Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Populism's 15 Minutes of Fame is Almost Up

These executives are captains of industry, highly educated, frequently well-spoken, and disproportionately male and upper class. Let's face it society is and has always been somewhat enamored with these guys, even though at times it can be a testy relationship.
By John S. Wilson

I'm sure you've noticed the rampant populism oozing out of your favorite news anchor or your not-so-favorite politician; they're mad at this and they're mad at that. I have thought to tell these folks what my father used to tell me: there's no point in getting mad unless you plan on doing something about it. And they don't.

The latest version of populism du jour is specifically bonuses offered at bailed out financial companies (e.g., AIG) and in general executive compensation and pay caps. In a New Republic piece Kennedy School of Government Professor Pepper Culpepper, a corporate governance expert, had a peculiar suggestion on how to curb excessive pay. He states:

"Here's a better idea: the Financial Services Committee could annually identify the top two executives whose compensation is most out of line with company performance. In recognition of their monstrous pay and of Congressman Frank's past legislative efforts, these could be called the Frankenpay awards. Winners of the awards would be required to testify before the committee about the details of their pay packages. Boards of directors will think twice before approving a pay package likely to land a CEO in front of Congress, and they would not be able to avoid the cap on direct pay by choosing alternative payments, such as stock options, because the awards would target the whole compensation package."

3 reasons come to mind as to why this wouldn't work. (1) How would Congress define an executive whose compensation "is most out of line with company performance?" Would it be based on contributions said executive made to his division or the company as a whole? And based on what time table? Derivatives traders at AIG (the guys who are most blamed for the company's losses) did a great job in 2007. Only problem is those credut default swap contracts they traded didn't do so well in 2008; and (2) Even if you could establish a consensus on how executives would be evaluated, wouldn't the extensive lobbying done by high profile Fortune 500 companies somewhat shield them from the embarrasment Professor Pepper envisages? Most likely. It's not to say legislators can be bought, but lobbying might as well be an unwritten lease (Madoff's political donations total $200,000 over 18 years and the SEC received numerous tips they didn't act upon, think it bought him a little less scrutiny?); and (3) The little guy may not be enamored with what executives take home, but I think he secretly thinks they deserve it. I'm serious, stay with me here.

Pepper says how "[b]etween 1996 and 2000, CEO pay jumped from 100 to almost 300 times that of the average American worker, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Yet press coverage of the issue in three major national newspapers increased only slightly" and I think I know why. These executives are captains of industry, highly educated, frequently well-spoken, and disproportionately male and upper class. Let's face it society is and has always been somewhat enamored with these guys, even though at times it can be a testy relationship. We're told that without them capitalism wouldn't be the same; charities would become nonexistent without their massive donations (legislators have used such arguments in opposition to Obama's charitable deduction change, though it's estimated to affect giving by 1.3%); they create many jobs through their genius and business acumen; and the middle class and, for that matter, the nation owes its gratitude to these soldiers of fortune. Sure, every now and then we put on our populist masks and scare unsuspecting C-suite executives with our rants and threats - but our volume is low, threats empty, and time frequently runs too short. We've got a few minutes of this left then everything will go back to normal.

~John attends Virginia Commonwealth University with a triple major in economics, sociology, and women's studies. He blogs at Policy Diary, contributes to Hip-Hop, and serves as a regular contributor to PolicyNet, where he writes about domestic and foreign affairs. He recently served as a legislative fellow in the office of the Honorable David Englin (D) of the Virginia House of Delegates.


rmrd said...

I agree with your premise. The outrage is more about incompetence than income. There were people who created tangible products (iPods, etc) and people who created a theoretical water powered perpetual motion engine (derivatives).

Steve Jobs' income is not an issue. The AIG "derivative geniuses" being paid onuses for failure is an issue.

If market increases lead to job increases, the fervor will die down

SBM said...

OK but the market should determine what people get paid not a politician in Washington. We are a service economy. Ipods are not made in the US they are designed in "California" The real issue at hand is incompetence by this administration plain and simple.

There is no change,

When confronted by the ineptitude of the Democrats they pulled a "Chenney",

When confronted by the truth President Obama expressed outrage ohhhhh. How about you fire the tax cheating retard that can't handle the job or fill his staff positions

I guess we can drag out some campaign slogans since the campaign is not over. How embarrassing is it that a Sitting President goes on a TV show during "one of the worst crisis in American history"

I guess GWB not flipping out in front of small children on 9/11 was bad (a la Moore) but prancing around the circuit being a fashion diva is exactly what we need. How about you fill the treasury jobs Mr President instead of picking brackets for the NCAA. Whomever you delegated that job to is asleep.

"on the Job training" I just hope the learning curve for being president is not as steep as I believe it is. I am really getting scared and if the last 60 days is any indication of the next 4 years oh my GOD please help us