By Douglas K. Smith, author of On Value and Values: Thinking Differently About We In An Age Of Me
We face severe and growing income inequality with negative effects on people and the economy. Yet, no surprise, the ‘can’t do’ right wing continues a scorched earth campaign against the minimum wage. These self-promoting haters actually prefer no wages and indentured servitude – for example using prisoners to replace employees and cheerfully promoting ‘internships’ for the unemployed.
They glory in income inequality and wish it to expand instead of contract. Enough of that. They are destroyers of the American Dream.
But people who seek to shrink income inequality — to insure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all and not just some — must now focus as much on the maximum wage as the minimum wage.
So, be it proposed:
“That any enterprise receiving taxpayer funds shall not compensate that enterprise’s highest paid person in an amount greater than twenty-five times what the lowest compensated person receives.”
First, note that this proposal would not apply to enterprises that do not receive any taxpayer funds.
For those, however, receiving bailouts, deposit insurance, government guarantees, tax breaks, tax credits, other forms of public financing, government contracts of any sort – and so on – the top paid person cannot receive more than twenty-five times the bottom paid person. This ratio, by the way, is what business visionary Peter Drucker recommended as most effective for organization performance as well as society. It also echoes Jim Collins who, in his book Good To Great, found that the most effective top leaders are paid more modestly than unsuccessful ones. And, critically, it is a ratio that is in line with various European and other nations that have dramatically lower income inequality than the United States.
Note, second, that this identifies the top paid person – not the CEO. Even though outrageous CEO pay and its ill effects on severe income inequality is much in the news, CEOs are not always the highest paid person.
Third, the proposal uses a ratio – 25-to-1 – instead of an absolute dollar figure. If a taxpayer funded enterprise wishes to pay the top person, say, $50 million, they can do so: just as long as the lowest paid person receives $2 million. In other words, instead of today’s limitless top wage being supported by taxpayer money – that is, socialism for the rich and only the rich — this proposal is equitable toward all.
Fourth, the choice of compensation is made by the enterprise – not by government officials.
Fifth, this approach to the maximum wage dramatically benefits the economy through some blend of more job-creating investment by the enterprise (through deploying higher retained earnings), and/or more consumer spending, savings and investment because of increased take home pay (and/or shareholder dividends) for the many instead of the few. It would, for example, immediately provide stimulus to restart our heavily consumer-driven economy.
Sixth, this proposal is competitively neutral: all enterprises using taxpayer funds must abide by the same 25-to-1 ratio of top-to-bottom compensation. In most industries, competitors respond to opportunities similarly; that is, if there are government opportunities, all try to take them and, if there are no such arrangements, none do. Nothing changes except the uses to which taxpayer funds get deployed as compensation. The new maximum wage rule levels the playing field for all competitors.
Nor, seventh, would this proposal have any adverse effect on the market for talent. Again, all enterprises are subject to the same rules. Moreover, there’s never been any – zero, zilch, nada – evidence that top pay correlates with sustained enterprise performance. Indeed, quite the reverse. Which, again, is why Drucker, Collins and others all note that talent and performance are not correlated to income inequality-levels of executive pay. The more likely result is the opposite: the maximum wage ratio will put enterprises using taxpayer funds on a better, sounder path to performance than those who don’t use taxpayer funds!! Meaning, of course, that such enterprises will attract the talent they need – not the talent they do not need.
Eighth, this proposal can and should be enacted by all federal, state and local jurisdictions that provide taxpayer funds to enterprise. And, of course, with the appropriate inclusive definitions of ‘compensation’ (salary, wages, bonuses etc) and “person’ to avoid cheating and evasion.
Ninth, enforcement will be inexpensive. Enterprises would be required to submit just two numbers to the appropriate tax authority: the highest and lowest compensation figures. If the ratio is in excess of 25-to-1, the offending enterprise will be given a simple choice: claw back the top earner’s compensation to the appropriate level; or, within, say, 30 to 45 days, pay all of the lowest earners the required amount; or, a combination of the same steps needed to bring the enterprise in line with the maximum wage rule. (If deemed necessary, generous rewards to anonymous whistleblowers could support monitoring and compliance efforts).
Tenth, and finally, remember that we’re talking about OUR MONEY. It’s not the ‘government’s money”. It’s OUR MONEY. And we insist that enterprises wishing to be funded and/or compensated and/or insured and/or tax advantaged with OUR MONEY abide by the maximum wage in order to reduce destructive, economy killing and unhealthy income inequality. When publicly funded companies operate within the 25-to1 maximum wage band, we all benefit.
It is the free choice of free enterprise whether or not to use OUR MONEY. If you are part of an enterprise and wish to pay anyone, including yourself, more than today’s all-too typical extreme, greater than 300 times the lowest wage earner, go ahead.
But do not use OUR MONEY.