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Too Much Money Can Make the Boss Mean

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Image: James ParksHere’s another reason to do away with runaway CEO pay.  A study shows bloated CEO pay can make the boss mean.

The study examined the corporate behavior of 261 companies and found a close correlation between pay inequality and poor treatment of workers. In companies where CEOs made much more than their average workers, the companies were more likely to underfund pensions or cut corners on health and safety. Often, according to the study, the bosses engaged in a cost-benefit analysis, calculating that a fine would be a cost of doing business, compared with the profits they could make.

“You end up basically thinking of those at the bottom as numbers,’’ Sreedhari Desai, a Harvard research fellow who co-authored the study, told The Boston Globe columnist Joanna Weiss. “You feel somehow that they aren’t even worthy of the normal people that you’d meet. They’re disposable.’’

Writing about the study last summer for the Campaign for America’s Future, Sam Pizzigati sums it up this way:

The…data and the lab games, in the end, would both generate findings that point to the same conclusion. Wide pay gaps between executives and workers…enhance the sense of power executives feel and cause them to “objectify lower level employees.”

Or, to put the matter more plainly, “executives with higher income treat employees more meanly.”

Click here to read the study, “When Executives Rake in Millions: Meanness in Organizations.”

This article was originally published on AFL-CIO Now Blog.

About the Author: James Parks had his first encounter with unions at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.


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Getting Back at the Man

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Image: Bob RosnerThis blog will undoubtedly make many of you ask one question, how good is my mental health benefit with my HMO?

I realized I was really happy today, because the Super Bowl will feature Green Bay and Pittsburgh. Or to be more factually correct, because it will not feature New York and Chicago.

But it didn’t stop there. I realized that in terms of all sports, I now mostly cheer for the smallest media market to triumph.

Not the underdog. Now that would be too American. I root for the smallest two cities, whether they’re favored or not.

San Francisco and Texas, yippee!

Boston & Los Angeles, well because I reside in Seattle, the NBA is dead to me. So I sat that particular series out.

Remember, I began this blog by questioning my own mental health.

But I wonder if there are at least a few other people out there who revel in the natural order of all things sporting gets messed with. In a world where the same people who argued that continuing unemployment insurance was going to add to the deficit, suddenly had no problems cutting taxes for billionaires.

In that world it’s odd how much fun it can be when the billionaires get stuck with a team in the big game that’s named after the Indian Packing Company, which provided the field where they practiced early in the last century.

I wasn’t always this cynical. There was a time when I didn’t live to see a billionaire stumble. But after watching Lehman Brothers, WAMU and AIG executives walk away with no accountability for their crimes, and able to keep all their ill gotten gains, well my cynicism level has dramatically increased.

Is it only me? Or do you find yourself enjoying another Chapter 11 filing by Donald Trump just a little too much. Or when a really rich person spends $120 million to run for office and gets beaten by a really old guy who used to date Linda Ronstadt.

Really I’m not trying to be too cynical here. But to paraphrase Lily Tomlin, it seems like these days no matter how cynical you are, it just never seems like enough.

And for all those disappointed fans in Chicago and New York, remember the great observation by Jerry Seinfield. They may seem like your team, but mostly you’re cheering for laundry. Especially with the lockout looming, most players really don’t feel as strongly as you do about the team you just painted your face for.

Will I be watching the Super Bowl? You bet, but mostly for the ads.  

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via [email protected]


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Time For More Executive Hard Time?

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Image: Bob RosnerAngelo Mozilo, co-founder of Countrywide Financial, a.k.a. No-Income-is-too-Small-For-Us-to-Give-You-a-Mortgage, agreed to pay $67.5 million dollars to avoid a federal civil fraud suit about to go to trial.

I know what you’re thinking, let’s hold a bake sale for Angelo. He clearly must be hurting. But chances are slim that you’ll see him at any soup kitchen, because he pocketed many times that amount of money in salary and perks before he drove his company into the ditch.

