CEO pay news is losing its luster

Americans seem to shrug at record sums

By The Mercury

Maybe it’s too soon to tell, but there hasn’t been much of a public reaction to news that median pay for America’s CEOs in 2013 exceeded $10 million. Even if half of America’s corporate chiefs made less than the median of $10.5 million, you’d think the fact that half of them made more than that would turn some heads.

If that factoid weren’t enough of an attention-getter, then other items might be, such as that in the four years since dipping in the Great Recession, CEO compensation has increased more than 50 percent. Or that last year’s compensation increase — which includes salary, bonuses, gains from vested shares and stock options, perks and other awards — came to 13 percent. Or that CEO pay now exceeds 250 times the average salary of America’s 105 million full-time workers, which rose by an average of just 1.4 percent last year.

Not so long ago the sort of news that came out this week sparked outrage and calls for reform. Had the Occupy Wall Street movement been interested in more than making noise, it might have done some good.

Our sense is that most Americans don’t begrudge wealthy Americans their wealth. It isn’t the $10 million — or that $100 million — that a corporate big wig makes that sticks in Americans’ craw. After all, most people would like to make that kind of money.

What they find irksome, even outrageous, are instances in which a CEO’s compensation doesn’t reflect the quality or quantity of goods that his company employees manufacture. Instead, it reflects his ability to cut costs and squeeze profits — even when doing so means laying off employees who’ve helped make the company profitable to make the bottom line look rosier than it really is.

CEOs, at least of publicly traded companies, aren’t required to keep their workers happy, though doing so would seem prudent. Rather, CEOs are expected to keep their company’s shareholders happy. Those CEOs whose actions boost their companies’ stock prices are of almost immeasurable value to their boards of directors, even if short-term prosperity compromises the company’s long-term profitability,

Perhaps there will be no outrage at the latest news of CEO compensation. Perhaps workers think CEOs are entitled to get whatever they can. Maybe workers who once were in the middle class or who aspired to be part of it before falling farther behind with each passing year figure there’s nothing they can do and have come to consider the American dream a fantasy.

That would be a tragedy.

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