Who Should Make The Most Money? President Obama has ordered that the annual salaries of senior executives at companies receiving bailout money must be capped at $500,000. But Wall Street players aren't the only ones raking it in — many actors, athletes and entrepreneurs make millions. Which jobs should pay the most? Why?
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Who Should Make The Most Money?

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Who Should Make The Most Money?

Who Should Make The Most Money?

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This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Yesterday's presidential order to cap executive salaries at financial firms that take federal bailout money may wind up being more symbolic than strict. But it did serve to remind us of the enormous chasm between the top and the bottom of the wage scale. The CEO of American Express took home $50 million in 2007; the head of Goldman, Sachs $54 million; Merrill Lynch's former top executive, $84 million. Actors and athletes can also do amazingly well. Tom Cruise makes upwards of $60 million a movie. Between winnings and endorsements, Tiger Woods earned $115 million last year. Yankees third baseman, Alex Rodriguez, makes more than the entire Florida Marlins roster. The president of little-known Suffolk University in Boston is paid almost $3 million a year, the highest of any college president in the country.

So, who should make the most money? Educators, entrepreneurs, people who generate profits or those who create jobs? Our phone number, 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our Web site, too. That's at npr.org; click on Talk of the Nation. We begin with Dean Foust, Atlanta bureau chief for BusinessWeek, who joins us from the studios of member station WABE in Atlanta. Nice to have you back in the program, Dean.

Mr. DEAN FOUST (Atlanta Bureau Chief, BusinessWeek Magazine): Oh, pleasure to here.

CONAN: And 500 grand might seem like an awful lot like to you or me, but I've read that it's about what Wall Street traders make a three or four years after they start on the street.

Mr. FOUST: It is. Well, not all, not everyone. I think the numbers I've seen at Citigroup, which employs about 300,000 workers, about 3,000 to 5,000 - between some more between 3,000 and 5,000 of those workers make more than 500,000 a year. The same at JPMorgan Chase, about one percent of the workers at that company do. But you know, look, what we're seeing out of the Obama administration here, this initiative - proposal to cap executive pay at $500,000, I think most immediately, it is a response to the populist outrage that Wall Street fat cats were making - you know, Stan O'Neal, the former CEO of Merrill Lynch, left the company in disgrace with parting gifts of $150 million, at a time when the firms are losing money hand over fist and having to come rattle their tin cap to Uncle Sam to taxpayers to bail them out.

I think deep - a little deeper than that, I think there is the populist outrage, but I think there's also - this is also a move by Obama to try to reverse this disconnect that had built overtime, this income inequality, where we had a winner-take-all system - we were clearly had become a winner-take-all society, where executives were enriched for shifting jobs offshore. They were in - given bonuses if they were able to bring the company's cost-structure down by breaking unions. And I think it moves us back to a time when there's more of a common tribal bond between worker and management and help build the sense that, as Americans, we're all in this together.

CONAN: Who else makes $500,000 a year?

Mr. FOUST: Not as many people as you think. The average - the latest numbers I've seen from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the average household income in the United States is about $50,000 a year. And if you adjust for inflation, that's below the household income of 1999. Clearly, a lot of the best-paid athletes - the minimum salary now in Major League Baseball is not about $500,000, but it's not too far away, at about $400,000 a year.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. FOUST: The last guy sitting on the bench of any NBA team is making about $800,000; that's about the minimum salary. Actors, Hollywood, Oprah Winfrey will make - makes about $150 million a year; David Letterman, about $32 million.

CONAN: I'm here to testify that not all talk-show hosts are in that category.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Nevertheless, it is curious about the way we make these decisions in our society. And in the case of bankers, at least it can be argued that they bring a lot of profit to their shareholders, and therefore, they're worth it.

Mr. FOUST: We are a capitalist society. And whether it is fair or not, the people that make the most money in the country tend to be those workers who bring in the bacon for their employers, which explains why sales reps can make - they can make over $500,000, particularly if they're selling Boeing aircraft or expensive software-installation programs, while the average salary for a firefighter last year was, the latest data from BLS, $47,000. The average police officer's salary was $46,000; bank tellers, $24,000; carpenters, $31,000; postal carriers, $47,000; and the teachers - the average teacher salary, about $45,000. But that's the way a capitalist society works.