But it does raise an interesting question: Why isn’t the government going after Lehman, WAMU and other high flying executives from corporations that went into the toilet over the past few years? Especially when top executives pocketed so much cash from the deception and fake profits?

We’re not talking Salem Witch Trials. I’m simply suggesting that we start skimming off some of the cash that these executives skimmed off of all of us. I know this sounds drastic, but the top guys from Enron actually went to jail for their misdeeds.

Why are we suddenly so timid when it comes to the billions that these fat cats are sitting on?

This is especially confusing to me because of the rush by State Attorney’s General to sue over the recently enacted health care reform bill. Why aren’t our public officials going after the banking swindlers for the huge stockpiles of money that they extracted from all of us?

I would have thought that Attorneys General would at least understand the Willie Sutton rule. Mr. Sutton, the famous bank robber was asked why he robbed banks. He replied, “Because that is where the money is.”

Isn’t it time that we went where the money went? Anything short of a major offensive here sends a simple message to all that crime pays. That would be the worst message to come out of the pain of the past few years.

About The Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via [email protected]


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Unfinished business of executive pay reform

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Sarah AndersonMost analysts of the high-finance meltdown that ushered in the Great Recession have concluded that excessive compensation was a key causal factor. Outrageously high rewards gave executives an incentive to behave outrageously, to take the sorts of reckless risks that would eventually endanger our entire economy. Our nation’s leading political players have sought, sometimes with grand fanfare, to confront this reality. The financial reform package enacted this July, for instance, codifies several long-term goals of executive pay reformers, most notably a “say on pay” provision that hands shareholders the right to take nonbinding advisory votes on executive compensation.

This reform could become a valuable tool for shareholder activists, particularly if such votes are required on an annual basis. However, there is little evidence that “say on pay” has had an impact on overall compensation levels in nations where it has already been in practice.

To bring executive pay back down to mid-20th century levels, we need reforms that cut to the quick, which recognize the dangers banks and major corporations create when they dangle oversized rewards for executive “performance.” Some reforms that would move us in this direction are now pending in Congress.

One of the most promising would eliminate a perverse incentive for excessive pay in our tax code. Under current rules, there are no meaningful limits on how much a firm can deduct for the expense of executive comp. Thus, the more a firm pays its CEO, the more that firm can deduct from its taxes. The rest of us bear the brunt of this loophole, either through increased taxes needed to fill the revenue gaps or through cutbacks in public spending.

The Income Equity Act, introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), would deny all firms tax deductions on any executive pay (including stock options) that runs over 25 times the pay of a firm’s lowest-paid employee or $500,000, whichever is higher.

The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the 2010 health care reform bill set important precedents for this reform by applying $500,000 deductibility caps on pay for bailout recipients and health insurance firms. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has said he would consider extending the tax deductibility cap in TARP to U.S. companies generally.

Another practical proposal would use the power of the public purse to encourage more rational pay levels. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illin.) has introduced the Patriot Corporations Act to extend tax breaks and federal contracting preferences to companies that meet benchmarks for good corporate behavior. Among the benchmarks: not compensating any executive at more than 100 times the income of the company’s lowest-paid worker.

By law, the U.S. government denies contracts to companies that discriminate in their employment practices, by race or gender. This reflects clear public policy that our tax dollars should not subsidize racial or gender inequality. In a similar way, this reform would discourage extreme economic inequality.

Congress should also revisit the proposal that passed the Senate last year which would’ve capped total pay for employees of bailout companies at no more than $400,000, the salary of the U.S. President. Such a restriction could be enacted today for application in the event of future bailouts. Given a clear warning about the consequences for their own paychecks, executives might think twice about taking actions that endanger their future – and ours.

Congress should not shy away from bolder action on executive pay. Lawmakers mandate limits on other types of corporate behavior all the time. They limit how much pollution corporations can spew out. They limit the chemicals companies can sneak into their products. They limit the hours they can force employees to labor. They set these limits because they recognize that irresponsible corporate behaviors threaten our communities.

