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Sun., Feb. 15, 2009

Smart Bombs: Waging war on wages

Snipers are picking off wages and benefits in this country, and their ammunition is comparative analyses. Some of this is friendly fire, and the recession has hastened the number of casualties. In any comparison between two compensation packages, the lower number is the correct one. That is a given. Why? Don’t ask. Just train your sights on the larger number and squeeze the trigger.

For instance, if government employees have a health care plan that is better than that of private workers, it’s time to paint the bull’s-eye on the civil servants. It’s: “Why should they have a better plan than taxpayers?” It’s not: “How did our package sink so low?”

This race to the bottom, however, has its limits. When it comes to executive compensation, the higher number is the correct one. You never hear cost-cutting executives say, “If we cut our executive pay and benefits to match those of government executives, we can save a lot of money.”

Any suggestion that they should triggers a rat-a-tat of rationalizations:

“It’s apples and oranges.” But it isn’t when making comparisons farther down the rungs of the economic ladder?

“You have to pay the best to get the best.” Shouldn’t that be true of all workers? Look at what “the best and brightest” have wrought on Wall Street and in banks across the country.

“Executives have rare, special skills. They’ve earned it.” Only in America, it seems. In fact, compensation studies show there is little relationship between the performance of companies and how much they pay their chief executives. CEO pay raises routinely outpace corporate earnings.

The ratio of CEO pay to that of average workers is much higher in this country than in others. In the past two to three decades, the U.S. ratio has widened from about $40 to $1, to $400 to $1. Today’s executives are not 10 times more valuable than their predecessors. Fact is, foreign companies can compete with – and sometimes beat – American companies, even though we have the highest-paid leaders.

So how did we get to this point? Comparative analyses. If Executive A makes $10 million and Executive B makes $5 million, nobody is stepping in and saying the lower number is correct. That’s because executives make the rules and hang together, unlike the middle class snipers who pick each other off in self-defeating warfare.

Moral victory. Last Sunday, I lamented the state of newspapering and wondered what would happen when less-balanced sources take over. A conservative reader blamed the decline on media’s liberal bias. A liberal reader hooked me up with progressive truth-telling sources.

Oh well, at least they both read the newspaper. That’s quite a victory these days.

Smart Bombs is written by Associate Editor Gary Crooks and appears Wednesdays and Sundays on the Opinion page. Crooks can be reached at garyc@spokesman.com or at (509) 459-5026.


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