For years I have been puzzled by the double standard that defines what we think motivates the poor and middle class to work and what we think motivates the rich.
To get the poor to work, policy makers have long believed you have to force them to live in destitution while on social assistance, as an 'incentive to work.'
The working poor are treated with a similar view.
In Canada, you can work full-time throughout the year and still live in poverty if you earn the minimum wage.
Middle-income Canadians have been expected to put in more hours in the workplace, get better educated, and improve their productivity. Yet their average real wages have stayed stagnant for 30 years.
An entirely different standard has been at play for the richest workers in Canada, mirroring trends currently being exposed as hypocritical in the U.S. CEOs, financial wizards and their ilk apparently need annual million dollar bonuses as their work incentive.
The world's largest insurance company, AIG, is helping to bring this double standard into clearer view. AIG could have suffered the same fate as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers -- two corporate giants that made bad subprime mortgage investments and were allowed to collapse last year when their decisions came back to haunt them.
AIG was next in line. It lost $108 billion in 2008. But by that point the U.S. federal government decided it had to stop the financial bleeding and offered AIG a $170 billion bailout.
AIG was one of many whose corporate skins were saved by multi-billion dollar bailouts funded by the American people through their government.
Despite the bailout, AIG is offering $165 million in 'retention bonuses' to the very financial wizards that got them into trouble in the first place.
Predictably, Americans are raging.
So far, the outrage has been focused on the audacity of corporate executives taking bailouts from the American people and using them to pad their already well-lined bank accounts.
Bubbling underneath the surface are several important questions:
Are those workers receiving million dollar bonuses really worth that much?
Are those workers in the middle and bottom of the pack really worth so little?
Is the illusion of meritocracy -- the belief that the richest among us were well compensated because they brought something to the boardroom the rest of us don't have -- revealing itself as a sham?
For a very long time, workers in Canada and the U.S. have watched the incomes of the richest 10 per cent rise to new heights while the masses scramble over a shrinking share of the income leftovers.
We were told this was how it had to be -- that "our" prosperity depended on those wizards at the top.
But now that the subprime mortgage fiasco has unleashed a global economic meltdown that has the masses -- through their governments -- bailing out corporate giants, this double standard is starting to show signs of age.
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