$400,000 vs. Optics

Justin Collins, writing in ExtraNewsFeed:

To me, the fact that every president does this is the problem. And it’s not really an Obama problem, but a structural problem, that has existed for years, and completely undermines our confidence in our system of government, where it seems like those involved in “public service,” particularly presidents, can walk away extremely wealthy. And thus, have an incentive to serve the interests of the wealthy and the powerful (who can essentially pay them later) while they are in office. Even the good presidents.

I’m of the opinion that this needs to change, but I’ve had a few competing thoughts on President Barack Obama accepting $400,000 from Cantor Fitzgerald to give a speech.  On one hand, accepting lucrative paid speeches and other opportunities are the things public servants do when leaving office.  As an African-American, is important to me that I leave wealth and a strong legacy to my children because its extremely rare for it to happen for African-Americans.  I imagine President Obama wants to do the same.  On the other hand, the optics are absolutely terrible.  Let the record show, I voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012.  I often agreed with the direction the country was headed under President Obama, as compared to the previous 8 years under President George Bush.  There’s one area where I think President Obama could have been a lot stronger, prosecuting Wall Street for the crimes that led to the disastrous recession of the late 2000s.

I graduated college in December 2007 with my degree in Computer Engineering, accepted an offer with Sony Ericsson, and began working in January 2008.  The economy was melting down at this precise time.  Lawmakers and President George Bush decided that it was better to bail out the financial industry than let the US economy sink into a deep depression.  In the lead up to the recession, banks were pushing people into subprime mortgages (some using predatory practices) that were being sold financial institutions.  Subprime mortgages are generally risky investments, but home prices were skyrocketing during this time, the upside seemed to be there, at least to Wall Street.  That all came tumbling down when people started to default on their mortgages and home prices began to crater.  As a result, a lot of people lost their homes, and because large portions of the economy were capitalized with borrowed money, a lot of people lost their jobs as it became harder for businesses to borrow money.  The morality of a lot of these investments were suspect at best and criminal at worst, in my opinion.

I was laid off from Sony Ericsson in September 2008, along with 450+ other people.  I believe the layoffs were not a direct consequence of the Wall Street meltdown, but product mismanagement at the highest levels of the company.  With that said, I can understand how easy it would be to blame greed and the criminal-like behavior of Wall Street for your tragic circumstances.  Not only did people lose jobs, but also access to healthcare, homes, retirement funds, etc.  Those who lived through those tumultuous few years have probably lost a lot of confidence in Wall Street and large financial institutions (ex. I do most of my banking at local credit unions now).  When those people, many of whom voted for President Obama, see him accept a $400,000 speaking gig, from Wall Street no less, they feel betrayed.  This betrayal is exacerbated by the fact that Wall Street received a $700 billion dollar bailout and the executives, largely seen as responsible for the collapse, walked away without jail time, under the Obama administration.

I’m sure there are other motivations for criticizing President Obama for accepting the $400,000 speaking gig, but at a time when our elected officials seem disconnected from the reality of everyday Americans and the wealth gap between the top 1% and the rest of us growing , the optics are absolutely terrible for President Obama (with some collateral damage to the Democratic party).  As that wealth gap continues to widen, the system where public servants can massively enrich themselves giving speeches, should probably come to a halt.

On the other hand, it’s rare for African-Americans to be in a position where they can build enough wealth to pass on to the next generation.  When I see it happen, its great because that wealth and legacy can serve as a foundation for generations to come.  It’s life changing.  When I view President Obamas predicament primarily through this lens, it’s hard not to agree with Trevor Noah of the Daily Show.

*Note: I haven’t really written about my politics.  I have a lot of thoughts that I’ve slowly developed over the past 2.5-3 years.  I have tons of “political discussion fragments” scattered throughout my journal.  Social media seems like the place to express my beliefs, but the toxicity and general discourse make that a non-starter for me.  Politics is such a nuanced topic that 140 characters just won’t do it (or a string of 140 character messages, aka a Tweet storm).  I’m especially interested in economic policy, climate change, gerrymandering / voting rights, criminal justice reform, and “Internet” policy.  I hope to write more.

*Note 2: I’m a software engineer so I love writing code.  I rarely write long pieces on non-technical topics.  Excuse my grammar. 😛