Hillary Clinton has never hidden her close relationship with the country’s plutocrats. This relationship has been best encapsulated by her participation in the speaking industry, something that, together with her husband’s efforts, has earned the Clintons tens of millions of dollars.
It was while speaking at an exclusive event to Goldman Sachs employees that Clinton dismissed Occupy Wall Street and its message about the danger of inequality as “unproductive and indeed foolish”. Clinton was paid $200,000 to offer her endorsement of plutocracy, and perhaps it was the fact that she has been spending so much time in the company of the 1% that caused her to bemoan her poverty in 2001 during a recent book tour, explaining the travails of having to pay off the mortgages for several “houses”.
Whatever the cause of her abject failure to understand what it means to be poor, Hillary Clinton is showing that she is willing to take money not just from the wealthiest people in the country, but also from public institutions.
CNN recently reported that Hillary Clinton was being paid $225,000 to speak at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in the fall. Students, who will be subjected to a 17% tuition increase at that public university, were understandably perturbed, and “are asking the former secretary of state to return the speaking fee”.
UNLV’s response is reminiscent of that made by California’s universities to criticisms of outrageous levels of executive compensation: that the fact that the quarter million dollars has been sourced from “private donations” makes it all okay.
But for me, that’s not an answer that satisfies. It becomes a question of priorities. If the University is capable of raising large sums of money privately, should that money be spent on paying already spectacularly wealthy celebrity politicians to come and deliver homilies, or should it automatically be put towards offsetting the burdens that the states are putting on students? Should it be used to raise the University’s profile, and thereby solicit more donations (which could be interpreted as an admission that the University is prepared to abandon a public model of funding), or should it be invested in the people who ought to be the University’s prime constituency: those who study and work there?
These priorities affect the public standing of public universities. UNLV might gain some coverage and attract some donations by playing host to a leading neoconservative, neoliberal politician who might very well be President in just over two years’ time. But Nevada voters are likely to remember the next time they are asked to pay into the public university system that the priorities of the university’s leadership does not match the community’s priorities for its students.
The money which UNLV is prepared to pay Clinton could cover the tuition of about 40 students for the 2014-15 year. That’s nothing to sniff at when student debt is now the most significant source of debt for the public outside of mortgages. What does smell distinctly fishy is the notion that public institutions should be funneling money to people who are ostensibly public servants for things like speeches.
Clinton is trying to quiet her critics by pointing out that fact the quarter million dollars will not go straight to her wallet. Instead, it will be directed to the Clintons’ self-promoting Foundation which allows them to hobnob with celebrities and world leader even when they hold no democratic power
I’m not sure that the defenses offered by either UNLV or the Clinton camp are reassuring. They do convince me, however, that elites in our society—whether university administrators or would-be presidential candidates from the 1%--have yet to comprehend how offensive and damaging their casual disregard for the welfare of the public is, particularly when the people offended by their actions are on the margins of our society: indebted students, the poor or homeless, the sick and uninsured, or those whose rights are in the balance. They convince me that we need to demand a different kind of conduct in public, which reflects a different, more communitarian set of values.