“I do think,” you may have heard President Barack Obama say about a group of Americans last week, “at a certain point you’ve made enough money.”
And if you hadn’t heard it before now, you may be wondering who he was talking about.
Perhaps he was speaking to Hollywood — producer/directors such as George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, who were paid $170 million and $150 million, respectively, according to Forbes magazine’s 2009 list. Less generous, but still better than I and probably you, were Jerry Bruckheimer at $100 million and Atlanta’s Tyler Perry at $75 million. Or actors such as Harrison Ford ($65 million) or Adam Sandler ($55 million).
Then again, he might have been talking to America’s television stars. Dr. Phil (McGraw) pulled down $80 million, Forbes reports. Simon Cowell of “American Idol” was close behind at $75 million. And there’s Oprah, our highest-paid celebrity, at $275 million.
But Oprah is one of the president’s biggest backers, so let’s forget the big and little screens and turn to musicians. For all the challenges to that industry, Madonna managed to bring home $110 million. There’s Beyonce Knowles at $87 million; Bruce Springsteen, $70 million; Kenny Chesney and Dave Matthews Band, $65 million each; and a cool $60 million for the band Rascal Flatts.
I could mention athletes, but Tiger Woods was in a class of his own at $110 million (a figure he won’t match this year).
Oh, wait — maybe the operative words are “at a certain point”; Obama must have been talking about dead celebrities! It’s been half a century since Rodgers & Hammerstein put out a new musical, but their estates saw $235 million in new earnings. The King of Pop, Michael Jackson, with $90 million, and the King of Rock ’n’Roll, Elvis Presley, with $55 million, also did not do poorly posthumously.
Now, if you think it would have been odd for President Obama to scold celebrities in this way, you’re right. He was talking instead about businessmen – specifically, those who work in finance. Want to guess how many chief executives of financial companies in 2009, according to Forbes, earned as much as the 20 celebs I’ve listed here?
How about none?
In fact, the $2.4 billion in total earnings of the 100 highest-paid CEOs, regardless of industry, barely beat out the $2.1 billion of the twenty-five best-compensated celebs (living ones, that is). Just seven of those 100 CEOs worked in the financial industry.
I don’t begrudge Beyonce, Spielberg or Tiger — or the head of JP Morgan — the pay they receive. Nor do I begrudge Obama his $5.5 million in 2009 income — again, more than I and probably you.
So why does the president begrudge the same to others?
He claims that he doesn’t. The full quote from his Wednesday speech in Quincy, Ill., was:
“I want to be clear, we’re not trying to push financial reform because we begrudge success that’s fairly earned. I mean, I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough money. But part of the American way is you can just keep on making it if you’re providing a good product or you’re providing a good service. We don’t want people to stop fulfilling the core responsibilities of the financial system to help grow the economy.”
The second sentence is the one that defines “fairly earned” for Obama. The man who as a candidate spoke of “spreading the wealth around” has found a matter he considers within his pay grade: other people’s pay.