Excessive executive pay, the Wall Street meltdown has demonstrated ever so vividly, endangers our public well-being as surely as any other pollutants.

Sarah Anderson is a co-author of the new Institute for Policy Studies report, Executive Excess 2010: CEO Pay and the Great Recession.

About The Author: Sarah Anderson is the Institute for Policy Studies Global Economy Project Director. He work  includes research, writing, and networking on issues related to the impact of international trade, finance, and investment policies on inequality, sustainability, and human rights. Sarah is also a well-known expert on executive compensation, as the lead author of 16 annual “Executive Excess” reports that have received extensive media coverage.


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Bringing Overpaid Executives to Heel

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Photo by Martin Gardlin
Photo by Martin Gardlin

A recent Time magazine poll found that 71% of Americans who responded want the government to place limits on the executive compensation at firms that received bailout money. Yet accomplishing this task selectively is impossible to do.

The government did appoint a czar of executive compensation for these corporations, but he approved a $7-million salary/$3.5-million bonus plan for the head of AIG, 80% of which is now owned by taxpayers. Few workers, executives included, would agree to work for less than the going rate. Executives are simply used to earning millions of dollars, and there is little that either the czar or shareholders can do about it unless Congress limits all executive compensation. But the chance of such legislation passing is slim.

Why is limiting executive compensation so difficult? Because executives have a seemingly unassailable argument — market forces — that University of Chicago professor Steven Kaplan defended in an October debate: “Market forces govern CEO compensation. CEOs are paid what they are worth.”

Of course, market forces are cited not only to justify outsized compensation for executives but also poverty wages for workers. Textbooks claim that minimum wage laws and union wages create unemployment. Just what are these market forces, and should we let them determine executive compensation and wages?

When British economists David Ricardo and Adam Smith examined this question 200 years ago, they concluded that what a person earns is determined not by what the person has produced but by that person’s bargaining power. Why? Because production is typically carried out by teams of workers, managers and machines, and the contribution of each member cannot be separated from that of the rest. A driver and a bus, for example, generate $100,000 of income a year. The driver is paid $25,000. Is this because the driver had transported 10 of the passengers without the bus while the bus had transported 30 of the passengers without the driver? The driver’s pay is so small only because the driver is so weak at the bargaining table.

It was Smith who explained that the bargaining power of each party is determined by the laws that the government passes and the way that it enforces them, and that, as a rule, the government sides with employers against employees. He was particularly concerned with anti-unionization laws. Had he witnessed the largesse that boards of directors are permitted to offer executives, and the government’s behavior toward executives in the current crisis, he probably would have added that the government also sides with executives against shareholders and taxpayers.

Despite the logic of Ricardo and Smith’s explanation that it is power, not productivity, that determines what people earn, the notion that people earn what they “deserve” persists. It dates to the Haymarket riot of 1886 in Chicago — in which police and labor protesters clashed and several policemen and demonstrators were killed — and the labor unrest that followed. Concerned about this unrest, John Bates Clark, a Columbia University professor, warned in an 1899 book: “The indictment that hangs over society is that of ‘exploiting labor.’ If this charge were proved, every right-minded man should become a socialist.”

It was thus with a clear political agenda that Clark took it upon himself to prove that the charge of exploitation of workers was dead wrong. Clark’s “proof” was to ignore the fact that production is carried out by teams and that individual contributions cannot be measured. He simply declared that the contribution of each individual worker and each machine could be measured, and that the earnings of either workers and executives or machines are simply the values of these contributions.

In this view, if the government were to raise wages by law, employers would have no choice but to fire workers, because no employer can pay out more than the worker puts in. And if the government were to set limits on executive compensation, the bright and the talented would choose to work less or limit the level of their performance.

Evidence that Clark’s theory is wrong — that production is carried out by teams and that astronomical compensation is not a requirement for good performance — can be found everywhere. In 1941, Wassily Leontief, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, tried to alert economists to the fallacy of Clark’s theory. But Leontief, like Ricardo and Smith, was ignored. And Clark’s tale that earnings are determined by productivity alone is still being taught around the globe.

