Pay Them What They're Worth

In our profiles of American heroes this month, one quote hits home particularly hard. It came from New York City firefighter John Whaler, of Engine 291 in Queens. His perspective is direct: "It's strange the way our society treats athletes and celebrities. What are they doing? Hitting a baseball for a living. And every year they demand more millions. We will die for you without even thinking about it, and for us to get a three-percent raise is like pulling teeth."

You know he's right. We know he's right. In fact, we know he's so right that it makes us cringe. Here's a man who puts his life on the line every day, and he can't even get an extra $1,000 or $2,000 a year. But we pay a shortstop who has never been to the World Series $25 million a year, and a movie star gets $20 million a picture even though his last three or four movies have bombed at the box office.

It's not just movie stars and celebrities. Americans seem infected with the idea that they should be rewarded for doing basically nothing. Even worse, many feel they deserve to be rewarded even if they fail. Look at corporate America. Senior executives who lose money for their company and its stockholders still walk away with severance packages that often total tens of millions of dollars. Look at the most recent high-profile case, Enron. Its executives cashed in stock options and made millions of dollars while risky investments began to falter. They apparently hid the facts through allegedly fraudulent accounting measures. In the end, the company was forced into bankruptcy, and many longtime employees, locked into company stock plans through their 401(k) retirement plans, lost everything.

Something's not right.

We have lost sight in America of what's really important. Hard work and personal initiative aren't necessarily rewarded fairly. People who risk everything for others, like firefighters and police officers, often must find ways to supplement their incomes. And every time their contracts come up for review, it's a dogfight just to get small increases.

No one is suggesting that top performers shouldn't be rewarded. Bill Gates of Microsoft has become one of the richest men in the world in less than 20 years, but he has created more wealth for others than he has accumulated for himself. No one begrudges the salaries paid to the New York Yankees; they've won three of the last four World Series. Who would dispute Michael Jordan's or Tiger Woods's right to their incomes?

However, there's no reason that a baseball player with a lifetime .250 batting average should automatically expect to make millions. Make him earn it. Same for movie stars. If a movie makes $200 million at the box office, maybe a $20 million salary is warranted. But if it bombs, why should the actor benefit anyway? And if a corporate executive bankrupts a company, he shouldn't be entitled to a big payout.

And, of course, men like John Whaler need to believe that we value what they do for us. If that means a higher salary, then let's give it to them. We can't exist without them, and in times of crisis, we have learned just how much we count on them to save and protect us.

It's all about finding a better balance. As Americans, living in the greatest country on earth, we will all win when that balance is achieved.