Stuffing Their Pockets

By Foroohar, Rana | Newsweek, September 13, 2010 | Go to article overview

Stuffing Their Pockets


Foroohar, Rana, Newsweek


Byline: Rana Foroohar

For CEOs, a lucrative recession.

One of the most startling things about the post-crisis landscape is how tone-deaf the wealthiest Americans remain to outrage over their Croesus-like pay packages. The award for complete obliviousness would have to go to Blackstone cofounder Stephen Schwarzman, who earlier this summer compared government attempts to raise taxes on financiers such as himself to Hitler's invasion of Poland. Silver medals should certainly be handed out to the many executives and corporate lawyers who were grousing last week about the new Dodd-Frank bill, which includes a rule requiring companies to disclose the difference in pay between their chief executive and their lowest-level workers. It would be a "logistical nightmare," these titans of industry wailed, for firms to compile this information.

Well, maybe, but if you issue pay stubs, surely you can tally them up (and perhaps keep a few more workers on board to do just that). The real nightmare will be when the public sees the numbers, which will illuminate just how egregious the U.S. pay gap has become. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think tank based in Washington, the average S&P 500 CEO takes home 263 times what his cheapest laborer does. While CEO pay is indeed down from its pre-crisis highs in 2007, it's still double what it was in the 1990s, and eight times the level in the 1950s.

Meanwhile, American workers are taking home less in real weekly wages than they did in the 1970s. So much for the idea that the financial crisis would somehow even things up by wiping out a good chunk of the paper wealth of the plutocrats. Indeed, stock prices have surged so much since last year that many CEOs, who receive a good chunk of their pay in equity, are wealthier than ever before.

Such facts are inevitably followed by the impossible-to-answer question, do they deserve it? While the corporate world has certainly gotten more complex over the last 50 years, it's hard to make the case that CEOs themselves have gotten any smarter, or that investors are doing a better job of judging a CEO's success. Compensation levels are all too often driven by short-term thinking. The CEOs of the 50 firms that laid off the most workers since the onset of the economic crisis took home 42 percent more pay in 2009 than their peers did--largely because cutting workers boosts short-term profits and appeals to Wall Street.

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