What are we to think when a CEO slashes his own salary by 93%, and then uses the money—along with a big chunk of corporate profits—to ensure that every one of his employees makes a minimum of $70,000 per year?
That’s what Dan Price, founder and co-owner of Gravity Payments is doing. The CEO of the Washington-based firm made jaws drop when he announced that, over the next couple of years, all of his employees would be brought up to the $70k mark — a change that would mean doubling the income of his lowest-paid employees.
This has been the feel-good news story of the week. I, too, think it’s a terrific thing, and I congratulate Mr. Price on the move.
But still, there are a few points worth raising.
1) It seems to me that different people are applauding the move for different reasons. Is Price’s decision a move towards social justice? Or, on the other hand, is it an admirable act of charity—a rich guy giving a bunch of his own money to a few dozen colleagues? Note also that market conservatives can applaud the fact that this is a purely private move, involving no statutory fiddling with minimum wage.
2) It matters a great deal that Gravity is a private company. Since Mr. Price is not just the CEO but also the majority owner, he can pretty much do as he pleases with his own salary. At a publicly traded company, it wouldn’t be so straightforward. A corporate board could not pillage profits that way to top up employees. And they couldn’t lower CEO compensation without risking losing a talented leader. This fact limits the generalizability of the Gravity move.
3) It’s worth at least contemplating what effect this change will have on people at Gravity who were already at the $70k mark. Just picture it: you went to college for 4 years, and got your degree. You interviewed successfully for a job at a hip young firm, and struggled to get recognized, to get promoted, to earn a raise. And next thing you know, the kid in the copy room is making the same salary you are. What was the point? I’m sure no one is going to begrudge the raises, but it does make me wonder about the possibility of demotivating certain employees.
4) As an act of charity, the move isn’t a winner. If you want to do good in the world, you don’t do it by giving someone who already earns $60k an extra ten. Instead, you donate it to an organization that is engaged in helping those who are worst off. As an act of solidarity, however, the move fares much better.
5) It’s worth at least considering the possibility that the move is a savvy business move on Mr. Price’s part. Surely this is going to be terrific for morale, generally. And I think we can reasonably expect that applicants will be lined up around the block the next time Gravity posts a job opening. This is not to impugn his motives. It’s just to say that he might well, and reasonably, be aware that there’s an upside to his generosity. (And note: his own salary is set to rise again once the company has its profits back up to the level they were at before this move.)
6) Is this the first step towards a new trend? That’s hard to say. One report says Price has already “heard from almost 100 other CEO via email and text who say they support his move.” Emails are one thing. Volunteering to cut your salary is another. But we shouldn’t be too cynical about this: sometimes one person doing something is what makes others realize that it’s a real possibility. Bill Gates giving away the bulk of his vast fortune to charity was clearly instrumental in convincing Warren Buffett to do the same thing.
7) As Matthew Yglesias points out, it also matters that Gravity is a small company. Gravity has something just over 100 employees. So the money Price is redistributing from himself to others goes a long way. But consider what difference a similar move would make at, say, a company like Starbucks. There, CEO Howard Schultz makes about $21 million per year. That’s a lot. So what would happen if Schultz magnanimously offered to cut his salary by 93% and distribute the money across the company’s 182,000 employees? Each employee would see their annual income increase by $107.31. In other words: don’t look to CEO salaries as the well from which economic equality is going to be drawn.
So, congrats to Dan Price and his employees. The changes at Gravity are a genuinely good thing. Economic disparity has been diminished in a meaningful way for a handful of people, and that’s a welcome change. But we should be cautious about reading into it anything more than that.