Taking time away from unpresidenting Tr-mp on this blog is not something I want to do. But in this case, I think I need to address something unpleasant that I did not see coming.
By now you have read the headline:
Cantor Fitzgerald is an investment bank and brokerage firm. You may remember that its corporate headquarters was located inside of One World Trade Center on 9/11. And you may remember that it lost more than two-thirds of its employees—658 people—including the brother of the CEO, Howard Lutnick. According to Wikipedia,
the company was able to bring its trading markets back online within a week. On September 19, Cantor Fitzgerald made a pledge to distribute 25 percent of the firm’s profits for the next five years, and committed to paying for ten years of health care, for the benefit of the families of its 658 former Cantor Fitzgerald, eSpeed, and TradeSpark employees (profits which would otherwise have been distributed to the Cantor Fitzgerald partners). In 2006, the company completed its promise, having paid a total of $180 million (and an additional $17 million from a relief fund run by Lutnick’s sister, Edie).
New York magazine published an article in 2011 that credited the “willful determination of Lutnick and the other survivors” for the firm’s subsequent success and noted:
…it’s been suggested their crisis-preparedness helped them avoid some of the worst of the crash of 2008: While Cantor trafficked heavily in the mortgage bonds that would prove to be the downfall of many, it wisely did not hang on to any for itself. Its financial success has allowed the firm to extend its philanthropy: According to Edie Lutnick, funds earmarked for memorializing family members lost on 9/11 have given life to 500 new charities, including a Manhattan-based bereavement center for children, and the company recently donated money from its annual charity day to the victims of the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan. Which distinguishes it in the disaster of this decade, too: It may be the only company that bought and sold lousy mortgage bonds that can plausibly lay claim to a greater social purpose.
Okay. Perhaps this particular Wall Street investment bank is better than most. Perhaps it is worthy of President Obama’s time and prestige. I don’t know. I do know that its CEO, Howard Lutnick, backed John McCain in 2008. And I know he backed Jeb Bush last year. And I know the event at which Obama will speak, a “healthcare conference,” was described by the company “as an opportunity to introduce investors to executives at dozens of the biggest healthcare companies,” according to CNBC. And there is something else I know: our ex-president, the guy many of us thought was just a little bit different from other politicians, is wrong to take such a large fee for speaking, unless he plans to donate the money to some kind of charity (we don’t know whether he plans to or not).
At any time, but particularly at this Tr-mpian time, it is unseemly and off-putting for Mr. Obama to feed the cynicism that has infected our country, our electorate, our politics. He has often talked about that cynicism, which helped bring us Tr-mp and Tr-mpism. In fact, he talked about it the other day at the University of Chicago, during an event designed to get young people involved in “changing the world.” Wait. Let me quote him in full (emphasis mine):
I’m spending a lot of time thinking, “What is the most important thing I can do for my next job?” And what I’m convinced of is that, although there are all kinds of issues I care about and all kinds of issues I intend to work on, the single most important thing I can do is to help, in any way I can, prepare the next generation of leadership to take up the baton and take their own crack at changing the world.
Because the one thing that I’m absolutely convinced of is that, yes, we confront a whole range of challenges from economic inequality and lack of opportunity to a criminal justice system that too often is skewed in ways that are unproductive to climate change to, you know, issues related to violence. All those problems are serious. They’re daunting. But they’re not insolvable.
What is preventing us from tackling them and making more progress really has to do with our politics and our civic life. It has to do with the fact that because of things like political gerrymandering our parties have moved further and further apart and it’s harder and harder to find common ground. Because of money and politics.
Special interests dominate the debates in Washington in ways that don’t match up with what the broad majority of Americans feel.
The next day we learned about that $400,000 speaking fee from a Wall Street bank.
To put it bluntly, it is hard not to be cynical in the face of the news that Obama seems to be, like so many before him, cashing in. Again, we don’t know what he plans on doing with the money, but assuming the worst, assuming he merely adds it to the $65 million he and Michelle got from Penguin Random House for two books they are writing, it is all very depressing.
Vox’s Matthew Yglesias put this stunning development in a larger context:
The election in France earlier this week shows that the triumph of populist demagogues is far from inevitable. But to beat it, mainstream politicians and institutions need to shape up — not just with better policies, but with the kind of self-sacrificing spirit and moral leadership that successful movements require.
That means some people are going to have to start making less money and raising the ethical bar for conduct, rather than leveling down to the worst acts of their predecessors.
That is exactly right. And I would have been the first to argue that President Obama was someone who would not cash in and would in fact raise the ethical bar for out-of-office conduct. Now, though, unless all that Wall Street money he will get goes to charity, I will have no real argument. Obama, despite his soaring words over the years, despite his inspirational, civic-minded talk to young folks in Chicago the other day, will have become part of the problem of a creeping, crippling cynicism torturing liberal democracies everywhere. Yglesias writes (again, my emphasis):
a crucial vulnerability of center-left politics around the world is that their sincere conviction — a faith in the positive-sum nature of cosmopolitan values and appropriately regulated forms of global capitalism, tempered by a welfare state — is easily mistaken for corruption. The political right is supposed to be pro-business as a matter of ideological commitment. The progressive center is supposed to be empirically minded, challenging business interests where appropriate but granting them free rein at other times.
This approach has a lot of political and substantive merits. But it is invariably subject to the objection: really?
Did you really avoid breaking up the big banks because you thought it would undermine financial stability, or were you on the take? Did you really think a fracking ban would be bad for the environment, or were you on the take? One man’s sophisticated and pragmatic approach to public policy can be the other man’s grab bag of corrupt opportunism.
Mr. Obama needs to think about something the next time—and there will be plenty of next times—some “fat cats” come to him with a basketful of money asking for a few minutes of his time. He needs to think about how a lowly blogger here in Missouri, one who spent eight years believing in his vision for the country and defending his personal integrity, might feel if, as our former president, he enriches himself by speaking to people who aren’t interested in furthering the causes that so many of us who supported Obama believe in. No, actually, he needs to think about how his conduct out of office, his conduct as someone whose integrity so many people genuinely thought transcended the corruption surrounding the money-based system in Washington, will turn so many people away from a hope of transforming the system.
He needs to think about how many cynics $400,000 can buy.