Blair disease

FT columnist Simon Kuper enlightens us on “Blair Disease, named for ex-prime minister Tony Blair: the growing propensity of former heads of government to monetise their service. Blair Disease is damaging but easily cured.”

If you are super-rich, you probably have an ex-leader working for you, like an overpaid tennis coach. Blair, for instance, has shilled for JPMorgan Chase, Qatar and Kazakhstan’s cuddly regime. Then there’s the modern ex-leader’s staple: giving paid speeches to rich people. ….

Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy have terrible Blair Disease …. A year before Schröder left the chancellorship, he identified Vladimir Putin as a “flawless democrat”. Soon afterwards, as if by magic, Schröder was hired by the Russian gas company Gazprom. ….

Sarkozy leapt nimbly from ruling France to speaking at banking conferences. At a Goldman Sachs do in November he announced, in English, “I am ready to run a business” ….

“Replenishing the ol’ coffers,” as George W Bush put it, is an older tradition for US presidents. However, none has ever made out like Bill Clinton, who earned $89m from speeches from 2001 to 2011. ….

If George W Bush makes less, it’s because he rarely goes out. Even Republicans in Dallas, where he lives, seldom see him. My personal theory: Bush is hiding because he feels shame. His presidency failed on his own terms: he didn’t win his wars, and then almost destroyed capitalism. Worse, his vice-president pushed him around. Yet even Bush swiftly racked up $15m from ex-presidential speechifying. ….

It’s easy to cure Blair Disease: bar ex-leaders from doing paid work for private interests. This free measure would instantly deflate populism, keep experience inside government and attract a better class of person to the job.

Simon Kuper, “Another outbreak of Blair Disease“, Financial Times, 22 March 2014.

7 Responses to “Blair disease”

  1. Douglas O. Walker says:

    A symptom of a decaying and rotting society, one that makes its decisions by mandates rather than markets and by an entrenched political class rather than a dispersed polity.

    Actually, nothing new here. Once basic morality is lost, this kind of behavior by leaders, where one constantly talks of the importance of helping people and the poor while constantly grasping all one can in one’s own life, defines the contemporary liberal mindset. Nay, not only the liberal mindset, the conservative as well.

    Yes, our leaders are all an embarrassment. So what is new? Do anyone really think the political class is going to restrict one of its sources of goodies in any way? Bar ex-leaders from doing paid work for private interests? Hillary recently received half a million dollars for a one hour speech to some business group. Yeah, sure, she’s gonna be a strong supporter of Kuper’s proposal as is Mitch McConnell who charges less per speech but who still takes home a lot of bacon.

    Surely this op-ed cannot be taken seriously, not because it is a bad idea (it’s a great idea) but because it has absolutely no chance of ever being implemented. It is another (well written) example of an op-ed penned to parade some guy’s morality and concern about a real problem in an attempt to look good and righteous in the public arena. That his suggestion has zero chance of ever being implemented doesn’t matter. This is a bit harsh, perhaps too harsh. Kuper is no doubt a very good guy and truly trying to help by pointing out a today’s leaders are moral ciphers. He’s right. Needs to be said. And I shouldn’t doubt his motives at all. But, really, he should know this kind of suggestion is going nowhere.

    Let me just add in passing the commercial value of Blair and the others in the public arena is directly proportional to the influence of government over the lives of people. Want to reduce their influence and the income they derive from it, markedly reduce the size and scope of government. Of course, Kuper would never recommend any reduction because it would subject him to withering criticism of neglect of the poor and the downtrodden from the very political class he says is failing us by their own greed. Maybe that’s too strong a comment. Perhaps he hasn’t thought the matter through and just does not realize how worthless suggestions like this are.

    In short, proposals like this that have no chance of actual implementation are not feared by those in power.

  2. Thank you, Douglas, for this comment. On re-reading Kuper’s op-ed, I find that I agree even more strongly with his suggested solution for “Blair Disease”.

    Kuper recommends that ex-leaders be bared from “doing paid work for private interests”. working You are a pessimist, writing that Kuper’s “great idea” “has absolutely no chance of ever being implemented”. I am more optimistic. Voters can achieve reform by punishing candidates for congress who do not support the measure. At the very least, appropriate legislation would transform legal corruption into illegal corruption, which would cause ex-leaders to behave, or face the consequences.

    Your proposed solution is “markedly reduce the size and scope of government” in order “to reduce their [politicians or the wealthy?] influence and the income they derive from it”. You do not explain whose influence you would like to reduce, but your goal makes sense only if you mean reduction of the influence of wealthy citizens and business interests, for these are the people who legally bribe politicians (with campaign contributions for politicians seeking office and honoraria for former politicians when they leave office).

    Kuper’s solution is possible with free voting, provided the electorate is sufficiently motivated. Your solution, in contrast, has no chance of ever being implemented. Two of the largest sources of income for former politicians are defence contractors (recall Eisenhower’s warning of the “military-industrial complex”) and financial institutions. Is it really possible to “markedly reduce” the US budget for defence? And, in the midst of a Great Recession that began in 2008, can we take seriously a proposal to free financial institutions from government rules and regulations? I could cite many more examples, but refrain from doing so to keep this response to a reasonable length.

