How Much Should George Bush Get Paid?
[Have a question for Stumped? Send it here. Questions may be edited.]
With so many people wanting the job, I wonder: What does the president make these days? And do you think there is a way to apply to the nation's chief executive the same type of pay-for-performance model that is the vogue in corporate America? Could that work?
-- Allen Moore
George Bush was the beneficiary of a major raise. He earns almost twice what Bill Clinton did -- $400,000 in salary, not to mention free room and board, and such cool perks as his own 747 to fly around. All told, by the time Bush leaves office we taxpayers will have paid him $3.2 million for his service.
If it's any consolation to the vast majority of Americans who -- judging by approval ratings -- don't believe they are getting their money's worth, the president's salary is on the lower end of the scale in historic terms. The $25,000 we paid George Washington amounted to more than $500,000 in today's dollars; the $75,000 William Howard Taft took home in 1909 translates into a stratospheric $1.7 million nowadays; and when Richard Nixon took home $200,000 in 1969, that was also more than $1 million in today's money.
Then there is always the reassurance that comes from bogus public vs. private sector comparisons. Fortune 500 CEOs make on average $10 million -- so your president, paid four hundred grand to oversee a $10 trillion enterprise, is a real bargain!
All that aside, the heart of your query is about pegging presidential pay to performance. It is a fabulous idea, but how to do it? The first issue is measuring performance. In the corporate world, there's an easy way to do that: stock price, which supposedly reflects the performance of a publicly traded company and its managers.
There is no such simple proxy for assessing the nation's (and its president's) performance. Red and Blue America, to be sure, would differ on the appropriate benchmarks. Republicans might like to give the president a percentage of tax cuts; Democrats a bonus for money well spent on welfare programs. Ron Paul, meanwhile, might want a president to get a kill fee for abolishing the IRS, or maybe he'd want to link his pay to the price of gold. And of course, whether the president deserves a pay cut or a bonus for invading another country -- which is admittedly stressful and "hard work," as Bush whined in the 2004 debates -- is an entirely subjective call.
As Bush was quoted saying in 2000: "Don't I maybe get a 2 percent commission on any increase in the GNP? No? And there's no bonus for, say, brokering a Mideast peace accord or vetoing a certain number of bills? Well, at least the salary's tax-free, right?" (Actually, I found that quote here. So it's not, shall we say, true. But it's funny!)
After toying with alarmingly complex formulas that took into account such factors as the performance of the women's national soccer team in international competition, I have come up with a satisfyingly simple formula: The president's annual salary should be $3 million divided by the misery index.
The so-called misery index, you may recall, is the sum of the nation's unemployment and inflation rates. Today, the misery index is a relatively low 8 percent, so Bush's salary would be close to what he now makes: $375,000. (You divide by the whole number, not by the percentage.) In the summer of 1980, when the misery index was an alarming 22 percent, Jimmy Carter would have made only $136,000 under this formula.
This formula seems to leave out a lot, but unemployment and inflation rates are pretty good proxies for the nation's well-being -- not just its economic performance, but its confidence and its performance relative to the rest of the world. (Though, in truth, Stumped also feels that maybe a president should have to forfeit all compensation in years when his administration disregards the Geneva Convention. Maybe that could be in the contract's fine print.)
I am open to other possibilities; it's your chance to play compensation consultant. What are the key metrics to assess a presidential performance? Would you bake in fluctuations in GDP, national debt, rankings in global high-school math contests, consumer confidence, student test results? How about the Pew Global Attitudes Project, which measures how much the rest of the world likes us? Reductions in pollution? Or are Hollywood box-office receipts really the best proxy for the national mood?
Take your pick. How can we make sure the next president gets paid what he or she deserves? Send your answers, and your questions about my answer, here.
I'm still confused about the Obama experience gripe. When he's elected, he'll have spent two more years in the Illinois State House and two more years on Capitol Hill than Abraham Lincoln did. If you want more recent examples, he has spent more time in elected office than either Hillary or George W. before their runs for president. Are we mistaking inexperience for youth? Or, rather, are we confusing inexperience for a lack of a political bloodline?
-- John Allenbach
This is not the first question I take on Barack Obama's experience, and I am sure it won't be the last. It strikes me as a tad defensive to be counting and comparing years of service to defend Obama. Obama wins or loses this election on his claim to have superior judgment, not by claiming credit for sitting in the Illinois legislature before Hillary Clinton sat in the U.S. Senate.
Indeed, it's striking how thin all three Democratic front-runners are on conventional experience. As Obama has rightly noted, Hillary Clinton wasn't exactly Treasury secretary in her husband's administration. On that point, I fear you are right: This debate is starting to confuse family pedigree with experience.
So let me leave you with this: Obama, Edwards and Clinton are formidable candidates in their own right. But if you want to vote solely on the basis of experience, go with Bill Richardson or Joe Biden.
By Andres Martinez |
December 11, 2007; 12:00 AM ET
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