Obscenity, like pornography, may be hard to define but you know it when you see it — which makes it very difficult to regulate.

Obscene executive remuneration undoubtedly exists. We know it when we see a massive parachute payout to a failed CEO, for example. But defining it is tricky. Is it obscene in terms of the social value of the position? Large businesses employ thousands of Australians, meaning a successful CEO plays an important role in sustaining and creating jobs. There may be as much social value in that as in positions that society demonstrably under-rewards — like carers, or teachers and medical professionals in remote communities. And all of those have far greater value than elite sportsmen and women and celebrities, who have little or no social value whatsoever. Or, for that matter, successful gamblers, who benefit by chance from an actual social evil.

Moreover, in the case of executives, we’re talking about contracts between private parties. It is taxpayers who determine that, for example, a brilliant teacher who can inspire and change the lives of their students is paid little more than Average Weekly Earnings, but executive remuneration is determined between shareholders, boards and managers. Don’t get us started on the money made by the likes of The Wiggles and Nicole Kidman, but significant social harm (Nicole?) should be demonstrated before governments blunder in and insist on regulating such transactions.

The remuneration debate could do with some clarity. Why, exactly, do we object to massive remuneration? What specific harm do we want to prevent — and, therefore, what is the best way to prevent it?

Otherwise, we’re simply regulating for the sake of it … and to satisfy an instinctive envy.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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