In 1940, on the eve of America’s entry into World War II, President Roosevelt warned, “I don’t want to see a single war millionaire created in the United States as a result of this world disaster.”
Fast-forward 60 years. It is early April 2003, and American soldiers are fighting their way toward Baghdad. The New York Times asks retired general Jay Garner what he likes about his new job as CEO of defense contractor SyColeman. “Most of the guys are former military,” Garner replies. “And you make a lot of money.”
Well. It seems that times have changed since FDR. Garner’s remark went largely unnoticed, even as the retired general took temporary leave from his corporate job to become the Bush administration’s viceroy in Baghdad. We don’t hear phrases like “war millionaires” much anymore, certainly not from our presidents.
Of course, Jay Garner is hardly the only one who has cashed in on the U.S. government’s increasingly bellicose foreign policy. The defense biz is positively crawling with war millionaires, namely the CEOs who head up the corporations that build the planes, ships and tanks for the Pentagon.
At a time when most American industries are struggling and executive pay overall is actually stagnating, CEOs in the defense industry are flourishing. According to a new report, median pay for defense contractor chiefs shot up 79 percent in 2002 while overall CEO pay inched forward just 6 percent.
The typical boss for a defense contractor made $5.4 million in total compensation in 2002. That’s 45 percent more than his median American counterpart, who earned $3.7 million, according to Business Week.
Granted, weapons of war are in demand nowadays, but a larger defense budget is only a small part of the story. From 2001 to 2002, defense spending rose 14 percent, but median CEO pay in the industry grew more than five times as fast. All told, the top 37 defense contractors have taken home more than $1.35 billion in total compensation since 2000.
Over a billion dollars, a good-sized chunk of them from taxpayers, went to just 37 corporate executives. Some questions come to mind: Was that really the best possible use of a billion dollars? Would we be any less secure as a nation had that money gone elsewhere, perhaps to cash-strapped schools or to preserve the health care services seniors depend on? And how much money does a CEO need in order to get out of bed and go to work, anyway?
An Army private in Iraq earns, including combat pay, about $19,600 a year. That’s a far cry from $25.3 million, which is how much Vance Coffman, CEO of top weapons maker Lockheed Martin, made in 2002. It would take that G.I. in Iraq 1,293 years of combat to earn Coffman’s 2002 haul. Even the Commander-in-Chief, who earns $400,000 a year, would need 63 years to match Coffman. Does Vance Coffman really work 63 times as hard, and have 63 times as much responsibility, as the President of the United States?
There’s no reason the Pentagon needs to tolerate such excess. In the name of shared sacrifice, we ought to build limits on CEO pay into defense contracts. The Pentagon could stipulate that all defense contractors limit top pay to no more than 25 times the salary of the lowest-paid worker in the firm.
Unfair government meddling in the marketplace? Not when taxpayer dollars are at stake. As part of the 2001 airline industry bailout, Congress prohibited pay raises for airline CEOs. That sensible approach ought to apply to all government contractors, especially during times of national emergency.
Back to the history books for a moment: FDR wasn’t the only president to take a dim view of war profiteers or to appreciate the tragic cost of war. In 1953, at the height of the Cold War, President Dwight Eisenhower said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” Can anyone deny that the millions of dollars paid to defense executives represents no less a theft?
Chris Hartman is research director at United for a Fair Economy in Boston and co-author of More Bucks for the Bang: CEO Pay at Top Defense Contractors. He can be reached at chartman@FairEconomy.org