Why Some CEOs Deserve Their Big Salaries

Today CNN runs a list of the "top five most overpaid CEOs." I sort of hate this. Not because I don't like lists (I did click on it after all) but because I'm pretty exhausted with the overpaid CEO meme. Yes, corporate executives make exorbitant sums of money. But they're also in charge of companies that make exorbitant sums of money, and the difference between a well-run company and poorly run company is worth many times a CEO's salary. But even with that said, this list is weird.


The animating philosophy of CNN's definition of "overpaid" appears to be "your company stock went down in December 2008." But December 2008 was the nadir of the worst recession in decades. Just about every boat sunk in that falling tide. It's a bit like ranking a team's batters based on how they hit during a no-hitter.

But even with that said, why is Comcast CEO Brian Roberts on the list? Comcast's stock fell only 7 percent in 2008. In the second quarter of 2009, Comcast profit climbed 28 percent (up about $130 million) while competitor DirecTV's profit fell $50 million. Brian Roberts makes $40 million a year. Is he overpaid? Maybe not. The most overpaid CEO? Certainly not. If CNN is looking for a Brian Roberts overpaid by $40 million, leave my cable guy alone, and look at the second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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