CONAN: Let's get some callers on the conversation. Who should make the most money? 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. Jodie is on the line from Boise, Idaho.

JODIE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Jodie.

JODIE: My comment is, I think policemen and firefighters and the people who pick up the trash every day should make more money, quite honestly.

CONAN: And why is that? Obviously, the first two of those are pretty dangerous jobs.

JODIE: Yeah, horribly dangerous, and they get very little pay and very little recognition for what they do every day, which is putting their lives on the line.

CONAN: Well, coal miners also have a dangerous job, taxi-cab drivers, even convenience-store clerks.

JODIE: True.

CONAN: But they're not in public employ.

JODIE: Right. And I guess, they didn't - they weren't the first people that came to mind for me.


JODIE: Because, again, you know, they're just in charge of the public safety, firemen and police officers.

CONAN: They put their lives on the line to protect ours often.

JODIE: Pretty much every day, yeah.

CONAN: Yeah, yeah. Jodie, thanks very much for the call. I appreciate it.

JODIE: OK. Sure.

CONAN: And you gave us - remind us, you just gave us their average salaries a minute ago, Dean Foust. Remind us.

Mr. FOUST: The average salary for police officer is about $46,000. And that can vary by city, by state. In New York, the average police salary is about - it's over $50,000. In Houston, it's about - the average is about $44,000. And you know...

CONAN: With the cost of living and various other factors.

Mr. FOUST: With the cost of living.

CONAN: For a coal miner, by that way, do you know that, by any chance?

Mr. FOUST: I don't have coal miner.

CONAN: All right. Maybe we'll get somebody to look that up on the Web.

Mr. FOUST: Or maybe we'll have a coal miner call in.

CONAN: Or maybe we'll have a call miner call in. But let's talk right now with Ron Shapiro, who's a sport agent and an attorney. He's represented ballplayers, including Cal Ripken Jr., Jim Palmer, Kirby Puckett, among many others. He joins us from studios at the Baltimore Sun in Baltimore. Ron, nice to have you on the program again.

Mr. RON SHAPIRO (Sports Attorney, Agent; Author, "Dare to Prepare: How to Win Before You Begin!"): Good to be with you, Neal.

Mr. SHAPIRO: And you must get these - asked question a lot. How in the world do you justify the huge salaries that the some major league ballplayers and others can get?

Mr. SHAPIRO: Well, you really don't justify them because the real question is what people should get and what people do get. And the justification, I guess, comes not in a social-value sense; it comes in an economic-impact sense. And unfortunately or fortunately, we live in a society which is so entertainment-oriented that, really, sports today are a part of the great entertainment conglomerate. The entertainment conglomerate has been paying inordinately high salaries for a long period of time. I might add, I'm not a very good prognosticator, because a number of years ago, I represented Oprah Winfrey, and she was in Baltimore, and they were trying to convince her to come to Chicago. And I was just telling her, look, Oprah, go to Chicago and you'll be on the national stage someday and you'll make more than $1 million a year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHAPIRO: I was only $150 million off. So, you know - but that is the entertainment industry. It gets an inordinately large piece of the dollar.

CONAN: Because it generates a lot of profit.

Mr. SHAPIRO: It does, but it now - right now is trying to reconfigure itself and figure out how the deal with the economic downturn. And I dare suggest that we will see some people who were earning $40 and $50 million, earning only $20 and $30 million. Isn't that a shame?


Mr. SHAPIRO: That's the way it works. And I think there'll be readjustments in other pieces of the entertainment industry like the sports world.

CONAN: I wonder, have you ever found yourself in the middle of a negotiation for a, you know, very high-salaried athlete or entertainer and then thought to yourself, just for a minute, this is ridiculous?

Mr. SHAPIRO: I have, and - but you see, I've represented people, extraordinary people, like Cal Ripken Jr., who are willing to leave ridiculous on the table - and they still earn enormous amounts of money - but go for other value-based, like being part of the community for a long period of time. I will say this, I have observed negotiations - you mentioned Alex Rodriguez earlier; when he went to Texas, the closest bidder for his services was something like $160 million, and the exuberance of the owner of the Texas Rangers said, I'll give him $250 million, and that was irrational exuberance in an economic sense, but it certainly pushed the entire sports marketplace dollar up the scale.

