07 April 2011

Cal Thomas's Social Contract

"There is a kind of wealth spreading" Cal Thomas writes, "that ought to meet the political litmus test of conservative Republicans, liberal Democrats and radical Independents." From the past rhetoric of hardcore Republicans like Thomas himself, that may seem hard to believe, but let's read from his latest column.
At a time of high unemployment, too many layoffs and too few new jobs in the private sector...it is disheartening to see so many CEOs having recovered enough from their personal recession to pay themselves salaries and benefits that would have shamed the super-rich in America's Gilded Age.
There's a thin line separating reaction from populism and Thomas occasionally crosses it. While he's quick to remind readers that "unlike my liberal friends, I don't obsess about how much money other people make," he adds that "the moral issue in executive pay is whether management deserves these high salaries while employees are laid off, or denied pay increases." He goes on: "If I were a CEO being paid such astronomical amounts and people were being laid off, or struggling in a recession, at least in part due to the lack of pay increases, I would feel morally obligated to take less money. "One doesn't have to be a liberal who believes in income redistribution to see the unfairness in disproportionate pay," Thomas emphasizes. Unfortunately, Republicans and conservatives have done the most to create the impression that Thomas tries to dispel. He'd like to think that CEOs could change the political landscape by "sharing the wealth" in the way Thomas suggests. Tellingly, he suggests, albeit with an exclamatory joke, that a more positive public perception of the "super rich" could result in more votes for the Republican party. But a look at the comments on his column at a conservative website might demoralize Thomas. One writer chides the columnist for his ignorance of the CEO's essential contribution to wealth creation:
A CEO's decisions and business acumen can save a company tens of millions of dollars above and beyond the salary the CEO is paid. That's tens of millions of dollars that can then go in part to the company's (remaining) employees. Note that no mention is made concerning the employees getting laid off -- how much were they contributing to the company's bottom line, how automation may have contributed to their layoffs, etc. All the focus is on whether the CEO is worth the money (without any actual attempt to calculate whether that's so) as opposed to whether the employees would be worth the money.
Another correspondent who describes himself as "a working joe making less than 40k per year" chimes in: " If a CEO cuts a few hundred million dollars of dead weight, they should get a bonus. That CEO may have saved all the rest of the remaining jobs in the company, a well as the company itself from going away for good." Meanwhile, someone who didn't read the column carefully tells Thomas to "quit worrying about what someone else is getting paid," and questions whether the columnist deserves the "millions" he supposedly earns from national syndication. This writer concludes, "Either you believe in freedom or you don't." In the context of Thomas's column, this means, "Either you believe in boundless inequality, or you don't believe in freedom." Thomas himself writes: "Making money is a noble American objective, making a living is a nobler one. Corporations ought to have enough decency and compassion to make sure no worker is let go solely to increase the bottom line or pad the boss's pockets with more money than he (or she) can ever hope to spend in a lifetime." While this is a moral issue for the columnist, he doesn't regard it as a political issue. While he mildly chides the President for saying that CEOs don't need all the money they make -- that is, exactly what Thomas himself wrote -- he suggests that Obama would be better off "shaming those companies that lay off workers while paying their top management such exorbitant salaries and benefits." Going further, he urges stockholders of the most offensive companies to "demand that no competent worker should be laid off if a CEO earns above a certain amount of money." Thomas argues that stockholders in particular have "a moral responsibility" on such issues that transcends their usual bottom-line calculations. While Thomas frames the issue in "moral" terms throughout the column, the morality involved is apparently not so compelling that it should be made compulsory on CEOs. For him, this is a matter of "should" or "ought" rather than "must." It's also clear from his article that he considers today's conditions exceptional. He recognizes need on the part of workers right now, and he considers CEOs morally answerable to that need. But disproportionate pay is, arguably, not just an offense against need in a time of crisis, but an offense against right at any time. Thomas deserves credit for going further than most of his peers in asserting corporate responsibility, but I would have liked to see him question the morality of disproportionate pay a little more extensively. As a conservative, he presumably believes that moral principles are timeless and unchanging. Isn't it possible, then, that the sort of disproportionate pay he deplores now is always immoral? He does write that "Whether a person is 'worth' their pay is a subjective matter and open to debate." So let the debate continue.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Those motivated by greed have no sense of moral responsibility.