Who wants to be an ‘All American’ speaker?

Delivering keynotes is a lucrative business in the US – even for some celebrities who claim to be committed to fighting inequality.

It is time to put an end to the ludicrous keynote speaker system, writes Kwet [John Moore/Getty Images]

I have a job for you. It requires you telling an audience things you already know. You can prepare if you like, but no preparation is necessary. You speak for an hour, and I’ll pay you $50,000 or even $200,000. Would you be interested?

This might sound too good to be true. It would take millions of people in wealthy countries years to earn that much money. It would take billions of people – mostly of colour – in the Global South many decades of hard labour to make that much. In the United States, however, a circuit of social justice speakers can make the same amount in just an hour.

Is this compatible with anti-inequality politics?

The price of ‘All American’ speakers

Several websites – publicly available but mostly unknown to the public – offer lists of celebrities you can hire to speak at an event. Prices range from about $5,000 to more than $200,000 per speech. The listings mostly include those offering to deliver “keynote” speeches at corporate and academic conferences. The keynote speech frames an event around a theme – say, racial injustice or Big Tech – and a well-known headline speaker provides prestige to the event. In this sense, a keynote speaker is much like a musician headlining a music festival.

Paying someone to deliver a keynote is nothing new. Politicians, scientists and entertainers have been receiving thousands of dollars to speak at public and private events for decades. But until recently, the public at large had no way of knowing the going rate for a high-profile keynote.

Yet today, in the era of the Internet, rates of keynote speakers are listed online by agencies, and we the public can glimpse into what is going on in this space.

The All American Entertainment (AAE) speakers website, for example, lists thousands of celebrity speakers – from “business” people and “popular entertainers” to “anti-racism speakers” and “social justice advocates” – willing to speak at events for many thousands of dollars. Websites like celebritytalent.net and Lavin Agency offer similar listings.

A wide variety of celebrities are listed on the keynote agency websites. Generally speaking, the larger the celebrity, the more money requested. High profile entertainers and intellectuals are often listed at a price of $50,000 to $100,000, and even sometimes “$200,000 or above”.

It may not be surprising to see prominent business leaders and listed at this price. We all know the rich can’t get enough.

What is surprising, however, is that those who claim to be part of the “left”, and dedicated to helping build a more egalitarian world, also appear to be demanding tens of thousands of dollars to deliver hour-long speeches.

Transparency and conflict of interest

Unfortunately, this process remains a bit opaque. It’s possible that some speakers are listed without their knowledge. When I called, an AAE employee, who gave her name as “Olivia”, told me that sometimes speakers in their database reach out to them and sometimes they reach out to speakers, but said she “didn’t know” if speakers are ever listed without their knowledge.

Yet we know that large keynote fees are obtained by those on the “left”.

For example, in April 2021, a Freedom of Information Request revealed that anti-racism professor Nikole Hannah-Jones received $25,000 for an online Zoom lecture for the University of Oregon in February. Back in July 2019, anti-racism speaker Tim Wise revealed that he charges approximately $10,000 to speak at events, and told the press that other anti-racism speakers usually “charge more than me”.

In another example, Microsoft told me they are currently paying 14 prominent academics to deliver speeches for its monthly “Race and Technology” lecture series, but wouldn’t say how much. The moderator referred me to NYU Professor Charleton McIlwain, who co-organised the series, but he did not respond to an email asking how much the speakers are paid.

Microsoft provides a wide variety of surveillance technologies and partnerships to police, immigration authorities, prisons, courts, and militaries throughout the world. Critics have deemed these technologies racist and imperialist, yet the five speakers to date have hardly mentioned Microsoft’s ongoing controversial practices.

This speaks to a clear conflict of interest, in which esteemed American race and technology intellectuals help Microsoft appear interested in and sensitive to racial justice – while taking money from Microsoft.

We don’t know which celebrities actually score keynote gigs, if they are always receiving these sums, and what they choose to do with the money they receive. Some may, for example, donate their fees or use them to further the causes they are seeking to promote. Yet it’s difficult to find this on public record.

Does my consumption matter?

As with broader inequality in a capitalist system, the terrible irony of this is that those who command the most resources are typically those who need it the least. In the All American speakers directory, the more famous you are, the higher the speaking fee. For celebrities working at elite universities, salaries can reach $300,000, or more. Meanwhile, second-class citizens in academia, such as adjunct professors, struggle to pay the bills and have no job security or benefits.

The hypocrisy and perversity of the keynote system are much worse when we compare it with livelihoods in the Global South. There are nearly eight billion people alive today. Four billion people (more than half the world) live under the meagre poverty line of $7.40 per person per day – the minimum amount needed for a healthy diet and full life expectancy.

People living at that poverty line thus have $2,701 per year at their disposal.

For a Foxconn sweatshop worker making Apple’s iPhones in China, the basic salary is $314 per month, despite workloads reaching 18 hours at a time.

For one hour of their time, at $50,000, celebrity speakers are paid almost two decades worth of consumption at the global poverty line, and 13 years of gruelling labour in a Chinese sweatshop. At $100,000, it’s four decades worth of consumption and 2.5 decades for those making the iPhones casually consumed by the “All American” type speakers.

This is all the more problematic when we think of inequality in an ecological context. For those following the unfolding environmental mega-crisis, growth and over-exploitation are the central problems we face.

In its Sustainable Development Goal of 2019, the United Nations put this in concrete terms. Currently, all humans are extracting about 100 billion tonnes of material resources per year, but the sustainable limit is only about 50 billion tonnes. People from low-income countries consume just 2 tonnes per person per year, while people in high-income countries consume 28 tonnes per person per year. The sustainable limit for 8 billion people on earth is believed to be 6 to 8 tonnes per person per year.

Moreover, about 10 tonnes of resources per person are shipped from the poor countries to the rich countries for their people to consume. iPhones, coffee, rubber, lithium, these things don’t fall from the sky. People produce them, often for little in return.

As de-growth researchers are pointing out, if everyone consumed as much as the rich countries – 28 tonnes or more per person per year – we’d collapse the environment. It’s unsustainable. We must redistribute wealth and income for a fair and just resolution to the ecological crisis.

The large salaries celebrity intellectuals command are beyond the sustainable limit. Keynote fees of $20,000, $50,000, or even $100,000+, add to consumption patterns beyond the fair and sustainable limit, in an unequal exchange with the exploited labourers they seek to defend. This despite the fact that many All American speakers promote environmental sustainability.

It’s perverse that some of those who are preaching against inequality are asking for and taking this money, all for one hour of their time. “All American” is a good label for it, as it sheds light on the deep hypocrisies of some elite “anti-inequality” intellectuals in the United States.

Those who truly believe in equality and fixing the environmental crisis should be promoting class abolition in the interests of fairness and sustainability. Yet the very system they claim to oppose is rewarding them to stay silent about the limits of consumption and take the money.

It’s time to shine a light on this and put an end to the ludicrous keynote speaker system.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.