Obscene? Depends on What Street You Live On

“Morally wrong.” “Obscene.” “Robber barons.”

The unions at Northwest Airlines are leveling the rhetorical guns at management, saying the compensation of senior execs is obscene in light of pay cuts employees have taken. These are powerful words — the kind of tough talk unions sling out all the time.

But today the words don’t sound like dismissible hyperbole. It’s just possible that this society is starting to react to the growing gap between rich and poor and getting sick of rich white guys grabbing more than their share. John Edwards thinks so, as he talks on the campaign trail about the costs we all pay for poverty (OK, let’s be fair — Edwards says this while building a huge mansion that could house most of Peru)

Wages are down. Real income for regular folks has dropped over the last five years. There are fewer jobs for folks on Ventnor and Baltic Avenues. But on Park Place and Boardwalk, things are looking just fine.

Doug Steenland, NWA CEO, is looking to scoop up $25 million in compensation. Huge pay packages like this are needed to attract and retain top talent, we’re told. Great scam. Top execs and their boards award huge compensation to one CEO, who, sitting on another board or two, awards huge compensation to other CEOs. It’s a nice little mutual backscratch that takes compensation from competitive to piratical. Those of us paying their salaries — customers, remember us? — go without pillows or food on the planes while scrunching into ever-smaller spaces in cattle class so Steenland’s options will be worth enough to keep him at the airline. I think I might be OK flying an airline whose CEO could scrimp along on $12 million, or $2 million. I’d send him grocery coupons.

The growing concentration of wealth is getting hard to stomach. The Star Tribune reported Saturday that the share of national income gobbled up by the top one percent of households is at its highest level since 1929 — when wealth lust and speculation crashed the economy. A Northwest Area Foundation study quoted in the same Strib editorial reported that half of Minnesotans “know somebody who is working two or more jobs, yet still struggles to make ends meet.” And two-thirds of Minnesotans say they’d be OK with paying more taxes to help people struggling to make ends meet (did you hear that, Johnny-one-note no-new-taxes legislators? — we care about more than just our own wealth management).

If you sat at dinner and watched one guy eat his meal, then reach over and eat his neighbor’s, you’d be shocked. If you watched him eat the dinner of ten, then one hundred, others at the table, you might up a do something.

Average CEO pay is more than 400 times the average production worker’s pay. Obscene? Morally wrong?

What other words fit?

Here’s the Northwest Area Foundation study:


— Bruce Benidt