Why Do We Worship CEOs?

by

Things have gotten out of hand in regard to the admiration we have for CEOs. Not only do we over-compensate them, we idolize them. People complain about professional athletes being overpaid, but don’t bat an eye when some hapless CEO who earns $6 million a year gets fired for incompetence, and then collects his $10 million Golden Parachute. We act as if the relatively straight-forward concept of “the main boss” is beyond our comprehension. I once knew the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. I shall call him “Fred.” While our relationship was tenuous and one-sided, as president of the labor union representing one of the corporation’s important facilities, I was able to maintain his attention (if not his respect) by virtue of the fact that our union was willing to go on strike at the drop of a hat. He knew it and I knew it. We had already done it twice. Basically, Fred was a decent guy. Even though almost everything he ever told me was either disappointing or depressing, I appreciated him leveling with us, giving us the unvarnished truth, something management people were usually loath to do. Whereas most managers liked to indulge in platitudes and generalities and smarmy seminar-speak, Fred insisted on being brutally honest. Accordingly, our final meeting was quite brutal. I had invited him to the mill to make a pitch for starting up some idle machinery. We had six production machines on the floor, but only two were running. I assured him that if they started up the other four machines, our unit cost would drop dramatically. We all knew that a 2-machine operation could never compete, cost-wise, with facilities that had their overhead costs spread over as many as 10 machines. It was simple economics. Fred somberly noted that the reason those machines had been shut down was because they were under-performing, but I reminded him that our numbers had vastly improved. While he agreed that we had made progress, he said he had an obligation to the shareholders. As CEO, he wouldn’t be able to justify giving additional assets to a facility that had proven it couldn’t run the assets it already had. Even though I must have looked crestfallen, he asked if I had ever heard a “Newfie” joke. I told him I hadn’t. Fred had spent time in Canada. He said that Newfie jokes were jokes Canadians told about people living in Newfoundland (“Newfies”), jokes that depicted them as being more or less simple-minded, sort of like the old “Polack jokes.” I didn’t care much for ethnic jokes, and had no idea where he was going with this, but considering his earlier comments about stockholders and additional assets, I had the distressing feeling I was going to hate it. His joke: Two Newfies, Joe and Sam, bought watermelons from a farmer for 40-cents each. They then rented a truck, filled it with melons, parked it on the corner, and posted a sign: “Watermelons: 3 for $1.00.” At the end of the day, after selling all the melons, they found that they had lost money. Perplexed, Sam asked Joe what they should do. Joe replied confidently: “We need to get a bigger truck.” Fred’s joke implied that if he were to green-light the start up of additional machinery, he would be behaving like a Newfie. In other words, behaving stupidly and recklessly. It was crushing news. In 2016, that mill will have been in operation for 60 years, which, for a smoke-stack industrial site in this day and age, is truly remarkable. During that period it has not only been wildly profitable, it has used only union workers. For almost 60 years, every hourly employee in the facility has been a union member. That said, the department in question—the one with only two machines running—was eventually shut down. The stock market demanded it. Despite being the consistent bearer of shit news, I liked Fred’s modesty. He wasn’t one of those CEOs who needed regal perks—the helipad, the country club membership, the limousine. Moreover, he gave credit where it was due. He freely acknowledged it was the engineers, marketing people, asset leaders and hourly workers who were responsible for our success. People need to scale back their adulation. Believe it or not, CEOs are just hired help. David Macaray is a labor columnist and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor, 2nd Edition).  Dmacaray@earthlink.net

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
September 02, 2015
Paul Street
Strange Words From St. Bernard and the Sandernistas
Jose Martinez
Houston, We Have a Problem: False Equivalences on Police Violence
Henry Giroux
Global Capitalism and the Culture of Mad Violence
Ajamu Baraka
Making Black Lives Matter in Riohacha, Colombia
William Edstrom
Wall Street and the Military are Draining Americans High and Dry
David Altheide
The Media Syndrome Between a Glock and a GoPro
Ruth Fowler
Ask Not: Lost in the Crowd with Amanda Palmer
Yves Engler
Canada vs. Africa
Ron Jacobs
The League of Empire
Andrew Smolski
Democracy and Privatization in Neoliberal Mexico
Stephen Lendman
Gaza: a Socioeconomic Dead Zone
Norman Pollack
Obama, Flim-Flam Artist: Alaska Off-Shore Drilling
Kim Nicolini
Remembering Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes
September 01, 2015
Mike Whitney
Return to Crisis: Things Keep Getting Worse
Michael Schwalbe
The Moral Hazards of Capitalism
Eric Mann
Inside the Civil Rights Movement: a Conversation With Julian Bond
Pam Martens
How Wall Street Parasites Have Devoured Their Hosts, Your Retirement Plan and the U.S. Economy
Jonathan Latham
Growing Doubt: a Scientist’s Experience of GMOs
Fran Shor
Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders Campaign: a Case of Historical Amnesia?
Joe Paff
The Big Trees: Cockburn, Marx and Shostakovich
Randy Blazak
University Administrators Allow Fraternities to Turn Colleges Into Rape Factories
Robert Hunziker
The IPCC Caught in a Pressure Cooker
George Wuerthner
Myths of the Anthropocene Boosters: Truthout’s Misguided Attack on Wilderness and National Park Ideals
Robert Koehler
Sending Your Children Off to Safe Spaces in College
Jesse Jackson
Season of the Insurgents: From Trump to Sanders
August 31, 2015
Michael Hudson
Whitewashing the IMF’s Destructive Role in Greece
Conn Hallinan
Europe’s New Barbarians
Lawrence Ware
George Bush (Still) Doesn’t Care About Black People
Joseph Natoli
Plutocracy, Gentrification and Racial Violence
Franklin Spinney
One Presidential Debate You Won’t Hear: Why It is Time to Adopt a Sensible Grand Strategy
Dave Lindorff
What’s Wrong with Police in America
Louis Proyect
Jacobin and “The War on Syria”
Lawrence Wittner
Militarism Run Amok: How Russians and Americans are Preparing Their Children for War
Binoy Kampmark
Tales of Darkness: Europe’s Refugee Woes
Ralph Nader
Lo, the Poor Enlightened Billionaire!
Peter Koenig
Greece: a New Beginning? A New Hope?
Dean Baker
America Needs an “Idiot-Proof” Retirement System
Vijay Prashad
Why the Iran Deal is Essential
Tom Clifford
The Marco Polo Bridge Incident: a History That Continues to Resonate
Peter Belmont
The Salaita Affair: a Scandal That Never Should Have Happened
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Mike Whitney
Looting Made Easy: the $2 Trillion Buyback Binge
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Rob Urie
Wall Street and the Cycle of Crises