Should Anyone Earn a Billion A Year?

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About Tom Matlack

Tom Matlack is the co-founder of The Good Men Project. He has a 18-year-old daughter and 16- and 7-year-old sons. His wife, Elena, is the love of his life. Follow him on Twitter @TMatlack.

Comments

  1. ■Do you find the concentration of wealth, and the concentration of wealth creation that Mr. Ratner points out, problematic for a free society? If the answer is “yes,” how would you rectify the current situation?
    In and of itself no I don’t think its a problem. I think the problems come into play when it comes to how that wealth is created (often by straight up dirty handed means) and how that wealth is concentrated (often in the hands of the very people who did things that would get a “lesser” person tossed in prison. Rectifying this is going to hard. On one hand most people will agree that everyone should have a fair CHANCE at a big score. On the other if regulations start coming into play people will complain that the free market is being taken over by the goverment, that they are being punished for being successful, etc…

    ■Is tax policy an answer (some recent research has pointed to the fact that higher tax rates may not be as big a hurdle to economic growth at previously feared, “The Case for Raising Top Tax Rates”)?
    I think so but there should be more to it. Personally I’m of the mind that when a person that makes some ungodly amount of money but pays less in taxes than a family that has to choose between food and rent something is wrong. Along with tax policy there should also be some considerable effort put into closing up any and all loopholes.

    ■Do you distinguish between those who earn huge wealth by virtue of company building—Steve Jobs for instance—from those who do so simply by virtue of investing capital in financial instruments?
    Not really since just as one can be as honest as the other one can be just as dirty as the other. I’m sure you can think of both company builders and capital investers that have done both commendable and dirty things.

  2. Do you find the concentration of wealth, and the concentration of wealth creation that Mr. Ratner points out, problematic for a free society? If the answer is “yes,” how would you rectify the current situation?

    Yes. I believe that we need a completely overhauled tax system that puts steep taxes on many of the top earners in this country.

    Is tax policy an answer (some recent research has pointed to the fact that higher tax rates may not be as big a hurdle to economic growth at previously feared, “The Case for Raising Top Tax Rates”)?

    Yes. It is part of the solution, certainly. Though I believe that tax changes should focus on those who make money not by doing something productive, but by pushing paper. Capital gains should have the highest top tax rate, not the lowest.

    Do you distinguish between those who earn huge wealth by virtue of company building—Steve Jobs for instance—from those who do so simply by virtue of investing capital in financial instruments?

    Absolutely. I think that those that create should be treated with greater favorability by the tax system than those who are simply investing money. I have every intention of becoming a billionaire myself, but I will ultimately do it through the creation of my own companies that produce things. I don’t think that I should be paying the same capital gains taxes on my ownership of the company I created from scratch as a 5th generation gagillionaire who is sitting on a massive trust fund and has done absolutely nothing.

    With particular regard to hedge fund managers, do you find the economic arrangements between investor and manager whereby huge wealth is created often in spite of poor performance wrong? If so, what should be done about it?

    This is something that I find absurd. If you have the connections to get people to invest money in your fund, even if the fund loses money you are still making TONS of money. There is also the fact that these people are afforded opportunities that others are not. For example, many hedge funders got access to the federal reserve window to borrow money from the fed at 0.25% and lend it back to the government by buying treasuries that yield upwards of 3%. These wealthy people were given free money by the federal government. Why was I unable to borrow 10 billion from the fed at 0.25% and lend it back to the treasury at 3.25%? I want my free hundreds of millions too. Having money is more important than anything else and is THE difference maker. That is a problem. There are no brakes to slow down the inertia of wealth. Once you reach a certain level of wealth, that wealth will continue to grow and grow and grow on its own. I don’t begrudge the wealthy, and I admire the many men who truly earned their wealth – Steve Jobs for example – but many of the wealthiest did not earn their money, they won the sperm lottery and got enough that the inertia would carry them ever higher. There is no merit in that system.

