During the 2008 presidential campaign when candidate Barack Obama told "Joe the Plumber" that he wanted to "spread the wealth around," it sounded to a lot of conservatives like socialism: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need," in the words of Karl Marx.
There is a kind of wealth spreading, however, that ought to meet the political litmus test of conservative Republicans, liberal Democrats and radical Independents. At a time of high unemployment, too many layoffs and too few new jobs in the private sector (230,000 jobs were created last month, according to the Labor Department, but unemployment continues to officially hover at just under 9 percent and Gallup calculates it, without seasonal adjustment, at 10.0 percent), it is disheartening to see so many CEOs having recovered enough from their personal recession to pay themselves salaries and benefits that would have shamed the super-rich in America's Gilded Age.
USA Today reported last week in a story on CEO compensation that "three-quarters of CEOs got raises - and, in many cases, the increases were substantial." Employee pay, on the other hand, effectively stalled. Median CEO pay, reported the newspaper, increased 27 percent last year, meaning the average CEO received $9 million in 2010. Even in a struggling economy, I wager most people could get by on $9 million a year. In a strange twist, General Electric, whose chairman Jeffrey Immelt now advises President Obama on job creation, paid no taxes last year, despite earning $14 billion. But that's another column.
The moral issue in executive pay is whether management deserves these high salaries while employees are laid off, or denied pay increases.
Last April the Baltimore Sun reported that Stanley-Black and Decker in Towson, Md., announced plans to lay off 4,000 of its 38,000 employees. Yet, according to USA Today, Stanley-Black & Decker CEO John Lundgren made more than $32 million in 2010, up 253.1 percent from the previous year.
U.S. Bancorp Chairman Richard Davis was paid $16.1 million in 2010, a 143 percent compensation boost. In January, U.S. Bancorp announced that 64 workers in its Milwaukee office would be cut.
If I were a CEO being paid such astronomical amounts and people were being laid off, or struggling in a recession, at least in part due to the lack of pay increases, I would feel morally obligated to take less money.
One doesn't have to be a liberal who believes in income redistribution to see the unfairness in disproportionate pay. Think of the kudos and favorable press coverage that would come to a corporate chief who shared his wealth, rather than lay off employees. It could change not only the media coverage of big business, but also the way the public perceives the super rich.
Five CEOs saw a slight decline in compensation, according to the USA Today/GovernanceMetrics international data, but they still earned more than most lottery winners receive.
President Obama has spoken of some of these CEOs as not "needing" the money they get. Again, that is a subjective judgment. What he should be doing is shaming those companies that lay off workers while paying their top management such exorbitant salaries and benefits. Stockholders ought to demand that no competent worker should be laid off if a CEO earns above a certain amount of money. Stockholders also have a moral responsibility beyond the dividends they receive.
Making money is a noble American objective, making a living is a nobler one. Corporations ought to have enough decency and compassion to make sure no worker is let go solely to increase the bottom line or pad the boss's pockets with more money than he (or she) can ever hope to spend in a lifetime.
Contact Thomas, a syndicated columnist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.