Literature is rife with quotes and vignettes illustrating the gulf between the rich and everyone else. And those quips generally take class differences as a given.
Far more interesting and corrosive are the anecdotes that seek to get the public to accept status differences when the basis for them is shaky indeed.
One of my favorite examples comes in Animal Farm, when the original seventh commandment, “All animals are equal” becomes “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Because hardly any of the animals (except the pigs, the leadership group) can read, most do not recognize that they have been had.
Consider the way in which views that are contrary to most wage earners’ interests have been internalized (or at least are promulgated in the media). One meme I have noticed surfacing in the debate over the automaker bailout is that UAW employees are paid more than average workers.
Now in and of itself, that statement is meaningless. You need to have an idea of worker productivity to see whether that it out of whack (and for some odd reason, the bloated and highly paid management cohort almost never gets mentioned in these discussions, nor do the massive state level subsidies to the foreign transplants). Perhaps I missed it, but I do not recall seeing any longitudinal work on labor costs (that sort of analysis would help bring some badly needed facts to the table).
But why is framing the discussion around averages alone dangerous? Let’s say we collectively want to bring car worker pay down to some sort of average. That has the effect of lowering the average. You will have groups that were formerly at the average that are now above it. And if you accept the implicit logic “above average pay is bad” (fill in the blank as to why), you have a race to the bottom due to pressure on the relatively better paid to take less which puts pressure on aggregate pay.
I imagine now that some of you are snorting that the automakers are an isolated example and I am generalizing beyond a single (albeit very large example). Well, this sort of logic is at work, with a vengeance, but in reverse among CEOs. And it certainly has proven remarkably effective.
While most commentators on CEO pay correctly focus on the role of options-based rewards in goosing pay from generous to stratospheric, the role of compensation consultants seldom gets the attention it merits.
One practice that I have seen get perilous little mention is where the pay targets are set. Based on their belief of what constitutes good modern practice (influenced in no small degree by the pay consultants) most boards set general target ranges for how they would like the CEO to be paid relative to peers. The comp consultant then helps define and survey the peer group’s pay ranges, setting a benchmark for how the CEO in question is to be paid.
That all sounds fine, right? Well, except just as all the children at Lake Woebegone are above average, no board likes setting a target below peer group norms. I have heard of numerous examples of targets being set somewhere in the top half (66th percentile, top quarter, top 20%), hardly any at the mean, and none I know of below average (although GE’s Jeff Immelt set his pay at a remarkably modest level, saying it was bad for morale and inappropriate for the CEO to be paid vastly more than other C-level executives). If readers know of any examples of companies (other than those with substantially owned by insiders) where the target for CEO pay is below the median of comparable companies, please let me know.
So with this mechanism in place, any CEO who has fallen below median pay who is targeted to be in a higher group will have his pay ratcheted up, independent of performance, merely to keep up with his peers, This increase raises the average and creates new laggards. The comp consultants have institutionalized a leapfrogging process that keeps them busy surveying competitor reward levels and keeps top-level pay rising relentlessly.
And there seems to be a creep in cultural values that accepts, nay endorses, the opposite process at work further down the food chain.