  3. Do you find the concentration of wealth, and the concentration of wealth creation that Mr. Ratner points out, problematic for a free society? If the answer is “yes,” how would you rectify the current situation?

    I do it to be a problem. Concentrations of wealth are actually *bad* for a Capitalist market because only by the constant flow of money can goods and services exist — demand is created thus jobs are created, and the cycle continues allowing the system to work. (Note: I am not very supportive of Capitalism however.) With an inordinate amount of wealth becomingly increasingly concentrated among the rich/super-rich, that money DOES NOT go back into the system. Now, while I don’t advocate Warren Buffet or someone similar creating ten thousand useless jobs painting self-portraits, I do advocate that the money they’ve made, based in large part upon the social contract we’ve all created (police, fire, education, roads — things we pay for with taxes and incentives), should be reinvested in our economy.

    Is tax policy an answer (some recent research has pointed to the fact that higher tax rates may not be as big a hurdle to economic growth at previously feared, “The Case for Raising Top Tax Rates”)?

    This question is the natural answer to my above response. A progressive tax policy is required in order to prevent money from being hoarded which is dangerous to a Capitalist economy. Moreover, a progressive tax policy is FAIR. Billionaires need to be taxed on their investments, not just their income. They also need to be taxed on their overseas capital if they are A) American citizens residing in the country, or B) foreign nationals who spend a preponderance of their business and/or personal time in the country.

    Do you distinguish between those who earn huge wealth by virtue of company building—Steve Jobs for instance—from those who do so simply by virtue of investing capital in financial instruments?

    I only make a slight distinction, because ultimately Steve Jobs did not create the iPod in a vacuum. Bill Gates did not create Microsoft in a vacuum. Facebook was not the sole creation of Mark Zuckerberg. These innovators — and they are, unquestionably, brilliant innovators — relied upon resources provided by the people (educated workforce, copyright laws, etc) in order to create the products they sell. We like to glorify these people yet fail to recognize the thousands, if not millions of others who contributed crucial work to their overall product, and who fail to reap similar, or even equitable profits.

    With particular regard to hedge fund managers, do you find the economic arrangements between investor and manager whereby huge wealth is created often in spite of poor performance wrong? If so, what should be done about it?

    I find the financial system in general to be severely broken, evidenced by fraud, billion-dollar bailouts, loopholes, and incredibly suspicious ties between regulators and investors. With regard to your specific question, I think the current state of affairs is answer enough: poor performance should not be summarily rewarded if we are going to continue in our Capitalist economy. (However I do vacate that reasoning with respect to American industry, such as the auto industry, which provides necessary manufacturing jobs to Americans). People who create wealth based on abstracts should not be paid when they fail. Hedge fund managers should not be paid for failing to make a profit for their clients, and that payment should be commensurate with services rendered and the results obtained.

    Getting paid millions of dollars while your clients lose money is ethically wrong.

    Nonetheless, apologists will cry that the implementation of my above comments would further ruin our economy, hurting “job creators”, and overspending during a deficit. Personally I find such comments to be ignorant, and overly simplistic. Jobs weren’t being created during the Bush years or Regan years when there was incredible deregulation and incentives. Overspending doesn’t work when you can’t print more money, but we can print more money, and more importantly our economy REQUIRES spending in order to function. No spending, no demand, no jobs, no taxes paid in, no growth created.

    It is clear that our economy needs to begin efforts at protectionism in order to promote American industry (something men will particularly benefit from) as well as American goods. Moreover, regulation needs to be stringent, loopholes must be closed, the tax burden must be made equal, and blaming poor people for everything needs to stop.

    Sadly though, none of that will happen for a very long time. The political reality to make it happen just does not exist as long as reactionary conservatism strangulates our culture.

    • ” Now, while I don’t advocate Warren Buffet or someone similar creating ten thousand useless jobs painting self-portraits, I do advocate that the money they’ve made, based in large part upon the social contract we’ve all created (police, fire, education, roads — things we pay for with taxes and incentives), should be reinvested in our economy.”

