Criticism of massive payouts for chief executives is no longer only for union activists and investors. The phenomenon now has professors of ethics asking what it says about modern human behavior and politicians looking to curb excesses.
Many say the trend is only growing more extreme. While business leaders have always done well -- the 19th century robber barons like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie amassed huge fortunes -- those tycoons actually owned big parts of their companies. They also ultimately gave much of their wealth away.
Today, soaring executive pay "offends most people's sense of fairness," said Archie Carroll, a recently retired business ethics professor at the University of Georgia.
It "symbolizes more than anything else how out of touch corporate America, particularly CEOs and boards of directors,, is with the rest of American society," he said.
The abrupt departure of Home Depot Inc. chief Robert Nardelli this week, with a $210 million exit package in hand, shows how skewed CEO pay can be, ethics experts say.
Nardelli's exit package, which includes $20 million cash severance as well as a pension, deferred stock awards and stock options, equals the annual incomes of about 10,000 retail stock clerks making an average $21,000 a year.