Saturday, June 18, 2011

Good Article on Income Inequality in America

Here are the first few paragraphs from a very good article in the Washington Post:
With executive pay, rich pull away from rest of America

It was the 1970s, and the chief executive of a leading U.S. dairy company, Kenneth J. Douglas, lived the good life. He earned the equivalent of about $1 million today. He and his family moved from a three-bedroom home to a four-bedroom home, about a half-mile away, in River Forest, Ill., an upscale Chicago suburb. He joined a country club. The company gave him a Cadillac. The money was good enough, in fact, that he sometimes turned down raises. He said making too much was bad for morale.

Forty years later, the trappings at the top of Dean Foods, as at most U.S. big companies, are more lavish. The current chief executive, Gregg L. Engles, averages 10 times as much in compensation as Douglas did, or about $10 million in a typical year. He owns a $6 million home in an elite suburb of Dallas and 64 acres near Vail, Colo., an area he frequently visits. He belongs to as many as four golf clubs at a time — two in Texas and two in Colorado. While Douglas’s office sat on the second floor of a milk distribution center, Engles’s stylish new headquarters occupies the top nine floors of a 41-story Dallas office tower. When Engles leaves town, he takes the company’s $10 million Challenger 604 jet, which is largely dedicated to his needs, both business and personal.

The evolution of executive grandeur — from very comfortable to jet-setting — reflects one of the primary reasons that the gap between those with the highest incomes and everyone else is widening.
Go read the whole article. It will help you understand why the Great Recession will drag on for decades until America gets a president like FDR who is willing to save the capitalists from their own greed.
Other recent research, moreover, indicates that executive compensation at the nation’s largest firms has roughly quadrupled in real terms since the 1970s, even as pay for 90 percent of America has stalled.

This trend held at Dean Foods. Over the period from the ’70s until today, while pay for Dean Foods chief executives was rising 10 times over, wages for the unionized workers actually declined slightly. The hourly wage rate for the people who process, pasteurize and package the milk at the company’s dairies declined by 9 percent in real terms, according to union contract records. It is now about $23 an hour.


Repeated surveys by the National Opinion Research Center since 1987 have found that 60 percent or more of Americans agree or strongly agree with the statement that “differences in income in America are too large.”

The uneasiness arises out of the fear that extremes of wealth can unfairly reduce the economic opportunities and political rights of everyone else, according to sociologists. The wealthy, for example, can afford better private schools for their children or acquire political might by purchasing campaign advertising or making campaign donations. Moreover, as millions struggle to find jobs in the wake of the recession, the notion that the very wealthiest are gaining ground strikes some as unfair.
Why is there no political party in the US talking about this issue? Why are the media headlines concerned about "will or won't Anthony Weiner resign?" and "what is the best approach to the Great Recession: deep budget cuts or more tax cuts or both?"

Why are there no media headlines pointing out that "the rich are getting obscenely rich while the poor are getting destitute". Or discussing the fact that "for thirty years the Republicans have promised that 'just one more' tax cut will finally unleash the full vigor of entrepreneurial energy and unleash that flood of trickle down wealth promised by Reagan". Why is politics a debate about right or really right wing policies? Why is the media caught up in reporting scandal and beauty contests are the "important" news of the day?

Update 2011jun19: Dean Baker in his blog Beat the Press applauds this article but takes issue with some points. I've bolded key bits:
The Post had a major front page article on the growth in inequality in the United States over the last three decades. While it is good to see the Post taking note of this enormously important development, the piece does manage to misrepresent some key points.

First, there has been new research that sheds additional light on the identity of the top earners, but we have long had a pretty good idea of who the big earners were. There are regular reports from Fortune and other sources on the pay of top executives at the major corporations. The growing gap between this pay and the pay of ordinary workers has long been noted in reports by my friends at the Economic Policy Institute and Institute for Policy Research and elsewhere. So telling us that many of the big earners are CEOs at major companies is not exactly news.

Neither is it news that many of the top earners are Wall Street types. There are news articles every year on the bonuses paid out at Goldman, Citigroup and the rest. We already knew that the financial sector accounted for a hugely disproportionate chunk of the top earners.

The other major flaw in this piece is its seeming willingness to accept the explanation that higher pay is explained by the growth of companies. First, this does not appear to have been the case in the 50s and 60s when the economy and many companies grew very rapidly, with no comparable explosion in pay at the top.

Second, the rise in pay for top executives far exceeds the growth of companies. While there has been some increase in concentration over the last three decades, it has not been nearly large enough to explain the rise in pay of top earners. Many of the huge companies of the 60s and 70s, for example General Motors and AT&T have been seriously downsized relative to the size of the economy.

The increased size of companies could at best explain a small portion of the rise in executive pay and would not explain at all the huge gap between the pay for top executives at U.S. companies and the pay for top executives for large foreign corporations like Toyota or Volkswagon. These gaps are likely explained by the corruption of the corporate governance process in the United States where the CEOs get to largely decide the people who determine their pay. Stockholders are likely to exert more control elsewhere and thereby keep pay for top executives more in line with the market.

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