OK, so the top executives at the big bailed out companies are taking a pay cut. A large pay cut. I think most of us agree that this is appropriate. First of all, since the bailout, the government owns the company, and it gets to be the boss. If George Soros had bailed out AIG, it would have been his prerogative to cut anyone's pay he deemed fit to cut.
The pay cut, though, has some controversy. Any time you start tinkering with Wall Street money, the experts start balking. There is some questioning as to if this pay cut is really an effective idea, and reason suggests that the companies will just find loopholes to get around these rulings anyway. But my very favorite part of any discussion on cutting corporate salaries is when the pay experts (yes, that's an actual job that people have) come on TV and warn, "We need to be careful about salary caps," the experts say. "We need those big paychecks to attract top talent."Top talent? The folks that bankrupted Lehman, that destroyed Bear Stearns, that mismanaged Citibank and AIG so drastically they needed billions of government dollars just to meet payroll ... these guys are the TOP talent?
I'd be willing to try the second tier of talent. I'm just saying.
Let's discuss what is meant by "top talent." Do we mean, these business men (and women) are so visionary, so hard-working, so gifted, that there's nobody else out there like them? It's my impression that at any given time there are tens of thousands of Ivy League MBAs swarming through cities all over the Eastern Seaboard. (Just check out the bar car on the trains at Grand Central.) You're telling me only 100 of those guys are any good? I doubt that.
By "top talent", do we mean that they are unrivaled in thinking up ways to package risky investment products that make themselves rich and cause the rest of us extreme suffering? Please, plenty of people would be good at that. Lining your own pockets with other people's money is an old trick.
By "top talent", do we mean that they excel at taking over successful companies and then, through abysmal business plans and outrageous borrowing, bankrupt once successful smaller firms? Come on — that's been happening since the ‘80s. That playbook is so old John DeLorean is on the cover.
Hollywood offers an instructive lesson here. Remember when Farrah Fawcett left "Charlie's Angels"? The show ran happily for years with Cheryl Ladd in Farrah's place. Remember when Shelley Long left "Cheers"? "Cheers" did quite well, thank you, with Kirstie Alley. (And where is Shelley now, anyway)? Hollywood is replete with stories of actors who won Academy Awards for roles in movies they only got after some other movie star turned it down.
No one is irreplaceable.
I am thinking that for every high level manager who quits because of "low" pay, there are going to be 250 absurdly qualified guys right in line behind him. We have a huge surplus of smart, greedy businessmen. We've been breeding them for years.
Pay cuts? These guys are lucky to have a job! They failed to follow good business practices, they did not look out for their employees, they did not manage their risk, and they were unable to read the signs of disaster on the horizon. Sorry, but we can no longer afford that kind of "top talent." Send in the bargains.
Pam Lobley is a columnist and co-author of the book "You Definitely Know You're a Mom When ..." To read her past columns or get contact information, visit her website: www.pamlobley.com.
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