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Thursday, August 25, 2011

CEO Pay: American and European Values

To what extent do inequalities in wealth accrue based on structural elements, such as tax deductions that only wealthy people can use, as distinct from factors pertaining to individuals, such as talent, sacrifice, and effort? The two clusters can build on each other, as people who have become rich primarily by exercising a talent and working hard use some of their accrued power to “reform” the system to their advantage at the expense of the poor and middle class. Such structural reforms in turn can make it easier for wealthy people to become even richer. In the context of a society in progress, structural and idiosyncratic factors doubtlessly interact—the trend being of an increasing chasm between the rich and poor. 
For example, as the graph above indicates, CEO compensation in the U.S. increased at a higher percentage rate than did corporate profits and factory worker pay every year from 1990 to 2005. In 2010, CEO compensation increased 27% while workers saw their compensation increase just 2.1 percent. Meanwhile, the poverty rate increased from 12% to 14%. CEOs in the E.U. were making comparably less. Foreign Policy in Focus reports that in 2006, for example, “the 20 highest-paid European managers made an average of $12.5 million, only one third as much as the 20 highest-earning U.S. executives. The Europeans earned less, despite leading larger firms.” I suspect that societal values have a lot to do with the difference, though changes in the make-up of American executive compensation should not be ignored.

Specifically, the ratio of pay between an American CEO and factory worker has been increasing in part to the growing proportion of executive compensation in the form of stock options. However, it is also true that Americans are relatively accepting of very high incomes (and inequality). A European is more likely to say, Enough is enough once a CEO has made far more than he or she could ever use. Politically, this is reflected in the fact that the Green Party and the Party of the Left are more powerful (and represented) in Europe than in America. Although the American two-party system acts to cut off the “extremes,” I suspect that the proportion of Americans who would agree with a European far-left party is less than in the E.U.

According to Foreign Policy in Focus, “In the United States, only 32 percent of the public [in 2007 supported] an outright pay cap on executive earnings. But average Americans [appeared] to be every bit as outraged over CEO pay excess as average Europeans. Indeed, 77 percent of Americans [said that] corporate executives "earn too much.” This disconnect, which I submit does not exist in Europe, reflects the American value on economic freedom and the association of freedom with putting up with someone else’s objectionable views or conduct.

In Europe, during and after the recession of 2008, “the idea of raising taxes on high-income earners” gained currency. New E.U. and state taxes were proposed, including a tax on financial transactions (E.U.) and a one-time levy on high-income individuals. In the state of Britain, the tax rate on the highest segment was increased from 40% to 50%, and in the state of Italy the government was considering in 2011 an additional 5% tax on annual incomes above 90,000 euros and a 10% on incomes over 150,000 euros. Considering the increasing fiscal demands being put on the E.U. Government and the pressing debt situations in many states, the recessionary risk of increasing tax on the rich may well be worthwhile. Indeed, Liliane Bettencourt and fifteen other billionaires made an open plea for a special tax on the European rich. Recognizing that they had benefitted financially from the European “structure,” they wanted to help preserve it.

As valuable as closing budget-gaps by revenue and spending reforms at the state and E.U. levels is, the matter of addressing a cycle of increasing economic inequality remains unanswered. If a given societal structure acts as a multiplier effect on a given inequality—exacerbating it, in effect—then something more than a new tax may be needed. In other words, any bias in the system that increases the inequality can be neutralized by the addition of a countervailing structure. For example, placing a strict limit, such as $1 million, on what an individual can inherit—with the rest going back to society via the state—would act to counter the “snowball effect” of “old wealth.” At least as of 2011, a person can live comfortably on $1 million; the surplus, being essentially surfeit with respect to what  person is apt to consume, would be better used as a corrective of the tendency of wealth to further accumulate among the rich. In other words, just as banks with assets over $1 trillion are too big to fail, a billionaire getting richer may not be worth the “cost” to society in terms of the increased inequality—to say nothing of the probable compromise to a republic form of government (which can often be too easily bought).

In short, income and even accumulated wealth can reasonably be considered as applying generally to one’s life (and those of one’s kids and grandchildren) and more particularly to being used (i.e., spent). If one’s wealth vastly exceeds what can be spent on things one can consume, this might be an indication that the concentration has gotten out of hand, at the expense of society itself. In other words, if you have a bank account with a balance of $15 billion, do you really need $5 billion more?  Will you ever use it? There is an opportunity cost—part of which being contributing back to society and reducing the economic inequality. Even so, this way of thinking reflects a value on solidarity that is much more European than American, at least in terms of being valued. In other words, the typical American would be more likely to object to any limitation on economic freedom, even if the playing field is tilted in the direction of the wealthy being able to take disproportionate advantage of that freedom, irrespective of whether the additional wealth is usable.  


David Gauthier-Villars, “Wealthy French Push for Extra Tax,” Wall Street Journal, August 24, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111904279004576526712217102264.html

Matt Krantz and Barbara Hansen, “CEO Pay Sours While Workers’ Pay Stalls,” USA Today, April 4, 2011. http://www.usatoday.com/money/companies/management/story/CEO-pay-2010/45634384/1

Sarah Anderson, “Executive Pay Debate Raging in Europe and the United States,” Foreign Policy in Focus, August 28, 2007. http://www.fpif.org/articles/executive_pay_debate_raging_in_europe_and_the_united_states