The heated debate in comments to this post reminded me of this:
(I'm doing quite well myself, thanks. I'm in the Top 6.57 percent worldwide in terms of personal income — provided I get that next paycheck.)
It also reminded me of a story:
My first job out of college was as an intern with … let's just call them The Company.
As an intern, I wasn't a part of the complex salary structure of grade levels and pay scales that governed all actual jobs with The Company, from filing clerk to CEO. As a result, I didn't have any particular stake in the massive, yearlong salary restructuring that took place while I was there.
The Company hired the Hay Group to come in and evaluate its various job levels and pay scales, which involved months of interviews and endless discussion of things like "core responsibilities." Finally, the Hay people came up with a grand plan and everybody in The Company gathered in the cafeteria — the only room large enough to hold us all — to learn about the details and the transition from how things were to how things would come to be.
This was pre-PowerPoint, but there were lots of transparencies on an overhead projector. The gist of the presentation had to do with "midpoints." At every salary level, it was explained, some workers were earning less than the midpoint salary for that level, while other workers were earning more. This was, it was explained, unfair.
Over the next few years, it was further explained, the salary structure would be made more fair by freezing the salaries of those currently earning more than 100 percent of their grade-level midpoint and giving incremental raises to those earning less than the midpoint.
I've simplified this a great deal. The actual presentation took nearly an hour and made all of this sound much more confusing and complicated than it really was, but this was the basic gist.
Finally, stumbling to a conclusion, the CEO reassured us all that thanks to this transition process and the fine contribution of the fine folks from the Hay Group, The Company would have a fairer, more just salary structure in a few short years. Those currently earning more than their midpoints might not enjoy any raises in the next few years, he suggested, but they were hardly in a position to complain, seeing as they had been ding so much better than everyone else up until now.
Awkward pause. Fear and confusion and much shuffling of feet. Then the intern had a question.
I was a bit nervous, in part because I was only 22 and in part because I had just heard what sounded to me like an elaborate scam and thus the only question I could think of was "Did I just hear correctly, that you're proposing a salary freeze on your secretary so you can give yourself a raise?" and that's not an easy question to ask your boss's boss.
So I was a bit nervous, and thus couldn't muster the courage or the clarity to put the question quite so baldly. Instead, nervously, I chose an unfortunately elaborate analogy.
"You've explained that some people's buckets are overflowing," I said. "While other's buckets are only 80 percent full. But that doesn't tell us anything unless we know how big the various buckets are."
A blank stare from the CEO and an awkward silence, after which I'm afraid I repeated the analogy, only this time with cups instead of buckets. More awkward silence.
I panicked and switched gears, disastrously: "Since the new salary structure will be, you've said, perfectly fair and just, is there any reason not to demonstrate this by disclosing everyone's salary publicly?"
Audible gasps throughout the cafeteria and looks of horror as though I had just farted in church. I'd lost the room. The CEO harrumphed about confidentiality of personnel matters and, there being no further questions, the meeting was adjourned.
Over the following year, working from job postings that advertised both "grade levels" and starting salaries, I was able to graph the rapidly accelerating curve of the various "midpoints" and to confirm that, yes, in fact, this process was the elaborate scam I had feared. Top-level executives had largely been judged to be earning less than their "midpoints," and so received generous raises. Their secretaries and support staff had largely been judged to be earning more than their "midpoints," and so faced salary freezes for several years. All in the name of fairness and justice.
From this experience, I learned several lessons:
1. If you ever encounter a consultant from the Hay Group, keep one hand on your wallet and never turn your back.
2. Americans find any public discussion or comparison of income distasteful and grounds for extreme defensiveness. They might be willing to talk publicly about the intimate details of their sex lives or their gastrointestinal functions, but not about their salary.
3. This reluctance to speak transparently about income does not serve most people well, but serves some people very well indeed.