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At some point, each of us has to ask: What am I here for? As a rule, we ask that question several times in our life -- sometimes about particular situations, sometimes about the larger issue of life itself.

Although you won't find this answer in any Catholic catechism, apparently for many of us the answer is: "To make as much money as I can possibly get."

How else do you explain the rise in top executive compensation even while the buying power of most workers is eroding? Especially, how do you explain paying CEOs huge salaries and bigger bonuses even when the earnings and the stock values of the companies they lead are in free fall?

Today America's highest paid CEOs and CFOs make 400 times more than the average American worker. When you compare CEO pay to the pay of manufacturing workers in their own firms, the ratio is the U.S. is the world's highest: 39:1.But it's also high in other developed countries: 31.8:1 in the UK; 25.9:1 in Italy; 24.9:1 in New Zealand.

The disparities are so great that they are noted with some alarm in college and graduate business textbooks and criticized by the likes of people like Warren Buffet and Ben Bernanke. More than a decade ago, an article in Fortune magazine covering the issue was headlined: "The Great CEO Pay Heist." Economist Paul Krugman has said the notion that high compensation packages are generally the result of executives achieving high performance is "a sick joke."

And the issue is not confined to leaders in the business world. A recent Time magazine investigative story on health care costs reported how the CEOs of nonprofit health care enterprises are routinely taking home multi-million dollar compensation packages. In cases where the medical centers are owned by universities, medical center CEOs often are paid two or three times what the universities' presidents received.

In Switzerland the citizens have cried "enough!" They recently voted overwhelmingly to prohibit big signing bonuses and "golden parachute" payouts to CEOs. The referendum they passed also gives corporate shareholders a binding vote each year on executive pay.

Lest you think this is the work of some "socialists" or "Trotskyites," the man behind the decade-long battle to bring the issues to a vote is Thomas Minder, who is not only a Swiss senator but also a toothpaste manufacturer. He was angered after his company lost a contract to serve SwissAir when it went bankrupt -- and then learned that CEO Mario Cori was paid five years' salary as a signing bonus even though he held the post for only a few months.

It's not likely that same sort of legislation would ever pass in the U.S. or many other Western countries. But expect pressures to combat the abuse of executive pay to continue, especially in publicly-traded companies.

In the meantime, it would be behoove everyone to seriously consider the wisdom of Cardinal John Foley, a friend of mine who passed away in 2011, and before that headed the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Social Communications for 23 years. I heard him say more than once: "Everyone has a right to make a living. No one has the right to make a killing."

Owen Phelps, Ph.D. 
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute

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