mistakenly charged to the campaign, his yearlong employment at a New York hedge fund, the revelation that he took large fees for speaking engagements — all of it has been drowning out his message.
“They’re calling you a hypocrite,” I said.
Edwards looked at me, kind of annoyed, kind of resigned. “The truth about me is that I come from a very normal background. Early in our marriage, Elizabeth and I had very normal lives. We got financially successful because I won a bunch of cases. So we had money far beyond what we would ever have expected to have. And I think that part of our life, the financial life, is pretty privileged. You know, that house you went to is a really nice house. But I don’t think either one of us has believed that anything’s changed about us.
“Yes, of course, having money, having people around me, being able to buy a nicer shirt or whatever without having to worry about it, or going to dinner and not having to worry about it, that’s all true, that has changed. But I don’t think it changes anything about me as a person. The people who are critical, well, they don’t know me, they’ve never been around me. They don’t know me personally. That’s what I really believe is the truth.
“Because of the background I come from, I always feel a personal connection with people who are struggling…”
Large fees for speaking engagements… though back then they were probably a piddling amount, like $100,000… Not long after he was president of Harvard, Larry Summers made $135,000 for one speech at Goldman Sachs… That’s nothing…
And what was Edwards’ defense? That despite the absolutely enormous house he’d built himself, despite all of the other gazillion dollar expenditures, he wasn’t a hypocrite because his essential ordinary humble self was unchanged.
Beyond the on-the-face-of-it unpersuasive nature of this argument – unimaginable sums of money clearly had changed him, as such a staggering life transformation would change anyone – there’s the deeper but even more obvious truth that how you use your wealth reflects your morality. Edwards used his in a profligate and narcissistic way; and to add insult to injury he did this while lecturing the nation on the shame of there being Two Americas.
And sure, there are two Americas, which is the heart of what Hillary’s up against. I mean, there are several Americas, but for the purpose of addressing this problem, her problem, there are two. There’s middle-class America, represented by the shocked UNLV students; and there’s Tom “Kristallnacht” Perkins’ America, represented by Brown University’s Steven Cohen (personal wealth $9 billion) and Harvard University’s endowment (approaching $35 billion). And the real problem, ironically enough, since UNLV is a university, is ignorance. The student leaders do not know about, let alone understand, this other America, the America whose one big daily existential issue is what to do with all of its money. People are always bothering Harvard about spending more of its endowment, but Harvard is kind of at a loss. They spend and spend – they’re building an entire other campus, for god’s sake – and it’s still around 35 billion. Cohen is constantly purchasing palazzos and Picassos, but, like some character in Alice in Wonderland, the more he spends the more he makes. This is The Spending Down Problem, the one problem that continues to bedevil our rich country’s large number of super-rich people and institutions. What the hell do we do with it all?
If you understand the problem from this angle, you’re not surprised when people come to your university, read some lines, and get a check for $225,000. The country is bulging with people desperate to dispense their money somehow, somewhere.
Since UD believes the students’ problem is essentially one of education, she has a proposal to make. Our universities should offer – perhaps in the business school – a History of Personal and Institutional Wealth in America, with an emphasis on the last ten years or so, when so much wealth has accumulated in private hands that most observers have trouble believing the numbers, much less the Spending Down Problem. (Review of required text here.) This course would allow America’s university students to look at $300,000 for a speech at their school (not to mention prepare them for the eventual escalation of these fees into the millions) without blinking.