CONAN: And we can all rest easy because Alex has subsequently renegotiated that contract with...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHAPIRO: Yeah, he's gotten a few more dollars in New York, but hasn't found happiness, which is another piece of this. We won't talk about that today, no.

CONAN: We're not going to talk about that today. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Randy, Randy with us from Grand Junction, Colorado. Who should make the most money, Randy?

RANDY (Caller): Hi, Neal. Traditionally, what happens in this country and what's made it operate so well is people at the forefront of their technology or the forefront of their field - you mentioned carpenters make about $31,000 - somebody that's a contractor that has a product, there's a lot of people like him make a lot more than that, and people who don't really have great ideas will make less than that. But you've got to be able to string an idea together and bring it to fruition to have money like that.

CONAN: I assume you're speaking both about those who come up with the great ideas, the inventors, if you will, and those who can...

RANDY: Well, or the ballplayers, it could be the athletes. People - me, I enjoy seeing a college game, where there's not professionals as much as seeing a professional game.

Mr. SHAPIRO: But Randy has really hit the nail on the head. He's talking about carpenters, so I'll mentioned that, in the sense that, you know, we're not talking about all athletes getting millions. We're talk - I'll never forget there was a news anchor, a national news anchor, I represented who complained about athletes' salaries. And I brought him to a batting cage that I had at my home, and I turned it up to 90 miles an hour, and he stood there for two minutes and watched the ball whiz by and was frightened and walked out and said, I understand.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHAPIRO: By the way, that same news anchor went out and asked me, because there was free agency in the news-anchor marketplace nationally, to go out and get him the biggest contract, and that marketplace expanded, and he got a big one. And yet, in today's world, because of the profusion of outlets for news, the dollars have gone down. So, it's kind of interesting. This is economics 101, supply and demand.

RANDY: And that's what made this country operate. You know, that's what made it so great. People have the incentive to go out and try and - you know, I've been trying to come up with a great multimillion idea for years, and it's surely hard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RANDY: To come up with something and bring it to completion, you know? Like, the guy that makes the Snicker bars, I'm sure he makes a lot of money.

CONAN: Randy, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. I have to say, I've faced, I suspect, live pitching at about 75 miles an hour and I didn't so much as see it...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But I did hear it, and that was plenty scary. You forget those balls make a lot of sound as they whiz past your head. We're talking with agent Ron Shapiro in Baltimore, and of course, with Dean Foust, who's the Atlanta bureau chief for BusinessWeek Magazine. Our question today, who should make the most money? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's go to Courtney, Courtney calling us from Baltimore.

COURTNEY (Caller): Yes, hello. My answer is the small business owners should make the most money, because small business owners, they are the ones who really drive the American economy, especially nowadays. And if you give a small business owner, an employer, a great deal of money, they can do a lot more with it. With newer technology, we could have better pay for our working-class citizens, which is really what the problem is and the recession is. Working-class citizens can't afford to take care of themselves as much as they used to. We really need to concentrate on getting the money flowing to them. And that's what I would think. I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: All right. Courtney, thanks very much for the call. And Dean Foust, obviously, the highest paid, they wouldn't, by definition, would no longer be small business. But nevertheless, I think Courtney is right. The statistics I've read show that the majority of the jobs in the country are in small businesses and majority of the jobs created in the country are created by small businesses.

Mr. FOUST: Oh, that's correct. My question to caller, though, is small business owners should be paid more; who are we expecting to pay them? Taxpayers? I'm not sure. You're correct; small businesses do create the vast bulk of jobs. There's also an extraordinarily high failure rate for small businesses. About 80 percent of small businesses fail within 10 years.

Mr. SHAPIRO: And Dean, in addition, small business owners - I've represented a lot of corporations in my law practice. Small business owners do get a return. I mean, if they are successful, and I think it was implied by something that Neal said, they become larger business owners. And I know a number of small businesses, where they have an idea, where they executed the idea, they start making those seven-figure kinds of salaries that aren't written about because, you know, they're private companies.

CONAN: Not on the stock market. And it's also - one of the most difficult thing is to take a small business, even one that's doing very well, and grow it into a big business, because the management difficulties go on and become very difficult. By the way, the answer to an earlier question, coal miner's average salary, $21 to $22 per hour. Let's talk with Rock, Rock, with us from Tason(ph), Arizona. Tucson, I suspect that is.

