Tuesday, March 24, 2009

In Defense of Bonuses!

I suspect the people who are enraged about the AIG bonus scandal are people who don’t leave tips for wait staff in restaurants. Hey, they already get paid a salary, right, so why leave a tip? This is such a non-issue, I can hardly believe it is still in the news.

The common sense meaning of a “bonus” is something that is over and above what is normally expected in a situation. So it sounds like these AIG employees were showered with gratuitous money on the basis of greed alone.

But that is not what a “bonus” means in many industries, including the financial industry. Your bonus is a normal, expected part of your compensation. In the case of AIG it was written into the employment contract over a year ago. There was nothing unexpected, unusual, or gratuitous about it. Some employees could have a salary of $1 per year and a large “bonus” at the end of the year. Remove the bonus and they have worked a year for one dollar. That’s not fair.

Another reason people get tied in a knot over this incident is that the bonuses are very large, compared to what most people earn in a year. Many bonuses were a million dollars or more. But so what? That’s what people make in that industry. If you don’t make that much, maybe you went into the wrong business. Get over it. Resentment over the size of somebody else’s pay package is just unconscionable envy.

The argument has been made that the people who got these bonuses were undeserving. They were the very people who got AIG into so much financial trouble that it required taxpayer bailout. Since a bonus is contingent on performance, it seems inconceivable to many, including those in congress, that these employees could have earned any bonus.

But congresspersons are in no position to judge what is satisfactory performance at a firm like AIG. If the job is to bring in revenues by writing contracts of a certain kind, and you do that well, you get paid. That’s what the employment contract said and that’s what they did, so they got paid. Fair’s fair. It is an incorrect presumption to think that somebody in congress is a better judge of of the employees' performance.

Admittedly, the criterion performance to be rewarded should have been quality, not quantity. That is a common difficulty in any behavior management scheme – specifying the desired behavior with precision. But the employees did not specify the behavior to be rewarded, the bosses did. It is called a labor contract because you exchange your labor for cash payment. So the government would do better to replace the worthless executives in charge and retain the employees who proved so capable of performing the work required!

I did not even bother to write to my congresspersons about the idiotic house proposal to tax the bonuses at 90%. It was so stupid on the face of it that I did not think it had a chance of passing. Was I wrong about that! The legislation was not only a knee-jerk reflex, based on irrational emotion rather than reason, but it is almost certainly unconstitutional. (It is illegal to use tax law to punish individuals or selected groups). I now believe that rationality will prevail in the senate, but I am writing to my senators just in case. You just never know with politicians.

No comments:

Post a Comment