In the Milliseconds Captured in This Photo, Ben Bernanke Made About $2.08

Last year, Bernanke made $200,000 running the Fed. This week, he made more than that—giving one speech.

The lede of Reuters’s story says it all:

Ben Bernanke earned more in 40 minutes on Tuesday than he made all of last year as head of the U.S. Federal Reserve. 

That’s right. Earlier this week, Ben Bernanke, former chairman of the U.S. central bank, took the stage at a conference in the United Arab Emirates and made “at least” $250,000. The previous year, as Fed chair, he’d only made $199,700. He made more speaking for 40 minutes—not even giving a speech, just being in conversation—than he did stewarding the world’s largest economy for a year.

What does that mean? Well, take a look at the photo above. It’s provided by Reuters’s news service, and it shows Bernanke speaking at the forum. While we don’t have the exact exposure information, the photograph shows a starkly lit stage. We can guess that the shutter opened for between 1/40th and 1/60th of a second. Let’s round it to 1/50th, and say that the photo above captures 20 milliseconds of action, 20 milliseconds of light.

During the period of time captured in the photo above—between the time the shutter opened and closed—Ben Bernanke made a little more than $2.08.

Even if we've wildly misguessed the shutter speed, he’s making between one and three dollars in the time captured above. And though, of course, speakers’s fees cover more than his minutes onstage, that figure still conveys the worth of his time.

There are three observations you can make, I think, about this lordly sum:

1. President Obama is currently proposing a minimum hourly wage of $10.10. In one second of his talk, Ben Bernanke made just a little less than 10 times that.

2. This was Bernanke’s first public appearance since stepping down as the American central banker. The last Fed chair, Alan Greenspan, only spoke privately and to small groups for a while after the end of his tenure. Bernanke’s seeming openness is a big deal—and maybe it deserves big compensation.

Over the past decade or so, speaking fees have exploded. Speechifying conferences and smart-sounding lecture circuits have followed: A PowerPoint won an Oscar; folks watch TED talks for fun. This isn’t to cast aspersions: The Atlantic has a bustling (and successful) events schedule (as do The New Yorker, the New York Times, and many others), which I and my colleagues participate in. In the 2010s, events seem like a mechanism for spreading ideas and making money.

Why is that? I wouldn’t want to say for sure, but I wonder if inequality—not just of wealth, but of prestige—is so vast, that there are so many different ways to unsuccessfully reach a famous person, that actually getting their body in the room is the only sure way to communicate with them. It’s the only sure way to have them hear you out—and for you to hear them out—and therefore it’s the most expensive.

I wonder, in other words, if question-and-answer sessions (or their schmoozey, post-talk equivalent) drive the price of speaking fees.

3. A few years ago, The Atlantic’s Matt O’Brien examined just how much a good central banker is worth. It seems that, even though being the “second most powerful person in the world” is something of a prestige position, we still way, way underpay our central bankers. Matt writes:

Central banking should be a superstar profession. The difference between a top central banker and an average one can be astronomical, particularly when conventional policy is impotent. An efficient market would pay them accordingly. If the United States spent $10 billion assembling a central banking fantasy lineup […], it would probably be a phenomenal investment. It'd pay for itself many, many times over.

Maybe it’s worth thinking about Bernanke’s quarter-of-a-million-dollar chaser as another avenue of compensation, as a way of saving American taxpayers money. Besides, “former U.S. central bank president” speaking fees are nothing compared to those for “former U.S. presidents.” In 2011, Bill Clinton raked in some $750,000 for a single speech in Hong Kong.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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