The Brandon Sun gave the issue regarding the salary differential between the top 100 CEOs and the average wage earner short shrift in a 20-line article (“Top CEOs Already Closing In On Typical Worker’s Annual Salary”) on Jan. 2. The Sun made up for it with the cartoon (Jan. 6), which offers an expressive visual of the issue. Not just in money terms, but more significantly in terms of what that money can buy: clothes, food, high-end restaurants and power. And, no one should miss the little, but significant, jab at the ideology of “free enterprise” and its seeming necessary attribute — greed.
The issue seems to motivate nothing but a big yawn from most of us. Maybe it is an old story. Maybe there is nothing that one can do about it. Maybe the differential is indicative of our society and our economy as it should be and as we want it to be. Maybe it is because we all aspire to be CEOs. Or is it because we don’t appreciate the meaning of the differential?
Our society seems to identify money as the foremost indicator of success. The more you have the more successful you are in every aspect, including social, political, religious, economic, cultural and racial standing. However, this is an arbitrary and situational standard. But it does have some legitimacy since it is the easiest way of defining, measuring and displaying success. It is hard to measure success in terms of skills, health, knowledge, wisdom and creativity in non-monetary terms. Even the “founders” of our major religions would be deemed unsuccessful in today’s world. (Which may explain why their “representatives” need to accumulate and display wealth.)
Using money as a standard for measuring success leads to interesting notions, which we honour or ignore or find much too difficult to contemplate. Accumulation is greed in motion. We may all be familiar with Kevin O’Leary’s statement that “greed is good,” recommending greed as an imperative for success. The obverse would mean that the “not so wealthy,” including the poor, are not sufficiently greedy, which translates into policies and programs to instil greed into the hearts and minds of Canadians. Anyone who has played Monopoly knows where this kind of thinking and action leads. One king and the others are bankrupt.
One of the notions we willingly ignore is related to personal worth. If we use money to measure success, then money is the measure of a person’s worth. Assuming this has any meaning, each of the top 100 CEOs are worth 171 times the average wage earner. The CEO is infinitesimally worth more than the person who relies on government programs (including CPP, OAS, GIS) or on charity. A worth that translates into the ideas, thoughts, ideologies, wishes, wants of a CEO being worth more than any other Canadian. And by virtue of the CEO’s worth, the CEO should be listened to, emulated and even adored. Using money as the measure of personal worth, then we know who is at the bottom of the heap and where the ones who read the Brandon Sun fit into the hierarchy. And we, without second thought, accept this hierarchy as legitimate.
Even if we try to rationalize this notion regarding personal worth, we come face-to-face with the need to define the worth of a person’s attributes (outside of being a human being) and skills. Besides greed, there are many attributes that can be considered to define a person’s worth. Education, IQ, experience, skills, height, weight, lineage, family placement and responsibility, beauty, colour and gender, whether we admit it or not, come to mind and are used. At some time or other, including the present, these attributes have been used to assign worth.
The most common attribute that is rationalized and appears to have some rationale to it is the contribution that a person makes to an organization. Of course the person at the top makes the greatest contribution to the organization. Right? Arguably, there is no person within the organization who contributes 171 times less than another. On the other hand, there is a person who has the power to be infinitely more harmful to the organization — which might be a good rationale for not paying him — usually a him. Each worker has a role, each worker makes a contribution. Using pure logic, one would be hard-pressed to determine who contributes the most and in what proportion to the contribution of others. “For the sake of a horse-shoe nail the war was lost” is an appropriate analogy to demonstrate this point.
The number of persons with a particular set of skills, education, etc., is also a common rationalization in determining a person’s worth. There are so many truck drivers so they must be worth less. Too many waitresses/waiters, pay them minimum wages. Fewer mechanics, electricians, carpenters, so we will pay them more than truck drivers but not as much as CEOs. New immigrants, youth, the underemployed, the poor are all too familiar with this rationale, but find it hard to explain that there is no employment to practise their skills and that the employment they do find does not compensate them for their skills.
And then there is the mother of all arguments. The market, alias “free enterprise,” made me do it, or more commonly phrased as “let the market decide.” The only rationale behind this argument is that it is so easy to “understand” and allows the invisible hand of the market to make the decisions on a person’s worth. The only problem is that the invisible hand belongs to an invisible person who is blind. Which allows for and even promotes the opportunity for individuals to manipulate the market, while hiding behind the “all-knowing,” the “all-powerful” market. All the while making each one of us comfortable knowing that it is not personal. And something the market has never been able to do is to consider and treat workers as human beings — workers are simply a resource.
However, let each of us take heart. Picture this. You and eight of your friends are enjoying a friendly drink at your favourite bar. Each of you earn $50,000 per year, which means the average earnings of your group are $50,000. In walks one of the top 100 CEOs, who earns $8 million per year, and joins your group. Now the average earnings of your group are $845,000 per year. You are warned not to go out and spend your new-found wealth. It is possible that your CEO walks out replaced by a person with zero income.
Rosemarie and Chester Letkeman
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition January 10, 2014