ROCK (Caller): Good morning, gentlemen.

CONAN: Go ahead.

ROCK: I would like to nominate a category of workers that impact every single person in the United States, and what I'd like to do is have everybody, once they start working, put money into a general fund and one-half of one percent of everything they make for the rest of their life, and we give this to these people as a bonus. And I think that it's teachers that should - deserve this.

CONAN: Dean Foust, not just a nomination, but a way to pay them.

ROCK: That's right.

Mr. FOUST: I agree. There are certain people in society that I think should be paid more, the teachers who educate my children, certainly. After the events with the U.S. Airways flight on the Hudson a couple weeks ago, suddenly, I'd like to see pilots being paid more than the executives that run the airlines.

ROCK: Yes, yes. And I...

Mr. FOUST: Personally, as a passenger.

CONAN: The executives just run the airlines into the ground. The pilots can land it in a river.

Mr. SHAPIRO: Yeah. You know, teachers, it's an interesting question, because for years and years, there was the lament in society that we underpay teachers. And teacher salaries have gone up. The average salary is $45,000. But if you look in some urban markets, Long Island, the average teacher's salary is $78,000. And to find teachers making over $100,000 is not unusual for teachers with 20 years...

RANDY: No, I think...

Mr. FOUST: Or more experience in those markets. But the question is test scores have not risen during this period when teacher salaries have gone up dramatically. You can argue that that may - that's probably more the fault of parents than anyone. But with the higher teacher pay, do we have the ability to demand better performance? Do you have the ability to weed out underperforming teachers? And up to now, the answer has been no. The unions have been very strong and have protected tenure.

CONAN: Rock, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

ROCK: You're welcome, gentlemen.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Dean Foust of BusinessWeek - he's in Atlanta - and Ron Shapiro, who's an agent attorney; his most recent book is "Dare to Prepare: How to Win Before You Begin!," and he's joining us from a studio at the Baltimore Sun. And if you joined us late, there is news today: Pancreatic cancer surgery for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She is out of surgery, reported to be resting comfortably. She is said to be ready to stay in the hospital seven to 10 days, and though some are skeptical, plans to return to the Supreme Court within three weeks. Stay tuned to NPR News for further developments as they develop. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Right now, we're talking about paychecks. Ballplayers, bankers, movie stars pull in millions of dollars per year, not the case for teachers, firefighters or nurses, or public-radio hosts, for that matter. Who should make the most money? Our phone number, 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. And you can go join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation. Still with us, BusinessWeek's Atlanta bureau chief Dean Foust and sports agent and attorney Ron Shapiro. And let's see if we get another caller on the line. Mohammed, Mohammed is with us from Tulsa.

MOHAMMED (Caller): Tulsa, Oklahoma, yeah. Thank you for taking my call. I think the military personnel, they are the one who is sacrificing their live for us, and they are the one on the frontline, and they should get paid the most, not these bank executives and - that they're getting paid in millions.

CONAN: So, you would be willing to see your tax rate increase substantially in order to pay all those men and women that money?

MOHAMMED: Well, we're paying this executive anyway.

CONAN: There's only a few executives, and there's an awful lot of people in the military.

MOHAMMED: True. But I mean - but they are protecting us, though.

CONAN: I understand that.

MOHAMMED: I just...

CONAN: Any statistics, Dean Foust, on how much the typical member of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard or the Air Force makes?

FOUST: Give me a minute and I'll have it for you.

CONAN: All right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We'll get that for you in just a minute. In the meantime, let's see if we can go now to Robin, Robin with us from St. Louis.

ROBIN (Caller): Hi, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: I'm very well, thank you.

ROBIN: So, I am considering that physicians should make more money than - at least in comparison to some of the executives and so far who are mainly profiting because they're making money for people for whatever reason, while on the other hand, you know, doctors are working to take care of people's health. And a lot of us - I'm a physician myself. A lot of us make a lot of personal sacrifice in order to be able to practice medicine.

CONAN: Yet as a country, we look at escalating health-care costs. It's not necessarily the price of doctors, per se, but health-care costs, skyrocketing in this country, Robin, to the point where a lot of people simply can't afford it.

