Daniel W. Drezner

Do speaking fees distort foreign policy analysis?

Do speaking fees distort foreign policy analysis?

Earlier this week Politico’s Ben Smith posted about the ways in which speaking fees had altered incentives for politicians and pundits: 

Most of the people you see talking on television or quoted in stories — who aren’t in elected office — make substantial parts of their livings giving speeches to private groups. Paid speaking, cleaner than lobbying, easier than the practice of law, cleaner than hitting up pension funds, well, safer than graft, has become the primary source of income for a broad range of political figures, beginning with Bill Clinton, who reported $7.5 million from paid speech in 2009.

The high fees for speakers like Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Stanley McChrystal occasionally draw attention, but beneath them are tiers and tiers more, with Harold Ford and Michael Steele, for instance, charging $40,000 for a package deal. 

In that middle tier are commentators like Coulter and high-profile television personalities.  Well down the ladder are journalists, lower-profile politicians, and consultants.

I’ve been wondering — and am interested in readers’ takes, particularly those in the industry — how this private economy affects the public politics. For one thing, it provides an incentive for consultants and out-of-work politicians to volunteer themselves to cable television and to make themselves interested and controversial enough to stay on it. (It’s a kind of subsidy to cable.) Cable hits are a kind of loss leader on the speaking circuit — they don’t themselves play, but they make a paid speaker more saleable.

In a follow-up post, Smith relayed a media exec’s thoughts on the matter:

[I]t’s never discussed with any real scrutiny by the mainstream media or Fox because it’s bi-partisan. Everyone does it! James Carville. Bill Maher. Hannity. Oliver North. Eugene Robinson. Al Sharpton. Jack Welch. Trent Lott.

Note that academics are so far down the ladder that Smith doesn’t even bother to mention them. This does not mean, however, that academics and other members of the foreign-policy community don’t get speaking fees. I’ve seen Fareed Zakaria’s quote, and, well, let’s just say I’ve been coping with my own inadequacies at the lectern ever since. 

What does the foreign policy equivalent of Smith’s speaker ecosystem — and how does it affect our analysis?

Well, the foreign policy speaker ecosystem is pretty straightforward and pretty hierarchical:

1) Top tier: former policy principals and mainstream elite pundits. Examples: Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Tom Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, Robert Kagan, etc. These are the people that large associations, private colleges, and consultants with deep pockets will invite to give talks. Payment ranges from high-five figures to low-six figures. 

2) Second tier: Senior think-tankers, former policymakers with views "outside the mainstream", and experts in the topic du jour: Examples: Richard Haass, Carlos Pascual, James Woolsey, and, say, Barnett Rubin if Afghanistan was on everyone’s mind. College groups, professional associations, lobbies, and single-issue groups will have these people talk. Payment ranges from high-four figures to middle-five figures. 

3) Third tier: Top tier IR academics, former deputy policymakers, consultants who fancy themselves as deep global strategists, one-shot book-publishing wonders, etc. Examples: Charles Kupchan, Strobe Talbott, Parag Khanna. Foundations, think tanks, some campus groups, and university institutes will invite these speakers. Fees are generally low four figures. 

4) Fourth tier: Assorted crackpots, garden-variety think-tankers, A-list bloggers, and me. Travel, hotel, and something less than $1,000. 

Does this hierarchy affect how foreign-policy analysts write and think? I’m honestly not sure. Cracking the top tier is very difficult, and someone gearing their entire intellectual output towards that goal is more likely to be disappointed than not. Forthermore, the best way to crack that tier is to achieve a related goal, which is a top-tier appointment in an administration. One could argue that this puts constraints on how far outside "mainstream" analysis one can go. 

On the other hand… once one realizes that those A-list appontments ain’t going to happen, the incentve structure shifts. After a certain point, becoming an intellectual bomb-thrower can be the quickest route to achieving pecuniary rewards. That said, even in this case one has to have done good work in the past in order to be taken seriously. So, in the foreign-policy ecosystem at least, I’m not sure speaking fees distort policy analysis all that much. 

I’m eager to hear from commenters on this question, however: do you think the growth of outside speaking fees distort incentives within the foreign-policy community?