Posner and Becker duel on Executive Compensation Wage Controls

October 25th, 2009

At Becker-Posner Blog, Judge Posner and Professor Becker have an interesting exchange onĀ  on the Obama Administration’s capping of executive pay. H/T @UChicagoLaw I have blogged about this a bit before, but have not considered it from the perspectives these two mavens approach the issue.

Judge Posner chimes in first. As you may expect Posner has a lot to say, but here are a few choice nuggets:

Limiting the compensation of a handful of employees at a handful of firms can’t have any effect except to benefit the firms’ competitors by making them more attractive places to work. The limitations are a form of scapegoating designed to appease public anger over the high incomes of financiers who precipitated an economic collapse that has caused widespread suffering, much of it to people who, unlike financiers, bumbling or inattentive government regulators, macroeconomists, members of Congress, and improvident homebuyers and home-equity borrowers, bear no share of blame for the collapse.

There is a slightly better, though still unconvincing, case for regulating (2) compensation structure, as distinct from the level of compensation, of (2) all financial institutions. Since the market for financiers is global (in part because even a very small country can become a major banking center, given the mobility of capital and of financial personnel and the absence of any need for elaborate infrastructure, physical resources, or a large domestic market), effective regulation of compensation structures would require agreement among all major and many minor nations. If that obstacle to effective regulation could be surmounted, the case for regulation would come down to the fact that front-loaded compensation of financial executives can increase macroeconomic risk.

Professor Becker replies:

I sympathize with all the people who are upset by the very large bonuses, stock options, and other compensation received by heads of some financial institutions that ran their companies into the ground through bad investments. However, I also believe it is a big mistake to have a pay czar, Kenneth Feinberg, impose sharp cuts over the salaries and other compensation of the seven financial institutions, like Citibank, that received the most government bailout money. The Fed has made matters even worse by proposing to implement pay controls over thousands of banks as part of its regular review of their performance.General controls over wages have frequently been tried in different countries. The usual motivation for wage controls is to reduce inflation by keeping labor costs, and therefore prices, from rising rapidly, although wage controls are invariably combined with general controls over prices as well. Inflationary fears were certainly behind the wage and price controls in almost all countries during World War II, and in the US under President Nixon from 1971-1973. These measures sometimes succeeded in suppressing inflation temporarily, but they also led to rationing of various consumer and producer goods because of weak incentive to produce or work when prices and wages are kept below their market values.

Companies can still compete for employees when higher pay cannot be offered as inducements by increasing fringe benefits to employees, such as longer vacations and subsidized lunches and other meals. US companies began to offer free health insurance to employees during World War II as a way to get around the wartime control over wages. The American health care system has suffered badly since then from this artificially induced connection between employment and subsidized health care.