Posted by: Doug Henwood | December 2, 2011

The CEO as humble worker

For some reason—pathological liberalism? being in the pay of the Washington Post?—Matthew Yglesias wants to blur the distinction between worker and boss. In a strange post at his new Slate playpen (“CEO Pay Drives Inequality”), Yglesias declares the old “rhetoric about ‘workers’ is really a legacy of an outdated time.” Why, you might ask, when class distinctions have a salience not only in fact but in discourse that they haven’t seen in many decades? Because unlike the rentiers of old, today’s rich work hard.

Really, Matt, the point isn’t how hard you work, it’s what you take home. In 2010, the average big-company CEO pulled down $11.4 million. If you assume these “well-compensated wage slaves,” in Yglesias’ phrase, put in 3,000 hours a year, that works out to $3,800 an hour. Last month, the average nonsupervisory worker in the U.S. earned $19.54 an hour, or 0.5% as much as the CEO. That average not-so-well-compensated wage slave would have to work 292 years to match the boss’s paycheck (assuming a more conventional 2,000 hour workyear).

Seth Ackerman, from whom I learned of Yglesias’ curious epiphany, offers up this quote from Andrew Carnegie for historical perspective:

Working people have my full sympathy, and I always extend a helping hand. I am a workingman and in my young days worked in a cotton mill and ran an engine. In all my life I suppose I have done more work than any employee I have ever had.

At least Carnegie gave us a few libraries to remember him by. You have to wonder what today’s crop of CEOs will bequeath us as their legacy.

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Responses

  1. Well Stephen Schwartzmann did us all a great favor by funding the removal of books from the main New York Public Library to a warehouse in New Jersey.

  2. On the rich being rich because they work harder , the work ethic myth of capitalism: “a simple moral formula: effort should lead to reward as often as possible,” an “ethos” this is being “undermined from all directions.” In the case of the eurocrisis, Germans “are being asked to bail out nations with vast public sectors.” /////// The legend of theological original sin tells us certainly how man came to be condemned to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow; but the history of economic original sin reveals to us that there are people to whom this is by no means essential. Never mind! Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority that, despite all its labour, has up to now nothing to sell but itself, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly although they have long ceased to work. Such insipid childishness is every day preached to us in the defence of property. M. Thiers, e.g., had the assurance to repeat it with all the solemnity of a statesman to the French people, once so spirituel.

  3. This seems like somewhat of a willful misunderstanding. Obviously Matt doesn’t think CEOs are in the same class as factory workers. That’s why he says the term is outdated. Instead we have (or perhaps should have) a class struggle between different types of workers–blue collar, white collar, and some more recent class of gold collar.

  4. Sandy Weill got his name on the Cornell Medical school, what used to be the Carnegie (gulp!) Recital Hall (the little hall next to but inside Carnegie Hall proper) and a bunch of other stuff. But except for maybe a building or waiting room at Cornell med, all that stuff was already there, which just goes to prove your point. And he’s probably been more civic minded (out of grandiosity, sure, but still) than you’re run of the mill greedhead CEO.

  5. Ok, to avoid confusion, let’s go back to the really old language: proletarians vs. bourgeoisie.

  6. He did what? Sent books out to Jersey? Disgusting.

  7. is he saying that the structure of capital ownership has *nothing to do with* the existence of so-called gold-collar workers?

  8. Thankfully we have been relieved of such burdensome “rhetoric” nowadays, and can submit happily to technocratic fondling.

  9. I prefer to call them “nomeklatura” myself. ;)

    At least it makes an interesting analogy, for heuristic purposes.

    Once you move past CEOs and look at CFOs, CCOs, “revolving door” chief counsels, directors of this & that, etc, a Soviet-style ‘horizontal power’ structure emerges.

    Diffuse shareholder ‘ownership’ of the means of production in publicly traded companies creates openings for all these executives to exercise “use rights”, mostly for their own benefit.

    In short, anything owned “in common” can & will be enclosed.

  10. I hope you keep on Yglesias. He is a frustrating guy who needs to be questioned. I don’t see many people ever challenging him. Keep it up!


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