Topic: Business & Commercial

Fairness and the 100 Million Dollar Man

What is “fair”? That is the question raised by the dilemma of Andrew Hall, a Citigroup commodities trader who has earned, according to the terms of his completely legal and valid contract, 100 million dollars. Citigroup, of course, was bailed out by taxpayer funds to the tune of $45 billion dollars. Is it fair for 100 million dollars of this money, supposedly intended to keep the financial institution from collapsing, to go to one man? One man gets all this, while regular citizens are struggling to keep their homes? It is the AIG bonuses all over again! An outrage!

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Another way is this: Hall undeniably earned his money. His trading judgement has been a factor in earning Citi an estimated 2 billion dollars over the last five years, according to the New York Times. If they don’t pay him what he’s worth, another company, not burdened by the political fall-out from bailout funds, will be happy to do so. Without Mr. Hall, Citigroup will be less likely to be able to pay back all those taxpayer funds.

From an ethical standpoint, this is, or should be, an easy call. Hall made a deal to sell his services. He is spectacularly successful at his craft, and it is widely believed that he is a unique talent, just like baseball players such as Alex Rodriguez or Mark Teixeira, who make more than 20 million in six months of playing a game and who don’t return anything close to the profit margins Hall does. He absolutely deserves the money he earned, bailout or no bailout, taxpayer outrage or not.

Still, there are many Americans who cannot accept that there isn’t something intrinsically wrong about Hall, or anyone, making 100 million dollars. In their view, for one person to make that much money is, by definition, unfair. If he would be paid just one million dollars, enough to be called “rich” by most definitions, think of all the good that could be done with the remaining money: hungry children fed, families housed, sick people cured.

That attitude leads to a problem, however, in a country founded on the principle of individual freedom and self-determination. It suggests that people should not be permitted to sell their talents and services for what they are worth—a core right of a free citizen— and there is no question that Hall is worth every dollar he is paid for two reasons: 1) A corporations which needs to turn a profit is willing to pay him that immense amount, and 2) he earned that corporation much more than he is paid. Whatever the culture may have concluded in other nations, in this nation we still embrace the idea that there is no such thing as earning too much money, if you work for it and can convince someone to pay it. If the majority can declare that 100 million dollars is too much, it can decree that $100,000 is too much, or $50,000, or $10,000. This is a version of “fairness” that not only leads to an unfair result, it also stifles enterprise, ambition, and trust. In short, it doesn’t work.

Hall’s dilemma is the direct result of government action (however necessary or wise) that undermines the principles of free enterprise, which include the freedom of unsuccessful businesses to fail. Hall had nothing to do with any of that, however. It is true that if Citigroup had gone belly-up, he would have had a hard time collecting the bonus he earned, and that would have been unfair too. But when the U.S. Treasury stepped in to bail-out Citicorp, it permitted the company to meet its contractual commitments. If the government didn’t want Andrew Hall to get the money he had earned, it should have let Citicorp go belly-up.

In light of these extraordinary circumstances, would it be ethical for Hall to accept less than the amount due him, as some of the AIG executives did in the wake of the public uproar over their bonuses? Of course it would. Nonetheless, he has no ethical obligation to give Citigroup a discount on the compensation that was agreed upon, especially after he delivered splendidly on duties, any more than it is your obligation to accept a reduction in pay when your company, due to no fault of yours, finds itself in dire straits. You may choose to do that; I have, in fact. But that’s affirmatively ethical conduct that goes beyond obligation. It isn’t unethical to take what is owed to you.

This is not the same situation as the highly paid CEO of a corporation who, having contributed to his company’s financial distress by making poor decisions, nonetheless continues to take the full extent of his salary while he eliminates large numbers of the lower paid workforce who simply been doing their jobs. This is, I believe, unfair and a failure of accountability and loyalty, but that description doesn’t apply to Hall. Hall isn’t management; he’s a hired gun. If everyone in Citigroup had done their job as well as he did his, it wouldn’t have needed a government bailout.

It’s fair to be angry at Citigroup, and it is fair to be angry with the government. But not Andrew Hall. He is owed a lot of money, but he earned it, and it is wrong to deny it to him. Fair is fair.

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