    Your proposal to reduce aid for “the poor and the downtrodden” is misplaced, because wealthy individuals and business interests seldom use their influence to solicit help for the poor and the downtrodden. Reducing transfers to the poor (food stamps, medicaid, earned-income tax credit, children’s allowances, etc.) would have at most a limited effect on the spread of “Blair Disease”, and only to the extent that taxes on the wealthy are reduced (reducing the need to lobby for exemptions). You will have to look elsewhere for arguments against redistribution of income from the rich to the poor through government taxation and transfers. Redistribution of income to wealthy plutocrats (aka crony capitalism), in contrast, is linked tightly to the spread of “Blair Disease”.

  3. Eric Olson says:

    I would venture that Mr. Kuper, as a columnist for the high-profile Financial Times, receives many paid offers to speak and doesn’t see anything wrong with that. And there isn’t, as long as there is no unethical quid pro quo — i.e., “take this position in a column in the FT and we will give you a highly paid speaking engagement”. Yet Mr. Kuper pontificates against the speaking fees of others.

    There’s nothing wrong with a former politicians giving paid speeches, as long as there was no illegal or unethical quid pro quo (“sign (or veto) this legislation and we will get a really highly paid speaking engagement after you leave office”). If rich people want to pay huge sums to hear a someone give their opinions, then they’re certainly free to do so. If it’s a rich corporation, then they are also free to do so, though I question the judgement of the managers running the place. But with no quid pro quo there is no reason to fault a former politician for accepting such an invitation.

    The same for for doing independent consulting work, as long as they don’t interfere with the work of their home country’s foreign ministry. Even people who detest Henry Kissinger don’t seem to have had a problem with the fact that he ran an independent consulting business after he left government. It’s not clear why Tony Blair should be denied the same individual freedom to sell his independent opinions. In the cases of Qatar and Kazakhstan, it may even be in the West’s interest that he does.

    The case of former Chancellor Shroeder is more troubling. The problem is that while he was Chancellor he was working to open up Germany to Gazprom pipelines and exports, and then began (non-independent) work for Gazprom immediately after he left office. This raised legitimate questions of conflict of interest. Given the cronyism of Russia, it was also unseemly and immediately raised questions of a quid pro quo. From a policy standpoint, a waiting period of two to five years would be appropriate for such non-independent work.

    But would we really want to give total blanket restrictions on the freedom of politicians to engage in private work once they leave office? It would probably not even be Constitutional in the US. And a life-time ban on doing work for private interests by former politicians, especially relatively younger ones like Clinton, Blair and, in three years, Obama, is both exceedingly harsh and against the basic principle of individual freedom on which the West stands.

  4. Douglas O. Walker says:

    I stand corrected.

    Mr. Olson is right. Restrictions on the freedom of politicians to engage in private work after leaving office (and let me add, not just politicians but political appointees) is unConstitutional and unwise from the point of view of individual freedom.

    Mr. Kuper’s suggestion addresses a real problem. Unfortunately, it is not only unimplementable in practice, it is also a restriction on freedom.

    I do think that it is often (not always, but often) immoral for people to use their influence to support special interests to gain excessively in their private lives. In this regard, Larry’s idea of voting politicians out of office who excessively benefit from their former positions is a good one.

    In the end, however, there is no real substitute for a moral people.

  5. Eric, You deny the existence of “Blair Disease”. Former politicians should have the right to earn money in any way they please, just as any citizen. You allow for possible exceptions for conflict of interest, such as the case of former Chancellor Schroeder, who should have been subject to a waiting period of two to five years before accepting employment from a company that he dealt with while occupying high political office.

    Your argument is interesting, but not convincing. Former politicians have very generous pensions for life, even if they retire from office while young. They have no need to work for money, so free them to work hard for noble, charitable causes. President Obama gave away to charity the large sum of money awarded to him with the Nobel Peace Prize. Hopefully, he will continue to be generous – not greedy – when retired, and not charge for his services. Jimmy Carter keeps very busy, working for charitable causes such as Habitat for Humanity. He accepts no money for talks , and teaches – pro bono – a Sunday School class. If everyone followed Carter’s example, there would be no need for legislation to prevent former politicians from reaping millions and millions of dollars during retirement. Ex-politicians often receive a half million dollars or more for a two-hour speech. Do you think that anyone would pay this sum of money to them if they did not hope to gain favours through the political connections of the speaker? If Blair, Sarkozy, Clinton, even GW Bush, had not held high political office, no-one would offer them even a fraction of the honoraria they receive for speeches and consulting. They are able to earn vast sums of money precisely because they have held high political office. Incentives matter. The possibility of making out like a bandit encourages citizens to seek public office for private gain. Mr Kuper, in my opinion, is correct. Curing Blair Disease would “attract a better class of person to the job” … perhaps even close the revolving door between Goldman Sachs and the White House.

    Douglas, you now agree (mostly) with Eric. Blair Disease does not exist! Everyone should be free to work in any activity, irrespective of the pay they receive. In the US, it is a constitutional right. You differ from Eric somewhat because you allow no ‘conflict of interest’ exceptions to freedom of work.

