Thursday, September 25, 2014

The criminality of excessive executive salaries

Excellent  article by Raewyn Connell on the need to expose and challenge the theft and plunder perpetrated by corporate executives. 

Connell writes:
"The very top corporate managers now sit on top of a tall tree of bonuses and incentives, which have become an institutionalised and expected part of income. (Board remuneration committees scrutinise “comparators,” and executive search firms compile the data). Inside this world, it seems common sense that the top managers’ bonuses and incentives should be higher than all the rest. How could it be otherwise? That would be an insult to the most excellent.

There is also an effect of the “financialisation” of modern capitalism – the growth of finance capital, and its hegemony over the industrial and agricultural capital that ruled the roost in other eras.

The mind-boggling scale and reach of contemporary financial markets hasn’t exactly replaced other forms of economic activity – we still produce the goods and services. But it has changed the frame of reference for corporate elites. They now live in a world where gigantic profits are often made without any commitment to productive investment, and where financial operations constantly impinge on industrial, mining and trading corporations. Even inside corporations, the separation of control from operations has grown. The new head of Rio Tinto, Sam Walsh, made his mark by automating the firm’s iron ore operations in the Pilbara, locating the control rooms down in Perth. (And happily eliminating part of the Pilbara workforce.)

Inevitably the point of comparison for corporate managers shifts from their own businesses to the world of international finance. At the same time, the financialisation of the business world makes the elite packages, of which the larger part is almost always the bonuses and incentives rather than the simple salary, easier to pay and more normal in appearance.

These trends are not the whole explanation of the great rise in executive incomes, but they are a considerable part of it. The neoliberal era, almost everywhere in the world, has seen rising levels of economic inequality. In the developing world, neoliberalism has meant increased unemployment and massive growth in the informal economy. In rich countries there is some informalisation but also a sustained squeeze on welfare incomes (the removal of sole parents’ benefit is a recent Australian example). There are growing gaps in the wage structure, and a much less progressive tax system than a generation ago. Corporate executives are among the most spectacular beneficiaries of this society-wide process.

To put it in a nutshell, the corporate managers are not earning wages. Markets have little to do with it. They are building fortunes. Their organisational power enables them to claim a share of the expanding financialised capital in the modern economy, and convert part of that share into extremely high incomes. Within an environment of privilege, this claim becomes a matter of common sense and routine. And though there are many critics of the result – the anti-globalisation movement, the Occupy movement, and some of the unions – there is not at present any social force that has been able to reverse it.
Connell's arguments remind me of those of criminologist David Friederichs who argues that the corporate culture and practices that provide for and justify excessive executive compensation for corporate executives not only creates what he calls "crimogenic conditions" but are likely to lead to the taking of money that belongs to others.

In a paper titled "Exorbitant CEO compensation: Just reward or grand theft" in the Journal Crime, Law and Social Change  David Friedrichs argues that executive compensation packages should be considered as a form of white collar crime.

For Friederichs it is time to criminalize this behaviour. He calls it a form of robbery:
""Walking into a bank with a gun and demanding money from a teller is one way to steal money... Walking into a corporate boardroom and securing from the board's compensation committee, made up of cronies, paid consultants, and even relatives, compensation of millions sometimes tens of millions or hundreds of millions is another way to steal money. The principal differences are that the second way of stealing money pays much better, is all too often legal, and does not result in criminal prosecution and imprisonment. This needs to change"
The practices of excessive executive compensation are viewed as standard business practice rather than as part of a spectrum of corporate criminal behaviour that goes unrecognized and unpunished. 

That is how corporate power works. It redefines reality to serve corporate and private interests.

As both Connell and Friederichs argue its time to challenge that.

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