No longer sharing risks

January 15, 2007|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- It's safe to say that Bob Nardelli was never confused with Bob the Builder, the cartoon character who teaches teamwork to the kids: "Can we fix it? Yes we can!"

The Home Depot has a similar slogan - "You can do it. We can help" - but the former CEO was more of a do-it-for-himself kind of guy.

By the time Bob the Un-Builder hung up his orange apron, Home Depot stock had gone down 6 percent in six years. Nevertheless, he left with $210 million in his pocket.

The money Robert L. Nardelli got just for going was over and above his annual compensation, a number that hit $38.1 million in 2005, roughly $100,000 a day.

This is not going to be a rant about CEO salaries, although a rant is in order. We all know about the growing inequality of income. In 1965, the average CEO was paid 24 times the average worker. In 2005, the average CEO was paid 262 times the average worker. It's taken 12 years and a new Democratic Congress just to get the minimum wage moving up to $7.25 an hour over the next two years.

But Bob the Un-Builder is also a symbol of something that has gotten a lot less attention: the growing inequality of risk. "At one time, when corporate titans went down, they went down hard," says Jacob S. Hacker, a Yale political scientist. "Who could be more insulated from risk than today's CEO? There's never been a group of people richer or more protected from the vagaries of the economy."

Life at the tippy-top is sheltered, from the "golden hello" to the "golden parachute," no matter what happens under the CEO's watch. That's a level of security that's virtually extinct in the rest of the world.

Indeed, as Mr. Hacker writes in The Great Risk Shift, one of the hallmarks of today's economy is that risks once widely shared by government and employers have shifted onto the American family. We carry more and more of the risks of retirement, illness, unemployment, even education.

About 25 years ago, 83 percent of medium and large firms offered traditional pensions for life. Now less than a third do. Instead, they offer 401(k)s with no guarantee. Mr. Nardelli got an annual, guaranteed pension of $4.5 million for waving goodbye, but Home Depot workers are offered a so-called FutureBuilder 401(k) with no guaranteed annual pension.

As for health insurance, one out of three non-elderly Americans spends part of every two years without any coverage. Incomes rise and fall with more volatility than in the past at all levels of education. If economists wonder why people feel insecure, it's because they are.

How did this happen? Mr. Hacker blames the conservatives' "personal responsibility crusade": "Political leaders told us that we need to take `ownership' of our economic future and personal responsibility for our lives." This tapped into the primal American belief in independence, individualism, bootstraps. It tapped out the other modulating American belief, that we should insure each other from the hazards of illness, old age and unemployment. With apologies to The Home Depot, we're told "You can do it," without being told "We can help."

If you need proof of how many of us buy into the personal responsibility cult, consider this: The loudest protest over CEO salaries has come from shareholders, not from employees who experience the insecurity. If you need proof that things are beginning to change, consider something else: The November election was about economic as well as national insecurity.

The strategy for the Democrats' first 100 hours tackles some of the inequality of risk, from the minimum wage to health care to the cost of education loans. States such as Massachusetts and California are pushing for universal health care. But we have yet to develop a narrative, a story for the 21st century with all its globalism and change, that counters the simplistic, powerful notion of individual responsibility.

What we are seeing, however, is the reaction to these CEO stories. In America, workers aren't being rewarded for productivity and CEOs aren't being punished for poor performance. What's wrong with this picture? At some point, the shame of bankruptcy, job loss, illness - hallmarks of the risky society - is trumped by the shame of picking up a pink slip worth $210 million.

So we begin with a little renovation on Bob Nardelli's ego, a do-it-yourself project if there ever was one. "Can we fix it? Yes we can!"

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column usually appears Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is ellengoodman@globe.com.

Steve Chapman's column will return Wednesday.

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