Columns

Fuerbacher ’14: Keeping up with the Congress

By
Opinions Columnist

Imagine you are earning a handsome salary, attending soirees in the most exciting cities and gracing television screens and newspapers regularly. The best part is that you do not need to apply an established skill set or engage in rigorous thought, as your assistants do most of the preparation and analysis for you. In these uncertain economic times — when industrious individuals and even graduates of the most illustrious universities have difficulty obtaining employment — you are subject to characterizations that you are “famous for being famous” and need not work hard for a living.

If you thought I was describing the Kardashians, who seem to be America’s favorite target for criticism regarding undeserved wealth and fame, you are wrong. Instead, I describe the vast majority of our congressmen rather than private individuals who happened to monetize their popularity.

This column is intended to be apolitical, so I am not criticizing politicians’ lackluster performance based on the current balance of power in Washington. I am not aiming to emulate Fox News by championing the policy expertise of Paul Ryan and attempting to render him the next Milton Friedman. On the other hand, I am certainly not echoing MSNBC’s celebration of the Obama administration just because the unemployment rate miraculously dipped below 8 percent right before the presidential election.

Regardless of one’s ideological affiliation, there appears to be a sorely misguided focus on the earning power of celebrities and reality stars, who seem to offer little talent, while the unimpressive abilities of Congress to enact meaningful immigration reform or introduce housing market initiatives go unnoticed.

More bluntly, why should we care if the Kardashians reportedly earn $40 million for three seasons of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” or if the stars of “Honey Boo Boo” supposedly rake in up to $20,000 per episode? We have congressmen and senators each taking home at least $174,000 per year — plus expenses — and producing quite lackluster legislation.

At least celebrities are paid from the coffers of private enterprise and help generate strong ratings for networks that, in turn, corroborate their pay. Our elected officials are compensated by the public’s tax dollars and are guaranteed their salaries and other desirable perks regardless of their legislative aptitudes. One might counter that inept politicians risk the loss of re-election. But, it is demonstrably hard to unseat sitting officials. In fact, 90 percent of incumbent U.S. congressmen and 91 percent of U.S. senators were reelected in 2012. These strong statistics prevailed despite dismal approval ratings of Congress, which were marked at only 21 percent in mid-October last year. In late November, Gallup polls estimated that only one in 10 Americans possesses robust confidence in the ethical nature of members of Congress.

The electorate should be more concerned with the performance of its very handsomely paid officials. Granted, $174,000 is not an earth-shattering amount of money. But it is quite a generous sum if we adjust the figure for the actual amount of effort required to do the job. I find it ironic that people lambast investment bankers, lawyers or doctors, who take home six figures annually after toiling for nearly or even more than 12 hours per day and have likely spent between $250,000 and $500,000 on higher education.

Our congressmen and senators should be entitled to zero compensation until they can learn to rein in spending, better organize their priorities and focus on issues such as entitlement reform, job creation and immigration initiatives. Patching together some last-minute agreement on the debt ceiling — the innate problems of which, by the way, persist — is not tantamount to exercising rigorous thought or critical skills that deserve monetary reward. And trust me, our lofty elected officials would not suffer without a salary: Many of them have law degrees they can hopefully put to use, or at least can leverage their connections to land a consulting gig or political commentator job. We ought to follow in the footsteps of the shareholders at KB Home who rejected multimillion dollar compensation packages for executives in 2012 in light of their dissatisfaction with the company’s ability to generate stronger earnings.

Before we expend more energy criticizing reality TV personalities who have become wealthy by virtue of silly antics and outlandish behavior, we should redirect our exasperation to the real culprits who are “famous for being famous.” Perhaps we can even feature them on a new C-SPAN reality program, “Keeping Up with the Congress.”

Elizabeth Fuerbacher ’14 has more confidence in KBH’s ability to generate quality earnings than in Congress’ ability to generate quality legislation. She can be reached at elizabeth_fuerbacher@brown.edu

  • ha ha, congress

    Reining in spending in a recession is a bad idea, entitlement reform generally refers to entitlement cuts (which are a bad idea), and “immigration initiatives” is a remarkably unspecific idea. But yeah, zing! Zing, Congress.

  • Common Sense

    Take a look at continental Europe and the United Kingdom. Austerity has sure worked out well for them. Now turn your eyes to Iceland, a country brought to its knees by the 2008 financial crisis. It has bounced back thanks to its “no corporation too-big-to-fail” approach mixed with continued support of its lower and middle classes. Spending isn’t the issue here in the States, as much as conservative thinkers like to think it is. How can you expect consumers to purchase the goods that fuel the economy if you deprive them of the benefits that enable them to do just that? And it doesn’t take a $500,000 education to be a successful investment banker (spoiler alert: it’s just gambling).

  • H2S

    What do the guys at Harvard think about this? I heard that there are like 250 of them who are experts on this topic