I have a job for you. It forces you to tell an audience things you already know. You can prepare if you want, but no prep is needed. You talk for an hour, and I’ll pay you $ 50,000 or even $ 200,000. Would you be interested?
It may sound too good to be true. It would take years for millions of people in rich countries to make that much money. It would take billions of people – mostly of color – in the global South several decades of hard work to earn so much. In the United States, however, a tour of social justice speakers can make the same amount in just an hour.
Is this compatible with an anti-inequality policy?
The price of ‘All American’ speakers
Several websites – accessible to the public but mostly unknown to the public – have lists of celebrities you can hire to speak at an event. Prices range from around $ 5,000 to over $ 200,000 per speech. The lists primarily include those offering to deliver “keynote” speeches at corporate and academic conferences. The opening speech frames an event around a theme – say, Racial Injustice or Big Tech – and a well-known speaker lends prestige to the event. In this sense, a speaker is a bit like a headlining musician at a music festival.
Paying someone to give a speech is nothing new. Politicians, scientists and artists have received thousands of dollars to speak at public and private events for decades. But until recently, the general public had no way of knowing the going rate for high profile speech.
Yet in today’s internet age, keynote speaker rates are listed online by agencies, and we, the public, can get a glimpse of what’s going on in that space.
The All American Entertainment (AAE) speakers website, for example, lists thousands of famous speakers – from “businessmen” and “popular hosts” to “anti-racist speakers” and “social justice advocates” – on loan. to speak at events for many Thousands of dollars. Websites like Celebritytalent.net and Lavin Agency have similar listings.
A wide variety of celebrities are listed on the websites of presenting agencies. Generally speaking, the bigger the celebrity, the more money requested. High-level artists and intellectuals are often listed at a price of $ 50,000 to $ 100,000, and sometimes even “$ 200,000 or more”.
It is perhaps not surprising to see prominent and listed business leaders at this price. We all know the rich can’t get enough.
What is surprising, however, is that those who claim to be part of the “left”, and dedicated to helping build a more egalitarian world, also seem to charge tens of thousands of dollars to deliver speeches. time.
Transparency and conflict of interest
Unfortunately, this process remains a bit opaque. It is possible that some stakeholders are listed without their knowledge. When I called, an AAE employee named “Olivia” told me that sometimes the speakers in their database contacted them and sometimes they contacted the speakers, but that she “didn’t know. If speakers listed without their knowledge.
Yet we know that significant fees for keynotes are obtained by those on the “left”.
For example, in April 2021, an Freedom of Information request revealed that anti-racist professor Nikole Hannah-Jones received $ 25,000 for a Zoom Online lecture for the University of Oregon in February. In July 2019, anti-racist speaker Tim Wise revealed he charged around $ 10,000 to speak at events, and told reporters that other anti-racist speakers “usually charge more than I do.”
In another example, Microsoft told me that they are currently paying 14 prominent academics to deliver speeches for their monthly “Race and Technology” lecture series, but wouldn’t say how much. The moderator referred me to NYU professor Charleton McIlwain, who co-hosted the series, but he didn’t respond to an email asking how much speakers are paid.
Microsoft provides a wide variety of surveillance technologies and partnerships to police, immigration authorities, prisons, courts, and the military around the world. Critics have called these technologies racist and imperialist, but the five speakers to date have scarcely discussed Microsoft’s ongoing controversial practices.
This speaks to a clear conflict of interest, in which esteemed American intellectuals of race and technology help Microsoft appear interested and responsive to racial justice – while taking money from Microsoft.
We don’t know which celebrities actually get concerts, if they still get that money, and what they choose to do with the money they get. Some may, for example, donate their fees or use them to advance the causes they seek to promote. Yet it is difficult to find this in public records.
Is my consumption important?
As with the wider inequalities in a capitalist system, the terrible irony of this is that those who have the most resources are usually those who need them the least. In the All American Speakers repertoire, the more famous you are, the higher the price of speaking. For celebrities working at elite universities, salaries can reach $ 300,000 or more. Meanwhile, second-class citizens in academia, such as adjunct professors, struggle to pay the bills and have no job security or benefits.
The hypocrisy and perversity of the Keynote system is much worse when we compare it to the means of subsistence in the countries of the South. There are nearly eight billion people alive today. Four billion people (more than half the world) live below the meager poverty line of $ 7.40 per person per day – the minimum amount needed for a healthy diet and a full life expectancy.
People living at this poverty line thus have $ 2,701 per year.
For a worker at the Foxconn sweatshop making Apple iPhones in China, the base salary is $ 314 per month, despite workloads reaching 18 hours at a time.
For an hour of their time, at $ 50,000, famous speakers are paid nearly two decades of global poverty-stricken consumption and 13 years of grueling labor in a Chinese sweatshop. At $ 100,000, that’s four decades of consumption and 2.5 decades for those who make iPhones casually consumed by “All American” type speakers.
This is all the more problematic when one thinks of inequalities in an ecological context. For those who follow the ongoing environmental mega-crisis, growth and overexploitation are the main issues we face.
In its 2019 Sustainable Development Goal, the United Nations put this into concrete terms. Currently, all humans extract about 100 billion tons of material resources per year, but the sustainable limit is only about 50 billion tons. People in low-income countries consume only 2 tonnes per person per year, while people in high-income countries consume 28 tonnes per person per year. The sustainable limit for 8 billion people on earth is estimated at 6 to 8 tonnes per person per year.
In addition, about 10 tonnes of resources per person are shipped from poor countries to rich countries for their people to consume. iPhones, coffee, rubber, lithium, these things don’t just happen. People produce them, often for little in return.
As the degrowth researchers point out, if everyone consumed as much as rich countries – 28 tonnes or more per person per year – we would collapse the environment. It is unbearable. We must redistribute wealth and income for a fair and equitable resolution of the ecological crisis.
The big salaries commanded by famous intellectuals are beyond the sustainable limit. Presentation fees of $ 20,000, $ 50,000 or even $ 100,000 and more add to consumption patterns beyond the fair and sustainable limit, in an unequal exchange with the exploited workers they seek to defend. This despite the fact that many All American speakers promote environmental sustainability.
It is perverse that some of those who preach against inequality are asking and taking this money, all for an hour of their time. “All American” is a good label for this, as it highlights the deep hypocrisies of some elite “anti-inequality” intellectuals in the United States.
Those who truly believe in equality and in solving the environmental crisis should promote the abolition of social class in the interest of equity and sustainability. Yet the very system they claim to oppose rewards them for keeping silent about the limits of consumption and taking the money.
It’s time to shed some light on this and put an end to the ridiculous main speaker system.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.