      It is invested but in capital goods (goods which are used to produce other goods) not consumption goods. For capitalism to work you need investment into capital projects otherwise there is no progress.

      • Assman,

        I think capital goods are a fine thing to invest in. I also wasn’t distinguishing between what kind of goods should be invested in.

        That said, you said that their money is invested in capital goods… except it isn’t. Not in America. Those investments are in Saudi Arabia, China, Brazil, India, and other places. But not the US. Certainly not on any large scale, and generally not even on a small scale. Also, I’m talking about their personal wealth, and not the wealth of others that they happily invest.

  4. In most tribal cultures Hoarding would get you killed. ….and then there’s the French.

  5. Do you find the concentration of wealth, and the concentration of wealth creation that Mr. Ratner points out, problematic for a free society? If the answer is “yes,” how would you rectify the current situation?

    I do. I believe in capitalism and greater reward for greater work/risk/value. But I do think there is a limit, and I have a hard time seeing what Mark Zuckerberg (to give one example) has done to make him “worth” billions of dollars when most college kids just like him who DIDN’T happen to have a good idea (or steal one) at just the right time and DIDN’T get lucky enough to capitalize on it end up making $70k/year programming for some big corporation like Facebook. And that $70k is a lot compared to some people.

    I’m not sure how you solve the problem, but really, would Zuckerberg have done less if there’d been no monetary reward? Probably not, I don’t think he started it with dollar signs in his eyes. But even if so, would he have done any less if the monetary reward had been $25 million dollars instead of $17.5 billion (last estimate I read)? The whole “greater reward for greater risk/work/value” thing is to give people incentive to work harder, or do things which are of greater value, and when the reward reaches the point where more doesn’t act as a greater motivator, anything above that point isn’t really serving much purpose.

    Is tax policy an answer (some recent research has pointed to the fact that higher tax rates may not be as big a hurdle to economic growth at previously feared, “The Case for Raising Top Tax Rates”)?

    I don’t know. On the one hand I DO believe that government is like anyone else, expenses will rise to meet available resources. So I don’t necessarily think the rich should be soaked in order to pay for lots of nice new programs or to pay off the debt, because to some extent I DO think that government is bloated, and without some financial pressures to keep it in check, it could grow out of control.

    But on the other hand, tax policy aimed at reducing taxation on more of the poor and to a lesser extent on the middle class and more on the uber wealthy might not be a bad way to solve the problem… or it might.

    That’s my big problem with the whole situation. I agree that it’s broken, but I’m not sure there’s an easy way to fix it, and the potential for huge unforeseen “gotchas” in any solution we attempt to implement gives me pause.

    Do you distinguish between those who earn huge wealth by virtue of company building—Steve Jobs for instance—from those who do so simply by virtue of investing capital in financial instruments?

    Yeah, kinda. Steve Jobs definitely has more than he “deserves” because he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and (admittedly) skillful enough to capitalize on it. But he falls into the category of “has a lot because he earned a lot, just maybe has more of a “lot” than he earned”. People who get rich by playing games with investments are, in some cases, the lowest form of scum, because often they do it at the expense of others. It was just such investment schemes that made the people in the know gobs of cash while throwing our economy into its current desolate condition. I’m sure being an investment banker is a stressful job, and so I can see large salaries. But I’m not sure I see the size of salaries they’re getting, and I certainly don’t think they should be allowed to benefit from the capital gains tax break. Their earnings is not capital gains. For their CLIENTS it is capital gains, for THEM it is commission and should be taxed as such.

    With particular regard to hedge fund managers, do you find the economic arrangements between investor and manager whereby huge wealth is created often in spite of poor performance wrong? If so, what should be done about it?

    I have no idea. But this is similar to the case with CEOs. We’ve reached a point in business where we hire CEOs with obscene salaries and huge guaranteed golden parachutes. If I get hired at a company and do a poor job, I get fired. If a CEO does the same thing, he walks out with several years worth of his salary as severance, and that salary itself was many times the annual salary of the average worker at the company.

