CEOs Share Insights on the Income Inequality Issue

Selin Kesebir is the kind of person who drives capitalists nuts. The assistant professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School’s new research posits that “nationwide happiness” may depend on evening out income inequality. Kesebir also asserts that job creators themselves should be happy to pursue that goal.

“Is making money the major goal for entrepreneurs?” she asked in a recent paper. “For most of them, probably not. Not making big money, but making some money so they have income security, will be fine.”

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has also fueled the controversy, notably when he visited the Vatican in April. “The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great economic issue of our time, the great political issue of our time and the great moral issue of our time,” said the socialist from Vermont.

“The general mindset appears to be that income inequality is the great fault of capitalism, which seems to ignore the reality of dire poverty around the world in non-capitalist societies.”

However, more CEOs have been pushing back against the view that income inequality demonstrates some sort of villainy on the part of the 1 percent or even the global economic system. And it is only natural that they should complain to Chief Executive about the victimization.

In part, that’s because Chief Executive kicked off a discussion of the effects of an uneven economic playing field with the story, “Why Crony Capitalism Hurts Us All,” in the September/October 2014 issue of the magazine. After the magazine ran another story, “8 CEOs Weigh In on Income Inequality,” in the January/February issue this year, MMI Outdoor CEO David Cobb took the trouble to write a long and eloquent letter to the magazine.

“The general mindset appears to be that income inequality is the great fault of capitalism, which seems to ignore the reality of dire poverty around the world in non-capitalist societies,” wrote Cobb, a maker of tents and other outdoor gear based in Montgomery, Alabama.

“If we are to ultimately fix the problem,” Cobb continued, “we have to candidly address all of the factors that contribute, rather than seek to put a Band-Aid on the issue through tax increases or more welfare for the lower class.”

In Cobb’s analysis, the country’s education and healthcare systems contribute to the issue by creating “protected oligopolies that do not have to compete openly for their customers.” In education, for example, “poor lifestyle choices and values systems” are partly to blame, as well as “the concept of throwing more federal tax dollars into the public system.”

Also to blame is a rising dropout rate stemming from a “cultural values problem,” and the fact that “as our societal values have changed, postsecondary education choices have become alarmingly bad.”

“The problem we face with income inequality is an indictment of our collective values in this country, not an indictment of capitalism, and we can’t fix every problem overnight,” Cobb concluded. “But as CEOs, we can lead by example.”

Another CEO has also gone public with his frustrations about the inequality critique. In an open letter to former presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders in February, tech entrepreneur Rob May first “confessed” to starting four businesses, two of which failed, and to becoming a millionaire. “It only took 15 years,” the CEO of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Talla wrote in a missive published on Fortune.com.

As a result, May continued, “I’m the bad guy. I’m the white male who is only successful because everything was handed to me. I don’t deserve the money I made. All the things I sacrificed don’t matter. The additional stress I was under doesn’t matter. The risks I took don’t matter.”

May concluded by asserting that it’s the wannabe, not the accomplished person, who needs to learn from the “rigged” economy.

“Any economic structure will favor some at the expense of others. But the wonderful thing about America is that if you are willing to make the right sacrifices, you can achieve whatever you want.”

“Any economic structure will favor some at the expense of others. But the wonderful thing about America is that if you are willing to make the right sacrifices, you can achieve whatever you want. Unfortunately, we’ve come to believe that achievement should be easy. Changing that attitude is the first step towards making yourself more successful.”

Another important question is: After the elections in the fall, will the inequality issue fade, or will it continue to create a huge cleft in the American body politic?

Chief Executive put the question to May, who reported that he got lots of feedback after his Fortune.com contribution, much of it critical, some in support. In theory, he said, the U.S. divide on income inequality “is bridgeable.” If someone shadowed a CEO for a few days “and saw the kind of work we do,” for instance, “I think they would walk away saying, ‘Wow, that is difficult and stressful and they earn their pay.’

“In practice though, [the divide] is unbridgeable. There isn’t a simple answer, and to get through to people today, you have to package things up in nice little sound bites. Problems that aren’t packageable as sound bites aren’t solvable in modern American politics.”

Read more:

Letter to the Editor: How Real is the Income Inequality Issue?

Dale Buss :Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other business publications. He lives in Michigan.