Questioning How To Get Paid

By Sean Gonsalves · 8 Jul 2008

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Picture: Darren Hester
Picture: Darren Hester

My first-born graduated from high school a few weeks ago. Next month, she’ll be heading off to Clark University in Worcester. If all goes according to plan, she’ll have a master’s degree in five short years.

So, naturally, I’ve been thinking about the question adults ask up-and-coming young people all the time: What do you want to be when you grow up?

Ever notice that whenever a youngster is asked that question, the response is almost always the same? “I want to be (fill in the occupational blank);” as if the question was: “What do you want to do for work, when you grow up?”

Oh, there’s a connection between doing and being, but how come you never hear an answer in terms of desired states-of-being, like: “I want to be a happy when I grow up?”

What do I want my oldest daughter to be? I’m blessed. She already is what I want her to be – a question-lover (despite being subjected to a mind-numbing amount of standardized testing and other “educational” methods that help beat the sense of inquiry out of most kids)!

Questions are more interesting than answers. Answers focus the mind on things already known. Questions force the mind’s eye to look elsewhere and make new discoveries, which is why, as a little boy, I adopted the African proverb — to ask well is to know much — as my life’s motto.

I suppose that’s what lured me to journalism — a career that’s fundamentally about asking questions. Not that I want my daughter to become a journalist. Personally, I hope she pursues the life of the mind, as a scientist. She plans to study psychology and Spanish. Dad’s (hopeful) translation: She’s interested in the human mind and language. Neuroscience?!

“What’s neuroscience?” she asked. I gave her a half-dozen or so books on the subject from my stacks. “This is what I’m talking about,” I said. And we’re off…

I didn’t tell her what my more down-to-earth reason is for not pushing journalism on her (or any of my children, for that matter). In his recent interview with Inside TV’s Fancast, Ed Asner was on point.

“I was a high school journalist and wanted to go into it because it was dashing and exciting. One day in college, my instructor, whom I revered, passed by my desk and said, ‘Are you thinking of journalism as a career?’ And I said, ‘yeah.’ She came back and said, ‘I wouldn’t … you can’t make any money at it.’ With that, I washed away any plans that I had…”

Sure, if you make it big time, a journalist can make millions. So can a musician. But how many parents, worried about their kids’ future job prospects, encourage them to become musicians? Contrary to the popular myth, most reporters, like most musicians, live on a budget that’s about 30 cents away from a quarter.

I didn’t tell her that because I don’t want her to think: It’s all about the money. If I really thought that, I would have encouraged her to be a CEO.

In the 1970s, when I was a kid, CEOs earned 30 times what the average worker made. By the time my first graduate was born, in the 1990s, CEO pay was 131 times workers’ wages and by 2006 it was up to 370 times.

In college, she’ll probably “learn” all about the wonders of competition — how competition provides the motivation to innovate; how it protects consumers. Competition is essential for the efficiency of any healthy economy etc.

But, in reality, while competition in the marketplace has been hitting working-people with tsunami-like force, Henry Banta, writing for Harvard’sNieman Watchdog observes: “One cost has been immune from this pressure: the compensation of top management.”

CEO pay has got some press attention, yet “there has been a total failure to ask the simple and obvious question: Why hasn’t competition squeezed management compensation like every other cost?”

Citing the seminal Piketty and Saez study that shows how in the last several decades there’s been a “massive shift in income to the top of the population,” Banta emphasizes how “particularly dramatic is the comparison between the top 1 percent and the remaining 99 percent in the 1993-2000 expansion of the Clinton administration and the 2002-2006 expansion of the Bush administration.”

And, unlike the past when income disparity could be largely traced to inherited wealth, most of this shift can be accounted for by an increase in management compensation.

“The most frequently cited explanation (for high CEO pay) is globalization. According to this argument, labor costs are squeezed by competition from countries with lower labor costs. Workers with less valuable skills are particularly vulnerable to the competition from less wealthy nations. This is true — but irrelevant.”

Another explanation is that these grotesquely-paid CEO’s are worth it — a dubious claim, given that, for example, in 1996 corporate profits rose 11 percent yet the average salary and bonus for a CEO increased by 39 percent!

Probably, the most oft-cited rationale is that CEO pay is a function of education level. But, “it defies reason and good sense to claim the huge income difference between the top one tenth of one percent of the population and everyone else is the result of education,” Banta rightly points out.

I know teachers with more “education” than most CEO’s and they’re not bringing in seven- or eight-figure salaries.

Maybe, one day my daughter will be able to tell the world something insightful about cognitive dissonance. And maybe, in the meantime, journalists can help by asking Banta’s important economic question more often: Where are the forces of competition amid this CEO pay explosion?

By Sean Gonsalves, columnist and news editor with the Cape Cod Times. He can be reached at [email protected]

This article was originally published by SACSIS cannot authorize its republication.

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