Since we seem destined to have a national debate on the topic of government freeloaders in the wake of the Romney fundraising video, it might be worth asking how we think about someone getting hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for sitting on a corporate board for which they did little obvious work. Erskine Bowles, a possible future Treasury Secretary, is of course the poster child for such people.
Mr. Bowles has earned millions of dollars sitting on corporate boards over the last decade. The stock prices of the companies on whose boards he sat have mostly plummeted. Since 2003 the Erskine Bowles stock index has lost more than one third of its value. By comparison, the S&P 500 has risen by more than 50 percent. If Mr. Bowles was trying to serve shareholders, he has not done a very good job.
If people think that this is a private matter, with Mr. Bowles just ripping off shareholders while Governor Romney's freeloaders are ripping off taxpayers, think again. One of the companies on whose board Mr. Bowles sat, General Motors, went bankrupt with substantial costs to the government. Another, Morgan Stanley, would have gone bankrupt without extraordinary assistance from the Fed and Treasury, which continues to this day in the form of implicit too big to fail insurance.
So, if we want to have a debate about people who freeload on the rest of the country, we should have folks like Erskine Bowles at center stage. Of course he is in a much higher income bracket than the folks who get Social Security or unemployment insurance from the government, but that fact should not be allowed to color the debate.