Every Day Is Christmas for CEOs

Yes, Virginia, once upon a time the heads of big corporations weren’t each paid tens or hundreds of millions a year

Kurt Andersen
GEN
Published in
4 min readNov 29, 2021

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photo by Sean Locke

As we plunge into the holiday season, this headline in the New York Times last week amused me.

Of course, even with their annual bonuses looming just ahead, none of the corporate executives in the article said they’re thankful for the stupendous amounts of money they make.

Those sums were the subject of another Times story some months back –– C.E.O. Pay Remains Stratospheric, Even at Companies Battered by Pandemic. Versions of these CEO compensation surveys run more or less annually. And each year I think: People don’t realize it wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, the CEOs of America’s largest corporations were not paid such grotesquely excessive sums.

Which is an important fact to know because it’s a simple, stark, illuminating bit of the story how, during the last quarter of the last century, the rules and norms governing our American economy were radically changed, permitting economic inequality to rage out of control.

During the very prosperous decades from the 1940s until 1980, the average compensation of the top three executives of America’s largest companies increased steadily but…

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Kurt Andersen
GEN
Writer for

Award-winning, bestselling author (Evil Geniuses, Fantasyland, True Believers, Heyday, Turn of the Century) and creator of media (Studio 360, Inside, SPY).