    That, I think, is the heart of the problem. If people make a lot of money because they did something to deserve it, and that “lot of” is in line, proportionally, to their work and their contribution, everything is fine. But there are so many people who get rich because they learn how to game the system, and I’m just not sure I like that.

    By the way, in all of this, I don’t want anyone to think I’m advocating socialism or communism. I mean, I’m advocating a mix of capitalism and socialism, certainly, but pure socialism does fail because it loses the motivation for people to work hard. If there is no direct link between your own circumstances (or those of your family) and your hard work, there’s really not much motivation to work hard.

    I guess the problem, really, is that as with so many things, the extremes are where the problems are. So if you see capitalism as a binary state with socialism and think socialism is bad, then you’ll advocate for pure capitalism, while if you see a continuum, you’ll recognize that being on either end is not optimal, and the best place to be is somewhere in the middle. WHERE that falls is open to debate, but that debate can never happen when one side has people who assume that anyone who doesn’t believe in 100% free capitalism is a socialist and the other side has people who assume that anyone who doesn’t believe in pure “power to the people” is a fascist.

    • Don’t get bodged down in contiguous Capitalism vs Socialism debates when it’s best to focus exclusively on corruption and to keep shining a light on those who abuse authority. That way it’s not a matter of regulating fairness then it is a drive to maintain a strict adherence to the law.

      We need to rely on an informed public to choose the best investment strategy for them selves. If they’re selecting these vanity hedge funds for name recognition over profitability then screw ‘em.
      The government’s job is to pacify the voting public more so then it is to regulate “fairness”. If the voting public finds itself satisfied with watching the rich get richer as they re-read their copies of Atlas Shrugged, then the government’s Job is done.

      Let the Darwinian Capitalist Hunger Games continue but this time let the fallen die.

  6. AnonymousDog says:

    In your chart, is the “income” credited to the five individuals listed cash income or accrued income? In other words, do the numbers represent actual cash income to those individuals which they could chose to spend “right now”, or do the numbers represent an increase in speculative, “on paper” value of assets which those people have acquired during the year and which, for tax purposes must be claimed as income?

  7. It’s money earned not accrued or deferred

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      After taxes? Just curious.

    • Define “earned” though. I mean, yes, by strict definitions there is earned vs. accrued vs. deferred, but using a real world rather than legal definition, I have a hard time believing that a hedge fund manager to earns his clients single digit percentages (and then takes a large chunk of that, and then charges them a management fee on top of that) has “earned” 10s, 100s or 1000s of millions of dollars.

  8. Peter Houlihan says:

    I’m pretty sure those figures in the top graphic should read billion rather than million.

    • I don’t think so. That’s the INCREASE for the average individual, not the income nor the total.

      • Peter Houlihan says:

        I’m pretty sure the average member of the 99% didn’t earn a pay increase of $80million last year. $80bn overall wouid make sense though.

        • No, the average member of the 99% earned an average pay increase of $80. Not million, not billion, 80 dollars.

          The average member of the 1% got $105k and change.

          And the average member of the .1% (top 1/10 of 1%) got $4.2 million increase.

  9. The Wet One says:

    I see the pinko commies are out in force today.

    Look, the day that 1 man makes all the money and does only 1 man’s share of the work is the day that capitalism has won. You pinko commies just don’t understand or accept the truth, beauty and wonder of this phenomenon. If that 1 man can provide value to everyone far, far, far, far in excess of any living, breathing human being in the good ‘ol US of A, well then he clearly deserves all the pie in the country.

    Anyone who disagrees with this is clearly NOT AMERICAN and is some kind of Taliban supporting, Osama Bin Laden living, better Red than American, pinko commie scumbag who deserves sand kicked in his teeth and to be made mock of for the rest of eternity.

    Stick that in your pipe and smoke it Mr. Matlack!

    The Wet One.

    I’ll take my tongue out of my cheek now.