Corporate executives take a different approach: picking the argument that suits them. When it comes to their workers’ wages, Clark’s theory rules: The wage of each worker is equal to the value of his or her product, and raising wages will cause unemployment. When it comes to the executives’ own compensation, however, they hide behind the idea that an individual’s contribution can’t be measured. So even when the corporations they run lose big and their stocks decline, they still collect millions in pay. Executive compensation is now so large that executives’ work effort no longer has any relation to the level of their compensation.

Adam Smith got it right: The remedy for the rule of power is the rule of law. We need new laws to check the unfair distribution of the fruits of our labor. One such law could set a maximum ratio at any given company between the highest executive compensation and the lowest worker’s wage. Another could set a minimum ratio for the division of income between labor and shareholders. Still another could raise the minimum wage and tie it to the median wage, which would make the minimum wage a consistent living wage.

Overpaid executives take more than their fair share and leave too little for the rest of us, threatening our health — and that of society.

Moshe Adler teaches economics at Columbia University and is the author of “Economics for the Rest of Us: Debunking the Science That Makes Life Dismal.”

*This article originally appeared in The L.A. Times on January 4, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

Image: Economics for the Rest of UsAbout the Author: Moshe Adler teaches economics in the department of urban planning at Columbia University and is the author of the just published book: “Economics for the Rest of Us: Debunking the Science that Makes Life Dismal.”


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Rule of Law Makes a Comeback

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Remember when President Reagan was shot and Al Haig famously burst into the White House and said that he was in charge? Okay, it might not have been as over the top as Howard Dean’s scream, but Haig did become the poster boy for an “Era of Executive Testosterone Overload.” An era that seems to have come to an end. Finally.

Executives-in-charge, no that doesn’t sum it up adequately. Executives as rock stars is more like it. For much of the last decade the line between CEO and celebrity blurred. Some weeks there seemed to be more CEOs on magazine covers than supermodels. And gossip columns were full of tidbits on their lavish lifestyles.

In the future if they try to carbon date the exact moment when the “Era of the Executive” ended, remarkably it didn’t involve a “perp walk,” with a shamed executive being led away in handcuffs.

It ended with Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld. In this Supreme Court case, the justices held that the President of the United States is not beyond the law and must follow certain legal principals and the Geneva Convention—even in wartime.

This case is definitely the icing for the end of the unquestioned executive, but the cake has been rising for a long time. Enron, WorldCom, Tyco—executives learned the hard way—via hard time—that Leona Helmsly was wrong. It’s not just the little people who have to pay taxes. The rules are for all of us.

Consequences. What a concept.

Like it or not, we all need to get ready for more and more restrictions and rules surrounding executive behavior. Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX for short) is just the start. The reason that more regulations and restrictions will be right around the corner? Because people are tired. Tired of guys (yes, mostly guys) who earn millions of dollars in salary, with a boat load of options (backdated of course) and then still manage to justify having employees not covered with health care or on food stamps. Hollywood long ago learned that corporate executives are the perfect movie villain, can politicians be far behind?

Don’t get me wrong, I hate the idea of acres of staff having to be hired to fill out forms for the government. The problem is that SOX is necessary because executives couldn’t police themselves. Just like the Labor Union movement in the first part of last century, once again executives moan about a logical response to their greed run amok. What is always overlooked by executives and the often toothless business press is the wretched excess that preceded Unions, SOX, etc.

Sure there are good guys and gals out there in the executive suites. Warren Buffett immediately leaps to mind. For him to give a gift approximately 5 times the size of Carnegie and Ford is indeed worthy of sainthood. For that alone I promise to take back two-thirds of the Nebraska jokes I’ve made through the years. But it’s not good enough to give back some of the gain, the public is demanding that executives do the right thing from the very start. And I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Even from the Oil Industry.

Enjoy your slice of humble pie, Mr. Corporate Executive. You earned it.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. If you have a question for Bob, contact him via [email protected]


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