CEO pay and abortion.
On the surface, there would appear to be no connection. But that appearance would be wrong.
One of the more startling aspects of this GOP primary season is to hear a serious Republican candidate like Arkansas ex-Governor Mike Huckabee make an issue of executive pay in the private sector. Huckabee is not thrilled at the salaries paid various CEO’s (not, I should say, this one!) by the freely elected boards of directors of free market companies. He leaves hanging the populist implication: let the government decide who gets paid how much compensation.
Really? Is this where a Huckabee administration would go?
In a campaign where there are those who think they can somehow break free of the principles Ronald Reagan discussed so frequently, it helps to realize that these weren’t simply Reagan’s ideas but rather tried-and-true conservative principles. Here’s a Reagan quote on this subject that easily illustrates the problem with the kind of populism Huckabee is pushing: “A government that is big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take everything you have.”
In other words, if the government is going to get into the business of telling a corporate CEO whether he or she can earn X, why can’t the government get into the business of telling an unborn child that well, they simply don’t have a right to life? The government does exactly this, of course. Specifically, in Roe v. Wade, the infamous Supreme Court case that found a right to abortion in the Constitution.
If this campaign is doing nothing else it is illustrating the real meaning of the success of the Reagan era. That meaning, of course, was that Reagan worked to get government out of the way of the average citizen so that everybody — working families, men and women, all races and all income levels — can pursue a living with good wages for good jobs. This seems not to be what Huckabee is saying when he zeroes in on what he sees as the greed of corporate CEOs, dropping lines like the following: “We’ve allowed a lot of people in the airlines industry (to get away with) sheer, unadulterated greed.” And again: “You can’t have that kind of economy.”
IN THE WORDS OF THE OLD Lone Ranger jokes, who exactly is “we” and “you” in this kind of reasoning, kemo sabe? There is every reason to think that Governor Huckabee means — the government. In a Huckabee administration the government would apparently be setting executive pay for private companies, rather than letting the company do so. At a minimum it sounds as if he would be pushing legislation that sets limits and standards for private sector salaries. In a Huckabee administration one gets the feeling there would be no understanding that the reason for high fuel prices that are so affecting working families is that government — government — is keeping private enterprise from drilling for oil off the coast of Florida or California or in Alaska. Why in the world does anyone think we are so dependent on various Middle East combinations for oil in the first place? Because, again, the government has decided to ban drilling in known reserves right here in America or make it difficult if not impossible through the regulatory process for new refineries to be built.
One has to ask how the Huckabee plans for restricting executive pay would work? Would there be a new Office of Fairness in Executive Pay (FEP)? Where would FEP be located? In the Department of Labor or the Department of Commerce? Or both? How many staff members would it take to gin this up? One boss at assistant secretary rank (ASFEP), then a deputy (DASFEP), then a deputy to the deputy (D-DASFEP) for sure. Then there’s the office staff in Washington (OASFEP) that would be tasked with overseeing all the FEP regional offices (the RFEPS). Ten to another twenty people there. Then there’s the FEP field staff in all those federal buildings scattered over America that are so beloved of members of Congress (the Boston RFEP, the Dallas RFEP, the Bismarck RFEP and so on.) Several hundred there at least. Not to be left out are the regulation manuals, the tens of thousands of pages of which would have to be written by an Inter-Departmental FEP Task Force, the ID FEP TAF. These FEP folks are the ones who would get right into the nitty-gritty of how much enough is enough.
You know, do we draw the line at Bill Gates’s billions or the $8 million Hillary Clinton got for her book? Oops, being an author isn’t the same as being a CEO. There’s another hundred pages of FEP regulations. Then again, Tom Clancy and John Grisham surely make more than some CEOs and is that fair? Does this mean we need an AB bureau (Author Bureau) inside the FEP Office? Come to think of it, what about all those too-wealthy Hollywood actors getting $15-$20 million for a few weeks of work on the next summer blockbuster? Better expand the staff to have an Actors and Authors Bureau, or A&AB Bureau in FEP. Don’t forget all those overpaid athletes allegedly on steroids, either. Once that’s underway you need to make sure you have enough FEP enforcement staff to burst in on those boardrooms, writer’s dens, movie studios and locker rooms around America catching the likes of Bill Gates, Hillary, Clancy, Grisham, Tom Hanks, Barry Bonds and their fellow greed-meisters with their payouts in hand. Last but not least are the FEP parkas with the newly designed FEP seal that need to be worn when the FEP SWATS begin making these boardroom raids. This is to assure American taxpayers that the government is on the job, a task assured when the regional deputy FEP press secretary alerts the media and all those cameras get shots of some shamefaced CEO or otherwise UNWA (Un-Necessarily Wealthy American) being cuffed and dragged into the klieg lights for a FEP perp walk.
Gee. What a novel idea. We sure haven’t seen anything like this in America before have we? Sort of a 21st century version of the Roaring Twenties, with the head of WalMart or Exxon — or maybe even Oprah! — as Al Capone.
WHICH BRINGS US BACK to abortion. What would be sanctified in a government scheme to decide executive pay is precisely what has been sanctified in Roe v. Wade. “Our task, of course” wrote Justice Harry Blackmun, a staunch supporter of abortion, “is to resolve the issue by constitutional measurement…” In other words, as Reagan said, Justice Blackmun and his Supreme Court colleagues sought to create a constitutional right where there was none.
And if it’s OK for government to create a constitutional right to abortion out of whole cloth, what’s wrong with creating a constitutional right to regulate the pay scales in the private sector? After all, the government already dictates the minimum wage. Why not a maximum wage?
The answer, of course, is that a central principle of conservatism concerns the God-given right of everyone to decide their destiny for themselves. If a board of directors has made a decision that their shareholders are best represented by awarding the company CEO with some obscene sum, then they are (up until now, at least) well within their constitutional rights to do so. Ditto the boards and shareholders who make the payouts for Tom Hanks or Angelina Jolie. If the shareholders don’t like this, they replace the board — or sell their stock and take their dollars elsewhere.
Like a lot of conservatives I have friends or former colleagues who are enthusiastic Huckabee fans. I have met Governor Huckabee and find him up close to be a delightful guy. And certainly he has made an impressive showing multiples of times in what seems like an endless parade of candidate debates. As mentioned before in this space, he is surely superior to Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.
Yet this populism business the Governor pushes troubles precisely because of the immoral nature \of the idea that I am somehow supposed to resent someone infinitely wealthier than I am. It is nothing less than the sin of envy made fiat. Attached to this idea, without mistake, is the principle that the same government that allows the taking of the life of an unborn child has simply moved on to taking your salary because its alleged excess is offensive. Can the size of somebody’s salary be offensive? Yes. Is it the business of government to regulate that offensiveness? Or is it to protect your right to an excessive salary, however obscene it may be? If the latter is somehow no longer OK, if in fact it’s going to be the role of the government to decide how much you make — then the former, the idea that the government can create a right for the life of an unborn child to be snuffed out — is excusable. Which gives Roe v. Wade a moral imprimatur from the conservative movement that it has thus far not been allowed.
Nor should it.