Can You Ever Earn Too Much?

November 20, 2009

The clash between private and public good can be bipolar.

A headline reads, "Some Wall Street Year-End Bonuses Could Hit Pre-Downturn Highs," and the story notes that "Main Street is ticked off that Wall Street is making all this money."

Privately, when individuals get the legal chance to earn more, few say, "No, pay me less." Taking a hit for the greater good seems old-fashioned, naïve. Most are eager to earn more, if only to give to their favorite non-profit.

Publicly, Wall Street is pummeled for outrageous salaries, executives at corporations taking taxpayer bailouts are pilloried for bilking the public, and Congress pursues new laws to prevent excess compensation.

For companies which didn't get federal dollars is compensation a private matter? If a company downsizes 1,000 people and profits go up, shouldn't the leadership be rewarded?

Should people be embarrassed or jubilant about huge personal incomes, or just thankful to be one of the lucky few? Is the point opportunity and the chance to succeed, is the point a shared society and joint sacrifice, or can it be both?

There seems is a disconnect, a general public disdain for excess, and a private commitment to excess.

Meanwhile, societal norms and expectations of behavior that would curb excess seem diminished. Without a commitment to joint sacrifice, society is left with shouting commentators, narrow legislation, and individual decisions.

What do you think? Should there be formal or informal standards for compensation? Can you ever earn too much?

By William Vocke

For more information, see: Eric Dash, "Some Wall Street Year-End Bonuses Could Hit Pre-Downturn Highs," The New York Times, November 5, 2009, p. B3.

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