Career Calling

December 15, 2013

Doing Whatever It Takes (to Defend CEO Pay)

Normally on Sundays I write about issues outside of the world of careers and work.  But today I read a letter in the Chicago Sun-Times that made my blood boil.  John Babush of Big Rock, Illinois defended the disparity in pay between CEOs and front line workers, citing the example that McDonald’s CEO makes in an hour what it takes a minimum wage worker three and a half months to make.

Babush’s first point is stunning – stunningly absurd: “How many hours do you think he or she [a minimum wage worker] would last in that job [CEO]?”  No one who supports a living wage suggests that front line workers should be paid what their mangers are making much less what a CEO of a Fortune 50 company should be compensated.  The question is one of degree.  In the 1970s, CEOs in the U.S. earned 30-50:1 to the average employee salary.  Now that ratio is often 250-300:1.  Mr. Babush says we are asking the wrong question.  He needs to go back to school for a little training in logic.

Worse still, Babush writes: “Anybody working a minimum wage job, should they want more income, ought to do whatever necessary to increase their value to their employer.  If that doesn’t work, do whatever is necessary to makes oneself a potentially valuable asset to another employer.  Keep it up and one day that minimum-wage worker might end up a CEO.”  Is it possible to follow this map to success?  Sure – for the very lucky few.  Most successful people in the U.S. today had parents who were also successful.  Fewer and fewer children born into poverty have options to rise from the class into which they were born.

“Do whatever is necessary”?  Nice advice.  It fits well in the myth of American Exceptionalism which conservatives like to push as a rationalization for the wealth distribution they claim to hate.  Since the 1980s, middle class and working class people have seen their earnings fall, especially for those without a college degree.  In the same period, the most wealth Americans have seen their incomes go up and up.  Babush’s model of working hard sounds great, but is it possible in an economy where most of the new jobs pay $15 or less?  Is it possible in a culture where greed drives the richest Americans to find new ways to avoid paying taxes that fund what we share in common as a society?  Is it possible in a country where politicians of both parties, following neoliberal economic policies, ignore the needs of the middle class, working class, and the poor.

John Babush’s ideas have the strength of simplicity: Work hard and you will succeed.  Push that balloon just a little bit, and it bursts.  At first, I didn’t know why the Sun-Times published this letters, but the more I think about it, I’m glad it did.  This letter gives us a chance to think about so many hard working people – now two generations since Ronald Reagan was president – have worked so hard and “done whatever it takes” to go nowhere or just tread water.  We need to take a hard look at the American Dream.  Is there still “equal opportunity”?

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