The thing is, I don’t actually begrudge executives and CEOs big salaries and luxurious lives, in return for performance. (Notice I said “big”; “big” is not necessarily synonymous with “mind-bogglingly humongous”. Also, giving someone a massive bonus for inadequate bonus is just bad business.)

I’ve met a few, and had enough exposure to others to be able to judge them. I get the impressive that a lot of motivation behind the Occupy movements is the idea “Those guys are no better than anyone else, so why should they get all the rewards and power?” In my experiencea lot of people at the very top levels of management actually are something special; they have brains, knowledge and intuition in their areas of expertise that far outweighs that of most people, me included. When I worked at Honeywell, I was always amazed to watch their broadcasted all-employee meetings, when Dave Cote, the CEO, could give an intelligible answer to any question on any part of that huge company. (I don’t think the questions were pre-screened.) The board of management of my own company are similarly hypercompetent, especially our CTO who is something of an icon in the field. One of the things that prompted this post was our conversations last night with a retired Shell executive, father of a friend of mine. Our company isn’t even in his industry though it is prominent locally, yet he had all the facts about us, our products, our market share and so on off the top of his head and understood our culture and our challenges. (This was after he’d told me I wasn’t rowing hard enough recently. He’s also a former Olympian.) These are scary-smart people and they deserve to be compensated well.

Of course, they’re as prone as anyone else to have their vision obscured by their own privilege; while I do say that few people make themselves rich without lots and lots of ability, no amount of ability will get you anywhere without some outside help. You can only seize opportunities if you are given opportunities.

Also, helping people in need is not only morally sound but also good business. On the business side there are lots of arguments to be made. Foreclosures hurt eveyone in the long run – what can a bank do with houses when no one is buying? How does it help a company to give big bonuses or golden parachutes to failed executives? How productive is a company whose workers are all disgruntled because management got huge bonuses and everyone else was denied raises? And if brains are distributed throughout the population, then giving everyone opportunities for education and advancement is the best way to get the most capable people into the workforce, at their highest level of performance.

Helping people is also morally right; the other spur for this post was something posted on Ravelry by a woman whose handle there is CeallachKnits (reposted with permission):

“Privilege … is occasionally “used” to negate someone’s right to join protests or take a stand against injustice because “it’s not their fight”, but way more IRL. I think that this is problematic (EFC), because it negates the responsibility to fight for social justice that comes with that privilege, which is also called Noblesse Oblige (The obligation of nobility, which could just as easily be called the obligation of privilege). The concept goes back to Homer’s Iliad in Greece. Why are we trying to abandon it now when we need it so much?”

This is something I’ve thought about particularly because of being Jewish – that whole ‘chosen people’ thing. I don’t think I believe in special rights; what I do believe in is special obligation. It comes in two flavors, and right now we’re only serving one. The one most people do pretty well with, I think, is helping people who are where you’ve been. Of course there are people who say “I got mine” and never look out at the outside world again, but more people I’ve met reach a hand back. People who have been poor help the poor; people who have been abused fight to help others in abusive situations; people who have been bullied for being gay make “It gets better” videos (and in many cases give time or money also). That loop isn’t perfect, but it looks functional, to me. I hope I’m not wrong.

The link that’s broken is the other side of noblesse oblige: helping people who are where you’ve never had to be. (This is where being Jewish comes in to it: the lesson of the Passover story is simultaneously that we have an obligation to help the stranger in a strange land because when we were strangers in Egypt we were treated well (at first) and because we were enslaved (a dynasty or two later).) To make it personal, I have a responsibility to help abused women not because I was abused, but because I wasn’t, by the grace of God, my parents, and pure luck. I have a responsibility to help people who don’t have enough to eat, because I never had to worry about the next meal. I have a responsibility to help kids who have no access to books, because my city provided an excellent library that was close enough to walk to even before I was allowed to cross the major streets.

The richest percent have those responsibilities too, for both nobless oblige and good business practice. I think a lot of them probably deserve to be richly compensated, because a lot of them are really, really good at their jobs (also, the life of upper management kind of sucks – you do get the luxuries, but your job is your whole life). Given infinite resources, I wouldn’t care how much they earned or how much control they had. I just think their right stops when it get to the point that other people don’t get fairly paid, or that the control is used to benefit a few in ways that hurt the many.

All of which is to say, in a great many words, that I agree with most of the goals of the Occupy movement – even though I think a lot of the top 1% earned their way there.