  10. MichelleG says:

    It’s disgraceful that someone can earn a billion in a year. What will their tombstone read? “Herein lies the world’s top billionaire”? Will they be buried in cash or in-kind? Maybe there will be a pilgrimage to these billionaires’ burial sites and homage paid to them? :s

  11. “Do you find the concentration of wealth, and the concentration of wealth creation that Mr. Ratner points out, problematic for a free society? If the answer is “yes,” how would you rectify the current situation?”

    I don’t find the concentration of wealth embarassing. What I have a problem with is the way in which the wealth is earned. Most highly paid individuals (CEOs and company executives) have been highly destructive to the companies they control and in a reasonable world should be earning negative wages. They are rich because they have risen to the top of a hierarchy not because they have helped their companies.

    “Is tax policy an answer (some recent research has pointed to the fact that higher tax rates may not be as big a hurdle to economic growth at previously feared, “The Case for Raising Top Tax Rates”)?”

    Maybe. But I would try far far stronger shareholder rights and government policy which encourages concentrated instead of diversified holdings in companies.

    “Do you distinguish between those who earn huge wealth by virtue of company building—Steve Jobs for instance—from those who do so simply by virtue of investing capital in financial instruments?”

    Yes I think company builders are much much more evil than the investors in financial instruments. Company builders in most cases have helped to destroy and mismanage companies. Whereas those who invest capital are either good at gambling/speculating, hucksters or legitimate investors. But they just shift money around…in most cases (pension managers being the exception) they don’t make peoples lives a living hell.

    “With particular regard to hedge fund managers, do you find the economic arrangements between investor and manager whereby huge wealth is created often in spite of poor performance wrong? If so, what should be done about it?”

    Nothing should be done. These investors are stupid. However public pension funds should be forbidden from investing in hedge funds.

  12. Welcome to a meritocracy, there is a lot of capital in the world, read pension funds for the middle class, endowments and some wealthy individuals and families that do not want to go thru another ten years (99-09) of no growth and lots of volatility. Hedge funds have outperformed the basic indexes between 99-09. These funds do not use a mask and a gun, in fact most of the top ones are closed to new money but when they do well the amount of money under management grows unless everybody withdraws all there gains. We have so many unfunded promises out there with our pension funds that let’s just hope these guys continue to outperform the indexes because otherwise there is going to be some very ugly scenarios. Remember when the best apartments on 5th Avenue traded at 2mm instead of 35mm it was because 12mm a year made you filthy rich now it takes 17x that. The rich and the poor will always be with us. The fortunes today pale against HL Hunt and JP Getty’s billion dollar fortunes in 1959. The purchasing power of the dollar has declined by at least 95% since 1959 if not more. You could attend the best prep and ivy league schools in the USA for the cost of a cadillac in 1967 and that’s what they cost today (47k). Inflation distorts everything.

  13. HI Tom,

    Yesterday morning I wrote 95% of a really great reply to this important article, and I brought a different perspective to the debate.

    As I was in the last seconds of editing and finalising my comment the site did a site initiated screen refresh. This is about the 5th time this has happened to me. More fool me I guess and perhaps I should have learned to write my reply in authoring software then paste it in.

    So clearly I have my own solution for the future, but we dont always know we are going to write for a long time and start out to make a quick reply, then time passes and we are so embrolied in the writing we have lost awareness of the risk of the “Phantom Refresher”. So if you could talk to your technical folk and ask them if they really need to keep the “Phantom Refresher” on staff, or even if they could reduce the number of shifts he or she gets it would be greatly appreciated :-)

    …and congratulations on the publication which keeps on delivering inspiring articles worthy of comment so often.

    Blessings….Ure

  14. Copyleft says:

    “We may have democracy, or we may have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”
    –Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis–

    There’s no doubt that wealth gaps are bad for democracy, or for a society in general. (Refer to the book “The Spirit Level” for evidence.) The question is what to do about it. How do we get capitalism back under control without stifling the advantages that come with a relatively free market?

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