Saturday, November 22, 2008

Matt Yglesias has no (0) use for businesspeople

Yglesias on what the business press thinks:

The basic business outlook is very focused on the key role of the executive. Good, profitable, growing firms are run by brilliant executives. And the ability of the firm to grow and be profitable is evidence of its executives’ brilliance. And profit ultimately stems from executive brilliance. This is part of the reason that CEO salaries need to keep escalating — recruiting the best is integral to success.

This is overstating the case. First, you have to separate the opinion pages of the business press (WSJ, Kudlow, IBD), which do spend a lot of time justifying income inequality, from the news and analysis pages, which aren't nearly as starry-eyed about celebrity executives. And really, no one actually spends much time arguing that profit "ultimately stems from executive brilliance." That's a blatant straw man.

By the end of the post, Yglesias is arguing (again) that there is literally nothing to being the chief executive of a major corporation, and that it's all a question of where the interchangeable parts happen to be resting on the grand roulette wheel of capitalism.

There's no need for liberals or opponents of excessive executive compensation to make arguments this facile. I wonder what Yglesias would think about the theory that all political commentary is basically interchangeable, and the authors who get jobs at The Atlantic and CAP just happen to have been lucky enough to be cranking out the right copy at the right time. Probably wouldn't care for it.

It's not easy to measure CEO performance against some baseline "replacement level" of executive effectiveness. Determining exactly how much credit Steve Jobs deserves for Apple's success is kind of a silly exercise, but the correct answer is not zero.

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