Since the struggle for American independence, times of national crisis have called for shared sacrifice.
In World War II, for example, a number of top business executives became “dollar-a-year men” who donated their know-how to the war effort for a token sum. To those on the front lines, that sort of sacrifice sent a powerful message: “We are in this together.”
This past year of crisis should have been another period of unity and shared sacrifice. Instead, many top corporate executives enriched themselves while their front-line employees shouldered the burden of the pandemic.
Our Institute for Policy Studies analysis of SEC filings of the 100 largest low-wage employers found that over half rigged their own rules to inflate CEO pay in 2020. Compensation for top executives went up by 29 percent at those firms while median worker pay dropped by 2 percent.
In good times and bad, the corporate incentive system often rewards business practices that sharpen our economic and social divides. Slashing labor costs by shipping U.S. jobs overseas, for instance, increases ordinary American families’ economic insecurity but enhances the value of executives’ stock-based compensation. Slashing IRS bills by recording profits in offshore tax havens can also enrich CEOs while draining revenue for vital public services.
The congressional debate over infrastructure spending offers an enormous opportunity to change these incentives.
Leading companies are positioned to receive a huge infusion of taxpayer dollars to strengthen our nation’s roads, bridges, and mass transit systems and speed the transition to clean-energy technologies. By strategically wielding the power of the public purse, we can encourage these companies to raise the bar for corporate citizenship, too.
The administration is using semiconductor subsidies as a lever for discouraging CEO pay-inflating stock buybacks in that industry. All companies receiving federal funds should face the same restrictions.