A Slight Difference of Perspective

At the risk of being accused by Doug Schoen or somebody of waging “class warfare,” I will note this small news item shedding light on the slight difference of perspective that divides the people at the top of our economic system from the rest of us, via Grist‘s Philip Bump:

When Duke Energy announced its merger with Progress Energy last year, the two companies agreed that Progress CEO Bill Johnson would assume the same position at the combined company. So he did: On June 27, Johnson signed a three-year contract to helm Duke. When the merger went into effect on July 2, he assumed the position of CEO.

And then, on July 3 at midnight, Johnson resigned.

It’s clear Johnson was forced out in the maneuvering that accompanied the merger. But, as Bump says, “let us not weep for our once-and-not-future king.” As the Wall Street Journal discloses:

Despite his short-lived tenure, Mr. Johnson will receive exit payments worth as much as $44.4 million, according to Duke. That includes $7.4 million in severance, a nearly $1.4 million cash bonus, a special lump-sum payment worth up to $1.5 million and accelerated vesting of his stock awards, according to a Duke regulatory filing Tuesday night. Mr. Johnson gets the lump-sum payment as long as he cooperates with Duke and doesn’t disparage his former employer, the filing said.

Under his exit package, Mr. Johnson also will receive approximately $30,000 to reimburse him for relocation expenses.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve left quite a few jobs, invariably on better terms than those accompanying Johnson’s departure from Duke Energy, and have yet to see the first penny of severance pay. It’s not something most Americans can anticipate, whatever their years of service or their dedication and excellence. I would hazard a guess that many of the epochal moral lepers (if not actual criminals) who perpetuated the LIBOR scandal are going to land pretty softly as well, even if they are shunned in polite society.

Do I envy these people? Not really; I happen to believe in a religion in which just desserts are ultimately apportioned by a Judge a bit more discerning than the God of the Marketplace. But I would cite the Johnson story and many like it as important data points in the argument over the proposition that inequality is dividing Americans far more than any conceivable effort to reduce it, and as a definitive refutation of those who claim wealth and poverty reflect moral worth.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.