The political hissy fit concerning President Barack Obama receiving $400,000 for a speech got me to thinking. Was I wrong to buy a house with four bedrooms?
Is it morally wrong for me to claim the mortgage interest deduction, an entitlement that overwhelmingly benefits the richest Americans?
Life insurance policies, savings accounts and other retirement investment vehicles are among my family’s other assets. Are we wrong for having those given that only a subset of us can afford to have them?
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The Obamas don’t need to make money giving speeches. President Obama will receive a $200,000 annual pension for the rest of his life, has two best-selling books, and his wife’s skill set is immense and she’s in demand.
The problem, according to the critics, is that the speech is Wall Street-funded. A writer for The Huffington Post claimed it was evidence of corruption, especially because there were so few perp walks for Wall Street execs who helped cause the Great Recession.
That kind of short-sighted criticism helped sink Hillary Clinton and gave us Donald Trump. It’s also odd because the Obamas’ $65 million book deal, which didn’t receive as much criticism – though the liberal website Salon suggested Obama was squandering his “moral gravitas” by taking it – is funded by the global conglomerate Penguin Random House, which has its fair share of fat cats.
Let us not forget that Obama bypassed riches as the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review to become a community organizer. As president, he ushered through health and Wall Street reforms that provide unprecedented protections for the poor and middle class, even though they were fiercely opposed by Wall Street. In 2015, we saw the biggest annual increase in wages ever, with most of it going to the poor and middle class, along with the lowest uninsured rate.
Apparently, it is wrong for Obama to take paying speaking fees because the Democratic Party is trying to win back voters supposedly turned off by rich people. But many of those voters, including former Obama voters, chose a billionaire who was bailed out by Wall Street after squandering his riches.
But it is apparently not hypocritical that Bernie Sanders owns multiple homes or that Elizabeth Warren doesn’t live in a cardboard box next to homeless men in Harvard Square.
The corrupting influence of money in politics is real. It is a legitimate concern. And it’s a concern in the private sector when incentives packages encourage reckless decision-making that can wreck the economy, like we saw in 2008, which hit the poorest the hardest.
That doesn’t mean you must refuse to maximize your wealth opportunities to fight inequality. Some of the most effective advocates – Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey – are among the richest people in the world.
Besides, even defining inequality is difficult. Maybe my four bedrooms are too many, given that I grew up in a tin can of a single-wide trailer with 10 siblings.
Maybe if I wasn’t American, I’d laugh at the American fight over inequality. The U.S. has five percent of Earth’s population but more than 40 percent of its wealth. How many Americans believe things can only be truly fair if the U.S. owned only five percent of the world’s wealth instead of 40 percent?
The fight against inequality should be less about lamenting that the ceiling is too high and more about making sure the floor isn’t too low.