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Charities that make the rich richer

Either end obscene pay at charitable organizations or revoke their tax-exempt status

June 16, 2014 4:15AM ET

We usually think of charities as institutions that direct money from those on top to those who are most in need. But in our vibrant 21st century economy, charities often funnel money in the opposite direction, with the rest of us subsidizing the incomes of the very rich. That is the implication of several recent news stories.

Take, for example, John Sexton, president of New York University, a tax-exempt institution. The university was recently in the news because of a story reporting that workers building its Abu Dhabi campus are often beaten and have their wages stolen. This campus is part of an ambitious expansion plan designed by Sexton, who reportedly makes $1.5 million a year and stands to pocket a “longevity bonus” of $2.5 million if he stays into 2015.

The University of Chicago is another school whose president, Robert Zimmer, appears to be doing rather well financially. Zimmer’s total compensation for 2013 was reportedly $1.9 million, after having spiked at $3.4 million the prior year. This compensation comes in spite of the fact that the school has an operating deficit and may be at risk of a credit downgrade.

A study by the Institute for Policy Studies found that student debt and low-paid faculty increased more rapidly at the universities with the 25 highest-paid presidents than the national average. At the very least, this suggests high presidential pay is not associated with scoring well in terms of relieving the burdens of those most in need in higher education — student debtors and adjuncts.

There is undoubtedly much more that could be said about high-paid university administrators or heads of other nonprofits, who don’t seem to be earning their keep. But this is not just a story of university boards possibly using bad judgment in designing compensation packages for top management. The pay for these millionaires comes directly out of the pockets of the rest of us in the same way as the food stamps or disability payments that get conservatives so excited.

These institutions all enjoy special tax exemptions as charitable organizations. Their wealthy contributors can deduct the money they give to New York University or the University of Chicago from their taxable income. Since most of these universities’ contributions come from people in the top tax bracket, taxpayers are effectively paying 40 cents of each dollar the institutions receive in contributions. That means we are picking up a large chunk of the paychecks of Sexton, Zimmer and the rest of the gang.

There is a simple remedy for the high pay at tax-exempt institutions:
Make it illegal.

If we took the extreme case and assumed that all of a university’s revenue came directly or indirectly from tax-deductible contributions, then taxpayers would have paid roughly $600,000 toward Sexton’s 2013 salary and $680,000 of Zimmer’s paycheck. For comparison purposes, the average annual food stamp benefit is roughly $1,600 per person. This would mean that taxpayers gave Sexton roughly as much money as they would to 375 of the “takers” who get food stamps, and Zimmer as much as 400.

Of course, this comparison is not entirely fair. A university gets much of its money from tuition and other sources, so it is not correct to claim that all of its president’s pay came from tax-deductible contributions. On the other hand, there are many charities and foundations that rely almost entirely on such contributions or the income from endowments that were created from them. In these cases it would be reasonable to assume that roughly 40 percent of the pay for the presidents and other top executives came from taxpayers.

Most people would likely be bothered if they knew they were subsidizing the compensation of some of the highest-paid people in the country. Unfortunately, this fact is rarely mentioned in the news. We are far more likely to see articles on taxpayer subsidies for food stamps or disability.

There is a simple remedy for the high pay at tax-exempt institutions: Make it illegal. We can just put a cap on pay at tax-exempt organizations — say, at 15 times the average production worker’s pay (or $600,000 a year). That would limit the subsidy the rest of us provide to the very rich. 

This is not an interference with the freedom of the University of Chicago and New York University to pay their presidents whatever they like. They would just have to organize themselves as regular for-profit corporations. Then their presidents would have to figure out a way to win the charity of shareholders rather than taxpayers. 

Fans of the free market should be completely behind this sort of initiative. After all, if they are upset when the government gives someone $1,600 a year for food stamps, how could they not be infuriated when the government gives several hundred times as much to university presidents or other highly paid executives at tax-exempt institutions? If these presidents are worth their paychecks, then the private sector should be happy to cough up the money without needing a subsidy from the government. 

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and author, most recently, of The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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