All the talk of tax reform, to get a more progressive tax code, obscures the fact that income distribution on a pre-tax basis is already so unequal that no amount of taxation could possibly bring that into line. It’s true that the near-flat tax structure invites such pre-tax distribution, but we do very little in this country to stop the distribution itself. Dean Baker has several suggestions for curtailing pre-tax inequality. And clearly this is needed when you look at the rising salaries of our nation’s CEOs.
Despite a lot of noise from shareholders and a few victories at big names like Citigroup and Hewlett-Packard, executive pay just keeps climbing.
Yes, some corporate boards seem to be listening to shareholders, particularly on contentious issues like the seven-figure cash bonuses that helped define hyperwealth during the boom. Since the bust, corporate America on the whole has moved to tie executive pay more closely to long-term performance by skewing executive paychecks more toward restricted stock, which can’t be sold for years.
But rewards at the top are still rich — and getting richer. Now that 2011 proxy statements have been filed, the extent of executive pay last year has finally become clear. Median pay of the nation’s 200 top-paid C.E.O.’s was $14.5 million, according to a study conducted for The New York Times by Equilar, a compensation data firm based in Redwood City, Calif. The median pay raise among those C.E.O.’s was 5 percent. (The full list is available here.)
That 5 percent raise is smaller than last year’s. But it comes at a time of stubbornly high unemployment and declining wealth for many ordinary Americans. Even corporate pay experts say that this is hardly the kind of change that will quell anger over the nation’s have-a-lots by the have-lesses, particularly in an election year.
Judged by the standard of corporate profits, CEOs have had a pretty good year, and perhaps deserve all this income. Judged by the standard of a healthy economy, CEOs have failed to invest in people for four years running, and have not come up with anything to generate higher demand. Corporate boards look at the former, and never the big picture of the latter.
Pay packages now include a host of stock options, getting around some checks on oversized salaries (companies lose tax exemptions for certain excessive salary-based compensation packages). The stock options are taxed at the minute capital gains rate. This is how we get multi-millionaires with lower tax rates than their secretaries.
But though it does intersect with the tax code, pre-tax distribution is something to consider. Making sure workers and not just CEOs share in the gains of corporate treasuries is an imperative. Corporate governance has something to do with that, and this past year’s results show that “say on pay” is not enough.