Jennifer Lawrence recently penned an essay about no longer being willing to earn less than her male co-stars. Her feisty critique received an outpouring of feminist support inspired by her willingness to challenge the system. She has a point, of course, about female talent potentially being undervalued relative to male talent. This post is not about that. It is about the question I get most often regarding the extraordinarily highly paid: Does deciding to pursue more money than one avowedly needs make a person greedy?
The ‘greed’ question seems to have hardly come up with regards to Ms. Lawrence. Yet she earned $52 million last year. It is a fair guess that whatever millions she left on the table would not have the slightest impact on her lifestyle, which she readily admits. Her complaint isn’t about the money; it’s about the principle that women should get paid the same as men doing the same job. She wants parity with her peers.
So, maybe it matters why we want more money, e.g., to help others. Maybe that’s the difference between being greedy and not.
I don’t happen to think that “why” matters. Larry Ellison used to explain that investors should not worry about his $70 million in annual compensation, saying, “It’s all going to charity, anyway.” Well, not impressed; the shareholders could give that money to charity, too. Sometimes we hear really wealthy people say that their income is “just a scorecard; the money itself is secondary,” or that they are trying to create an example for others. But these rationale merely change the basis for, not the reality of, ego gratification. People arguing for a bigger paycheck are not really doing it for the little guy…or girl.
Still, if greed is worthy of approbation, I think it requires more than just the fact of making money, or wanting to, even a lot of it. All of us push for the best deal we can get in every important transaction. If we have multiple job offers or bids on our home, we don’t ignore them and just choose the first one. People with rare talent generally have multiple options. Merely being in a position to field them doesn’t make you greedy.
So, maybe its our behavior in negotiations that makes us greedy. Ms. Lawrence says, “I would be lying if I didn’t say there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight. I didn’t want to seem ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’” Well, that doesn’t sound particularly greedy. In fact, that she could earn over $50 million “without a real fight” is a testament to how valuable she was to the studios that made so much off of her talents.
I think the biggest problem I have with the “greed” label is that it is almost always based on a distortion of how we talk about other people’s pay. We talk as if money is awarded from on high according to some plan, like a pie divided by a parent, and some people hog extra slices for themselves. The implication is that things would be better if we simply changed the plan, or how the pie was allocated. But there is no “we,” there is no plan, and the pie is not fixed.
Pay is one person deciding to spend their money on another person based on what they negotiate. Some people negotiate harder than others, and no doubt make a little more by doing so. But no matter how many negotiating courses a junior manager aces, she will never negotiate a senior executive’s salary. (Nor will he.) Conversely, a CEO can easily get a contract for millions, or tens of millions, for running a large company without a real fight, although they often do fight for a little more.
I am aware that when it comes to CEO pay, the bosses are commonly assumed to be dealing with boards that are stupid, lazy or corrupt. I also know from personal experience that this is generally—though not always—false. CEOs make what they negotiate, and sometimes less than they ask for. (In business, boards actually expect their senior officers–male or female–to be good negotiators.) But more to the point, how hard is it to imagine that someone running a sprawling multi-national might be as valuable as a 25 year-old actor?
Politicians know they can always score points by lambasting “fat cats.” They are pushing a button we all have about people making much more than we do. It offends our sense of fairness. But our reactions to the high pay of others, I think, say more about us than it does about them. Most of us pursue our opportunities, limited they may be, with reasonable dedication towards ending up ahead. Some of us work hard to create more opportunity for ourselves. That is called being ambitious, which I think is a poor synonym for greed. Some of us are fortunate enough to have terrific opportunities, and more than a little luck, to make a lot of money. It doesn’t make sense to assign “greed” via lottery.
So, no, Jennifer Lawrence is not greedy for having earned $52 million last year. She would not be greedy to push for equal pay with her male co-stars. She would not be greedy to end up with substantially more than her male co-stars, as she does in her new film with Chris Pratt. Some people are, in fact, worth tens of millions of dollars. You or I might not think they are. But it doesn’t matter what you or I think. What matters is what the person writing the check thinks.
If I were in a position to say, “Yeah, I’m pushing for the extra million,” I might do it. But I would be wary of pushing too hard. Being intimately involved with pay negotiations, I know that there are many, many things that drive pay, most of which is not calculable from the job description. And some of which is genuinely unfair.