Recently got an email, the hey portion of which was (I am editing a bit for clarity):
“I’m not going to vote for Trump, obviously. But I have to admit I am leery of voting for Hillary. I mean – I understand that she’s been targeted by the right wing, I get it, but the Clinton Foundation stuff seems uncomfortably close to pay-for-play to me. Can you make me feel better about it?”
Sure. It’s actually remarkably easy.1
First off, a caveat: all of the following makes one assumption, which is “Hillary Clinton is extremely intelligent.” I’m not worried about her morality or lack thereof here, you can have your own beliefs about that. I personally think she’s a person who has a moral code she takes seriously, and has political positions – particularly with her views on the use of American military power – with which I disagree. But that’s me, you can think different about that. However, if you think Hillary Clinton is stupid – not “disagrees with me politically,” not “is crooked and amoral,” but stupid – then honestly, I don’t know what the point of this even is, you’re just a dipshit living in a mirror universe. But anyway.
Okay, caveat finished. Here are some important facts. Not theories about Hillary Clinton: just facts.
One: Hillary Clinton (and Bill) at this point have publicly released their tax returns for every year since 1977.2 Obviously their post-Presidential incomes are the most important. The thing about their returns is this: they are mostly very straightforward and kind of boring. The Clintons earn employment income from Bill and Hillary making speeches, and Hillary’s various government salaries as a Senator and then Secretary of State, and also there’s Bill’s presidential pension. Their investment strategies are as straightforward as their income: they have a large cash interest-bearing cash account and a large investment in a dividend-bearing mutual fund, and that’s it. They co-ordinate their charitable donations through a nonprofit charitable foundation, the Clinton Family Foundation (which is distinct from the Clinton Foundation that is the cause of all the concern and hubbub – that’s the William Jefferson Clinton Foundation): you can look at the CFF’s 2014 tax return here and there’s a list of charities they donate to at the end. A lot of Arkansas-based charities, unsurprisingly, but the charitable foundations of their alma maters are there too, their church in Chappaqua, New York, and the American Heart Association, and a few other things (and, yes, the WJ Clinton Foundation gets a lot from them as well). Basically the CFF is a bank account that serves as a hub for the Clintons’ charitable spending.
Three: Hillary mostly charges $225,000 per speech. This seems excessive to us proles, who don’t make that much in a year or even multiple years. However, it is certainly not excessive considering how much your average famous person charges for a speech. Here is one speaking organizer agency’s list of speaker fees of famous people who command over $200,000 per speech. You will note the list includes Dr. Oz, Chris Colfer, Nate Berkus, Kate Bosworth, Larry the Cable Guy, Steffi Graf, and a Dutch DJ named “Tiesto.” Hillary Clinton is much, much more famous than all of those people and is far more important/has done far more important things than all of them. It is entirely accurate to say that while speaking fees generally may be ridiculously high, Hillary Clinton’s are not particularly exceptional. (Bill, incidentally, apparently charges about $400,000-500,000 per speech. Of course, there are only four living ex-Presidents right now so it’s not unreasonable for them to have a higher rate.)
Four: The Clinton Foundation’s annual financial reports and tax forms are all public (they are here). They used to have a bad rating from CharityWatch because they had not publicly released all their records, but once they did release their records, CharityWatch gave them a very high rating. The Foundation’s overhead expenses constitute 12% of its spending; the average charity in the United States has overhead expenses of approximately 25%. The Clinton Foundation spends most of its money on, well, good works – their programs have been widely praised for their effectiveness – the Clinton Health Access Intiative, a subsidiary charity run by the Foundation which helps poor countries combat medical plagues such as HIV and malaria, gets the bulk of the operations money. There’s very little opportunity for the Foundation to enrich the Clintons (who haven’t been board members of it for years and do not draw a salary from the Foundation) or for that matter anybody else.
Five: There’s been some hubbub recently re: Clinton Foundation donors getting access to Hillary while she was Secretary of State, but the hubbub is mostly baseless. John Aravoisis pointed out yetserday that the AP’s reporting on this was actively getting numbers wrong to inflate the number of donors who actually met with Hillary. Others have pointed out that many of the donors who did meet with Hillary while she was SoS were people she would probably meet with anyway: the Crown Prince of Bahrain, who runs an OPEC member nation which sells oil to the United States, doesn’t really need to donate money to the Foundation to warrant a meeting with Hillary Clinton. Neither does Muhammad Yunis, Nobel Peace Prize-winning founder of the Grameen Bank. There’s evidence that a lot of Foundation donors wanted or hoped to meet with Hillary, but not a lot that most of them actually got to do so. As Kevin Drum summed up well enough:
So here are several possible takes on Hillary:
1. Powerful people all run in the same circles. They all know each other. They all ask favors from one another. Hillary is part of this circle.
