Whose fault this is is beside the point, but the idea that certain Americans deserve to be compensated astronomically while most others struggle to get a cost of living raise has taken hold in recent years and is leading the nation toward a Marie Antoinette moment -- and, most likely, toward at least a symbolic guillotine.
The standard of living decline for everyone below the upper middle class -- especially since the start of the Great Recession but also evident for at least two decades -- is easily discernible in the dismal economic and personal income statistics we've come to expect each year. But the soaring stats for corporate CEO income seem especially gnawing, if not obscene, and are certainly a detriment to the long-term health of the economy and the United States.
This would never happen in professional sports. You wouldn't pay the manager of a Major League Baseball team more than the top players, or even most of the mid-level players, but in the corporate world the top dogs are compensated as if they were indispensable and most employees are compensated as if they were replaceable cogs.
The AP reported last week: "The head of a typical public company made $9.6 million in 2011, according to an analysis by The Associated Press using data from Equilar, an executive pay research firm."
That was up more than 6 percent from the previous year, and marks the second year in a row of increases. The figure is also the highest since the AP began tracking executive compensation in 2006.
The only somewhat good news, the AP reported, was that more companies trimmed back on outright cash bonuses and gave out more stock awards -- an attempt to tie CEO pay to company performance, though a weak one at this point.
We've long been accustomed to reading of the CEO who made millions, even took a bonus, while his company tanked. This is another way in which the business world is unlike pro sports. When the team tanks, usually the manager, not the players, are jettisoned -- without a bonus.
Yet another difference is that CEOs and the corporate boards they have influence over have a major role in setting outsized salaries for themselves and their good old boy buddies. And if the company loses money? Then it's slash payroll, slash jobs, close factories and stores; but allow the top execs to smoothly skate into their golden retirements.
There is no way an atmosphere of princely privilege for those with the power to grab and preserve it is healthy for the overall economy. Refusing to allow such an attitude to continue is the first step toward reversing it and spreading the benefits of economic successes down to the average worker -- who deserves much more than the norm today.
Without a reasonable amount of upward mobility, which the American economy has always maintained, the nation itself will weaken, along with our form of government. Without the chance for increasing wages at the lower income levels, businesses can't expand, growth slows and sputters, and eventually even those at the top will see a decline in wealth.
A good first place to focus right now is on CEO pay. How about compensation that reflects what all the shareholders believe is fair for the boss? How about bonuses and perks that all the shareholders think are justified? How about all for one and one for all at bonus time?