A study of executive pay commissioned by the New York Times and published yesterday reveals that those at the very top of the economic food chain seem to have moved on from the doldrums of the Great Recession. The number crunchers found that median pay last year for top executives at 200 of the country's biggest companies was close to $11 million, a 23 percent jump from 2009. (Interestingly, many of the most generous pay packages went to the CEOs of media companies, with the head of Viacom topping off the list with an $84.5 million take.) All this at a time when the unemployment rate is flirting with the double digits and the average American's wages are flatlining — the Bureau of Labor Statistics says median weekly pay during the fourth quarter of 2010 was up just 0.5 percent from the year before.
The revival of the cash bonus is partly to blame. Largely scrapped during the heady days of the recession, for fear of angering people already upset over massive bailouts for Wall Street and the carmakers, cash bonuses were up 38 percent for top executives. This sudden largesse is because these companies are, for the most part, actually seeing healthy profits again. But why have these companies only increased executive pay and not their other workers' pay, or for that matter hired new workers? The answer is there's a cheaper alternative: machines. Last month, the Times ran a piece about how businesses are increasingly buying up technology and equipment — available at major discounts right now — rather than hiring new workers. Guess if you're not a robot or a Fortune 500 CEO, you're out of luck.