2. People who are big party donors and big policy influencers have more access to politicians than, say, you or me. On this score, Hillary is a garden variety politician.
3. Donating to the Clinton Foundation was a well-known requirement for getting a meeting with Hillary.
I’ve simply seen no evidence of #3, and that includes the AP’s strained effort yesterday. Besides, if this were truly well known, by now someone would have come forward to spill the beans. As for #1 and #2, I don’t doubt that they’re as true of Hillary as they are of every other politician in the country. This might be an unfortunate state of affairs, but it’s certainly no scandal.
So, all of that having been said: why am I not concerned about Hillary Clinton’s corruption? I am not concerned about it because, for the most part, there’s no there there.
Look. The Clintons’ income is, as I said, straightforward. It’s boring in a very telling way, because the Clintons could be earning much more money than they do. Neither of them sits on any corporate boards, and there are any number of boards that would be willing to pay them millions of dollars a year to attend a few meetings. They have a very large amount of money, to be sure – those speaking fees add up (the large majority of their money, by the way, is Bill’s). But there are so many tax accounting tricks they could use to pay lower tax rates, to invest more actively for higher returns, and they don’t do any of it. Go look at their effective income tax rates on their disclosure page: they pretty much always pay regular combined federal and state tax. They live by choice in a relatively high-tax state (New York), but there are plenty of tricks to pretend that one lives in, say, Texas to pay no income tax. They haven’t bothered. And this isn’t something they did just recently – you can go look at their entire tax history. They’ve pretty much always invested conservatively, paid their fair share of income tax on their income, and donated about ten percent of their income to charity.
Similarly: the Clinton Foundation’s financial records are public, and they too are very straightforward. The Clintons get a lot of donations from people who want the Clintons to think kindly of them: that is politics, like it or not. But there is no real evidence to show that the Clintons have done anything with that money other than a remarkable amount of good for people who desperately need it, and no real evidence that Clinton Foundation donors were unfairly favoured as a result of their donations.
Bluntly: these are not the actions of people who are overly interested in money. These are the actions of people who got to a certain level of material comfort (and are happy to keep earning at that same rate) and said “this is fine.” There is simply nothing in their financial history to suggest that the Clintons are particularly avaricious.
This is generally the point where someone might say “but what about the speeches to Wall Street” and my response is “the Clintons were paid for a service, and provided that service.” (Most of their speeches, it should be noted, aren’t to financial institutions anyway.) Nobody asks Larry the Cable Guy if he’s beholden to Wall Street. Nobody says “Hillary got paid $225,000 to give a speech to the American Camping Association, is she in the pocket of Big Camping.” In order for Hillary to make money the rest of her life, she is simply not beholden to Wall Street. She can go make speeches to campers and other people at $200K a pop for the rest of her life and she’ll be fine. There’s simply no evidence that she needs Wall Street.
(Granted: one can argue that Hillary is too cozy with Wall Street, in the sense that many of the monied finance elite are her contemporaries. That is fair. But she is hardly unique in this, and indeed the same can be said of practically all American politicians who actually have to work within the system, as opposed to the Gary Johnsons and Jill Steins of the world who like to consider their political irrelevance proof of a higher moral standard, which it is not.)
Now, the final argument at this point is that Hillary is hungry not for money, but power – this is something both sides like to accuse her of, and of politicians generally. It is mostly crap. Most politicians are not, in fact, power-hungry, because power is an abstract concept. Politicians who want power want it for specific reasons, and the two reasons are to get money and to advance their own ideological beliefs. (Political power is actually really kind of bad at creating longterm security for yourself. Most people who go into politics can say, accurately, they would have made more money simply working in their chosen fields.) And all the evidence is that Hillary’s interest in power is that she wants to do things with it to make the world a better place – granted, for her own personal definition of “better place,” and you might take issue with that definition. But her desires are purely political, in the most morally neutral sense.
In short: there is no real evidence of Hillary Clinton’s “corruption” beyond the sort of penny-ante everyday elbow-rubbing with elites that are the natural byproduct of the American system. Which is shitty in its own way, to be sure, but Hillary is not exceptional in this regard. Frankly, the evidence as to her character trends in the other direction: the sheer boringness of her personal finances and the effectiveness of the Clinton Foundation at what it does shows that Hillary’s personal priority (and Bill’s) is to work for her general concept of the public good. And that’s why I don’t worry about Hillary Clinton.
- As a Canadian obviously I do not technically have skin in this game, but as a Canadian I follow American politics as a rule because it’s more interesting, and also our economy depends largely on yours so I kind of do have skin in the game, just not a vote. Much of the rest of the world probably feels the same way. [↩]
- The link only includes the last decade. [↩]
- I leave it to the reader to consider what type of supposedly liberty-loving American patriot uses the word “blitzkrieg” to name their site. Ahem. [↩]