    Then, confusingly, you assert that it is “often (not always, but often)” immoral for former politicians to “excessively benefit from their former positions”. This begs the question “What is excessive?” Voting former politicians out of office is not possible, because they are already out of office! My idea was different: Voters should support candidates only if they favour legislation barring ex-leaders from doing paid work for private interests. This is difficult, but not impossible. Laws and incentives matter. It is unrealistic to expect all politicians to become as moral as Jimmy Carter unless there is legislation that prohibits private gain after leaving high public office.

  6. Eric Olson says:

    Larry,

    Surely there are payers of speaker fees who hope to gain something politically.Yet Goldman Sachs can pay lots of money to Sarkozy to speak, but do they really expect that the generally unpopular Sarkozy from the UMP party will be able to deliver political influence with his rival Hollande’s government or the Socialist Party dominated Assemblée? They would be much better off calling their professional French lobbyists.

    Paying George W. Bush to speak in 2009 when he was terribly unpopular and the Democrats held the White House and both houses of Congress would appear to be a particularly bad political investment. Yet Bush received and accepted lots of offers, such as headlining a “Get Motivated” business seminar. Previous speakers at Get Motivated seminars included Reagan, Ford, Bush Sr., Clinton, and yes, Jimmy Carter.
    (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2009/10/talk_good_now.html
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Get_Motivated_Seminar)

    The issue looks to be more about getting a really high-profile speaker to create “buzz” and fill seats, or a high-profile consultant with incredibly unique and rare experience. Both of these strike me as related to globalization and Sherwin Rosen’s “The Economics of Superstars”: “The phenomenon of Superstars, wherein relatively small numbers of people earn enormous amounts of money and dominate the activities in which they engage, seems to be increasingly important in the world…” (AER, December 1981 — http://users.polisci.wisc.edu/schatzberg/ps616/Rosen1981.pdf)

    As a final thought, heads of state or government of western countries with nuclear arsenals have much greater responsibilities, and undergo much more vetting and intense public and press scrutiny, than any corporation’s CEO. But in comparison, their pay, including their generous public pension for life, is a pittance. It’s not surprising that these former leaders with their strong drive and ambition (and perhaps big egos) that got them into high public office turn to making big money afterward, especially the relatively younger ones.

    ‘[Former US President] Franklin Pierce, who left office at 52 in 1857, found post-presidential life a big drag. “After the White House,” he lamented, “what is there to do but drink?” He died at 64.’ (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/09/weekinreview/09seelye.html) )

  7. Douglas O. Walker writes (in a message to Larry Willmore):

    I, for one, do not deny Blair disease. I don’t think Eric denies it. However, I for one disagree with the proposed “cure” as worse than the disease.

    There are no doubt tens of thousands of former high ranking office holders who are trading on their knowledge and influence in the government bureaucracy in which they served. Many do benefit excessively from the positions they previously held. I am not referring to some assistant secretary of whatever or a high ranking staffer who leaves his post at the end of an administration to teach and write at a university. This is common and completely acceptable. Nor do I object to anyone taking a standard honorarium or relatively small sum to give a speech or write an op-ed. Good for them. Like you, I have a complaint against those who receive hundreds of thousands and at times much more for minimal effort, playing on their notoriety for s substantial personal benefit. Many politicians to their credit do give the fruits of their efforts in this area to charities. Again, good for them. But unfortunately many, many more do not.

    And let us recognize that often the benefits gained by people leaving high office are received in the form of extraordinary salaries, not compensation for a speech or ad hoc consultancy, so it is difficult to say whether any real abuse of their former position has taken place. How would any proposed legislation deal with this question? If one wanted to legislate in this area where would one draw the line? Unfortunately, there is no magic amount that defines an abuse of one’s previous position in a government post. This true of many things in life. For those involved, this is a moral issue that must be decided by each person and why personal morality is so important in life. The only recourse society has is to reflect high standards in its public discourse about the role of former leaders in our public life. Let me suggest ostracism and opprobrium of the worst abusers is a much underrated source of correction in both private and public matters and we should use it more.

    Eric made the point this as a matter of freedom. I should have seen it myself. Freedom can be abused, and in fact is all the time. Inevitable in all areas of life. We have laws focused on what we define as illegal or an unethical quid pro quo when in public service. This is good and necessary. But in the end, the broad strictures of the law, and informal societal moral standards, is all we can do in this area. These instruments are not going to eliminate this problem. Not all problems in life are “solvable” (whatever that means). This is one of them.

    You are right, former politicians are already out of office. One reason they may be out of office is they were voted out because of a perception on the part of voters they were susceptible to this kind of abuse or simply were not sufficiently aggressive in opposing it. I am all for holding politicians to high standards in this area. But I also point out voting is a crude instrument in a democracy. I do not really think many voters would see this kind of problem as determining for their vote. Again, not all public policy problems are “solvable” by the rituals of the political system.

    As I have said before, when it comes to public policy, it is very easy to make things worse but very difficult to make things better. Blair disease is probably one of them.