NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
By Josh Mankiewicz Correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/8/2009 8:03:17 PM ET 2009-02-09T01:03:17

You've already seen how lavish life can be in the corner office: the private planes, the spa retreats, the trips to Vegas. What you may have missed is how quickly some Americans stopped protesting the Iraq war and went to war against the rich.

Here's a posting from Craigslist, putting CEOs on notice. When people are standing in bread lines because of what you've all done, there will be a price to pay.

It's no secret, of course, that the rich are different from us. We have bills. They have jets. What they don't have, it seems, is an awareness that the country's going through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and that many Americans blame them.

And if they don't get it now, will they ever?

Ben Stein: Take a little kid, put him in front of a bowl filled with candy, and there's nobody else in the room.  He's gonna take the candy.  That's how it is with high executives of public companies.

Ben Stein is, among other things, a business columnist for the New York Times. He's spent a lot of time around today's corporate executives.

Josh Mankiewicz: Why does it seem like so many CEOs today do not understand the world that's going on right outside their own windows?

Ben Stein: ‘Cause they're in a different world.  They're like the Bourbon Kings.  They're like  Marie Antoinette.  They're in their palace.  The peasants are outside clamoring and screaming, "We're hungry."  And they say, "What are you talking about?  We just had fresh salmon.  We just had a choice of fresh salmon cooked for us on our jet plane.  Isn't that the way everybody lives?"

Many of these high-level CEOs haven't seen the inside of a commercial airliner in years.

Ben Stein: If you've ever flown on a jet airplane, private jet, you come up to the-- the terminal.  You don't go through security.  You don't go through a ticket line.  You walk right out to the-- onto the tarmac.  You get in a plane.  They say, "Mr. Stein, are you ready to leave?"

Josh Mankiewicz: No full body search?

Ben Stein: No body search.  You get on.  They say,  "Are you comfortable?  Can we leave?"  Yes.  Total time elapsed from pulling up at the terminal, maybe five minutes.  And they don't want to give that up.  Would you want to give that up? Would you want to give that up and stand in lines and have body searches and have people all around you, talking at you and breathing bad breath on you?

Josh Mankiewicz: I might want to give it up if I were at all concerned about my public image, or if my company were in trouble, or if I were taking government money for a bailout.  Or if I wanted to make sure that the government money kept coming.

Ben Stein: But don't you understand?  This is the way it's been for these guys for a long time. And they don't care if it's not the way everybody lives.  It's the way they live.  They clawed their way up the greasy pole of corporate life to get where they got.  They fought like demons.  They toiled long hours.  And nobody's gonna take it away from them.

Charles Gasparino: What's scary about these Wall Street guys, is 'cause they had so much money, they really didn't have to answer to anybody.  And when you don't answer to anybody, you become arrogant and insulated.

Arrogance in good times is permissable, maybe even promotable. That's when greed, as one philosopher said, becomes the spur of industry. But in bad times, greed is the fun-house mirror we hold up to capitalism.

The truth is that in this country, we have a love/hate relationship with greed. We don't mind it so much when it's our greed. But when someone else looks greedy, that is just shocking. The argument for paying above top-dollar to top executives has always been that companies need to do that to get the best people.

The president disagrees. 

President Barack Obama on Feb. 4: We certainly believe that success should be rewarded.  But what gets people upset - and rightfully so--are executives being rewarded for failure.

Carl Icahn: There are people that are smarter or know the business better or work harder and-- and you know, they're gonna get more money.  But the amount that was paid on Wall Street was almost obscene.  And it is obscene.

Billionaire Carl Icahn made his way from a working-class Queens neighborhood to the towers of Wall Street.  Today he's the twentieth richest man in America.  Once called a “corporate raider” for taking over companies, firing management, and slashing costs, he now calls himself a shareholder activist - with his own blog, the Icahn report. Icahn says the issue isn't the CEOs, it's the boards of directors who let them run rampant.

Carl Icahn: Nice guys on the boards, I wanna say that.  But they're really not watching the store.  What they should do is not micromanage, but keep controls.  And it's almost the opposite.  And you don't have the right guys at the top. 

And Icahn sees another reason so many of those guys are out of touch: They've got an addiction. To that level of income.

Carl Icahn: A lot of friends that I have that were making all this money are in a sense of denial still, right?  That-- they still believe that they're gonna continue to-- and, "Oh God," you know, how can I live on ten million a year or eight million a year, or whatever that is, the level.  And-- and you look at them and wonder, you know? 

It's a hard habit to break. Just this week, executives at Wells Fargo -which received $25 billion in bailout money - reluctantly canceled their planned corporate retreat to Las Vegas, no doubt, looking back fondly on the days when what happened on Wall Street stayed on Wall Street.

And Citigroup - which got $45 billion from the government - gave up on its expensive French-made jet, which cost $50 million. But executives there are going ahead with buying the naming rights to the New York Mets' stadium, for $400 million.

Josh Mankiewicz: You don't even think governmental anger over the way bailout money is spent is gonna change anybody's behavior?

Ben Stein: I think it will change their behavior.  But they will be leaving their claw marks on their mahogany desks as they're pulled away from them.

A lot of people in this country have never seen a bonus or a spa weekend, even though they're pretty good at their jobs.  So maybe Wall Street executives could learn a little from their customers who make do with that perk known as a paycheck.

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