Clinton’s Executive Pay Comments Show We’re Still Too Focused on Fairness

April 17, 2015

Hillary Clinton surprised many progressives earlier this week with her remarks on a model populist issue. “There’s something wrong when CEOs make 300 times more than the typical worker. There’s something wrong when American workers keep getting more productive…but that productivity is not matched in their paychecks.”

Indeed. From 1978 to 2013, executive compensation at American firms rose 937 percent, compared with a sluggish 10.2 percent growth in worker compensation over the same period. In 2013, the average CEO pay package at S&P 500 Index companies was worth $11.7 million. Numbers for 2014 are just starting to be released, but Microsoft’s Satya Nadella is thus far topping the list at $84 million in mostly stock awards.

Too often the CEO pay debate, which tends to come into focus during our annual rite of corporate proxy season, hinges on a question of ethics. Is paying CEOs excessive amounts fair to workers? No, of course not, as so many fast food workers, whose CEOs make approximately 1,200 times more than they do, rightfully voiced yesterday.

One of the problems, however, with expressing CEO pay as a fairness issue is that it is too often countered with accusations of envy. And this doesn’t get us very far. (Note that Clinton’s language—“there’s something wrong”—plays into the fairness framing.) Our efforts to reform CEO pay would be much stronger if we also talked about how bad the status quo is for our economy and thus our society.

There are two main reasons CEO pay should be a concern to anyone who cares about economic prosperity in the United States, including Hillary Clinton. One reason stems from the total amount CEOs are paid. The other relates to the structure of CEO pay, in particular that the bulk of their compensation comes in the form of stock options and stock grants.

Total Amount of CEO Pay

A handful of high-profile economists—Thomas Piketty, Joseph Stiglitz, and Robert Reich, to name a few—have begun to make the case that a high degree of economic inequality precipitates financial instability because it leads to a decline in consumer demand, which has tremendous spillover effects in terms of investment, job creation, and tax revenue, not to mention social instability.

Research clearly demonstrates that the growth of executive pay is a core driver of America’s rising economic inequality. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “[e]xecutives, and workers in finance, accounted for 58 percent of the expansion of income for the top 1 percent and 67 percent of the increase in income for the top 0.1 percent from 1979 to 2005.” Another calculation by economists Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon finds that the large increase in share of the 99.99th percentile is mostly explained by the incomes of superstars and CEOs.

The Structure of CEO Pay

Several studies show that equity-heavy pay, because it makes executives very wealthy very quickly, distorts CEOs’ incentives, inducing them to take on too much risk. Instead of bearing this risk themselves, they shift it onto the rest of society, as we saw during the financial crisis. This model also encourages executives to behave fraudulently, as in the backdating scandals of a decade ago, and lessens their motivation to invest in their businesses. According to economist William Lazonick, in order to issue stock options to top executives while avoiding the dilution of their stock, corporations often divert funds to stock buybacks rather than spending on research and development, capital investment, increased wages, or new hiring. To top it all off, these pay packages cost taxpayers billions of dollars due to the performance pay tax loophole.

Hillary Clinton’s comments on CEO pay could be a signal that she is willing to adopt at least some of the progressive messaging championed by Senator Elizabeth Warren. We can enhance that message by making better economic arguments for why we need to reform skyrocketing CEO pay.

For more, see my primer on the executive pay debate.