Dean Baker
Truthout, November 26, 2018

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There is an argument that carries considerable currency on the right about the need to force the poor to do things that are actually good for them. This comes up frequently in the context of work requirements for people receiving benefits like Medicaid or food stamps (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

The claim is that people will be made better off by working, since that will give them a foot into the labor market. They can eventually move up and earn enough so they no longer need these benefits. A major flaw in this argument is that the vast majority of non-disabled people who receive these benefits are already working.

While the idea of forcing people to help themselves doesn’t make much sense for these anti-poverty programs, they could make considerable sense for the governance of major US corporations. The problem is that shareholders seem to be unable to avoid paying out tens of millions of dollars to CEOs, even when these CEOs are not especially competent.

The problem is the structure of corporate governance. The people who most immediately determine the CEO’s pay are the corporation’s board of directors. These directors have incredibly cushy jobs. They typically get paid several hundred thousand dollars a year for perhaps 150 hours of work.

Members of corporate boards largely owe their jobs to the CEOs and top management. They almost never get booted out by shareholders; the reelection rate for board members running with board support is over 99 percent.

In this context, board members have no incentive to ask questions like, “Could we get someone as good as our CEO for half the pay?” There is basically no downward pressure on CEO pay and every reason to boost pay. After all, if you were sitting on some huge pot of other people’s money, wouldn’t you want to pay your friends well?

Of course, the CEO pay comes at the expense of returns to shareholders, and these have not been very good in recent years in spite of the best efforts of Trump and the Republicans to help them with tax cuts and pro-business regulation. In the last two decades, stock returns have averaged less than 4.7 percent annually above the rate of inflation. By contrast, in the long Golden Age from 1947 to 1973, real stock returns averaged 8.2 percent.

With the bulk of stock being held by the richest people in the country, there is no reason to shed tears for stockholders, but the fact is they are being ripped off by CEOs and other top management. Given the choice, we should prefer the money ends up in the hands of shareholders rather than CEOs. After all, people below the top 1 percent do own stock in their 401(k)s, as do public and private pension funds. By contrast, every dollar in additional CEO pay is going to someone in the top 0.001 percent of the income distribution.

More important than the money going to the CEOs is the impact that their outlandish pay has on pay structures in the economy more generally. When the CEO is pocketing $20 to $30 million a year, other top executives are likely earning close to $10 million and even the third-tier managers might be topping $1 million.

The pay structure in corporate America also affects the pay scales elsewhere. It is common for the top executives at major universities and charities to be getting well over $1 million a year.

Think of how different the world would look if we went back to the 1960s and 1970s when CEOs earned 20 to 30 times as much as an ordinary worker. If a successful CEO of a large company was pocketing $2-3 million a year, instead of $20 to $30 million, the ripple effect on the pay of others near the top would leave much more money for everyone else. This gives us very good reason to worry about excessive CEO pay.

If the structure of corporate governance makes it too difficult for shareholders to collectively act to limit CEO pay, threatening them with a return to the pre-Trump 35 percent tax rate might give them enough incentive to get the job done. It has always been in the interests of shareholders to pay their CEOs as little as possible, just as they want to pay as little as possible to their other employees.

If shareholders pay a CEO $20 million more than needed to get someone to run the company, it has the same impact on the bottom line as paying $2,000 extra to 10,000 workers. No company deliberately overpays their frontline workers.

So, we can help corporate America get a grip on CEO pay. They can limit the CEO’s pay to 50 times that of a typical worker or they go back to paying the pre-Trump 35 percent tax rate. If they respond to the incentive and rein in CEO pay, then we start to get the country’s pay structure back in line. If this incentive can’t motivate shareholders to do what is in their own interest, then we get lots of tax revenue to finance a big infrastructure package or other good things.