ROBIN: Right. I know it's a very sad situation, and the thing that is surprising, I think, to a lot of my patients is, although they're paying more for health care, either, you know, through their insurance plan or other, you know, medications or testing that they're having done, the reimbursement for the physicians is actually going down, and we're losing good people who would probably go into primary-care health because the reimbursement is so poor that the salary does not compensate for, essentially, the amount or worrying that you do.

I take phone calls 24 hours a day on my beeper, except for on the weekend when my partners cover for me, nearly every day. You know, I have the opportunity to be sued. And I'm afraid that, you know, these things are weighing on us and it's keeping other people from coming into being a primary-care physician, because, you know, with all the headaches, you don't get at least a little bit of a reward. The thing that bothers me, or that I worry about, is we were trying very hard to move toward having everyone covered so that they can be taken care of and have, you know, some type of health care. I think that's wonderful, and I think the biggest thing that people are confusing is that if everyone had insurance, then everyone would get great health care. I think the problem is insurance, you know, and they're profiting...

CONAN: I think, Robin, we're going to have to debate the health-care system as a whole on another day.

ROBIN: That'd be great. But you know, I just think that part of the problem is the money is going elsewhere to people who are just trying to make money on sick people instead of people who are providing a service.

CONAN: All right, Robin...

ROBIN: I really appreciate the chance to talk.

CONAN: All right, Robin, we appreciate the phone call. Thanks very much. And now let's go to Jim, and Jim's with us from Coral Springs in Florida.

JIM (Caller): Hi, Neal. How're you doing?

CONAN: All right.

JIM: Good. I think that the question is not so much, how much is too much, the question is - I'm sorry - who should make the most? The question is how much is too much? I mean, these people making millions and millions of dollars, having golden parachutes, I think that that in and of itself is too much. I think that should be the debate, not who should make the most; just that the most is too much. And I think it's a horrible thing for our society, when people are making these obscene amounts of money and then there are people who are losing their jobs and losing their homes. I mean, that's the question that needs to be asked and...

CONAN: All right. How much, Jim, is too much? Where do you draw the line?

JIM: I think it's too much when your lifestyle can be so opulent that it pales in comparison to anybody else on the...

CONAN: Give me a dollar figure, Jim. How much is too much?

JIM: You know, I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

JIM: Maybe it's because I came from a middle-class family, but I think anybody who's making over $10 million a year to do a job as a CEO is too much money. I think - I'm sorry, I know there's a lot of work involved with it, but I'm sorry. You know, they can stock pile so much money and hide it and not pay taxes on it, it's just ridiculous. I think there needs to be some way to say - and I love the fact that he's saying $500,000. If you're going to take money from the government, then you're going to have to - I can't even say that's hurting. It shouldn't be hurting to me. To me, if I made $500,000 a year, I'd be thrilled.

CONAN: Yeah.

JIM: So, I think it's (unintelligible).

CONAN: Dean Foust, there are those who say, you know, these Wall Street executives say, look, if you capped this at $500,000, first of all, the most talented people in these companies that are now partly owned by the taxpayers, the most talented people - and Jim, thanks for the call - they're going to leave.

Mr. FOUST: And indeed, that's already starting to happen. You're already starting to see people at the largest firms look toward the boutique firms, small firms, that are not under these restrictions, and when the job market improves on Wall Street, will be able to hire them away. And there is a risk. You know, on one hand, we did have - we are in this mess because we had firms that were supposedly too big to fail that the government had to jump in and rescue lest they down the entire economy. But on the other hand, there would be times in previous crises where the head of the Treasury or the Fed could call in eight investment bankers, the CEOs of the largest investment banks, and say, we have a hedge fund that's about to blow up; you gentlemen have the wherewithal to solve this problem. And if you start dispersing all this talent to boutique firms, then your - they may feel no obligation to play that role in the future.

CONAN: And Ron Shapiro, again, you're best known for sports, but you've also worked in the corporate area as well. And once you set a cap, a lot of people say, what's the incentive, then, if you're working at the very high ends of this?

Mr. SHAPIRO: You know, it's very interesting because there are caps that have been set in the sports world, and it hasn't deterred talented athletes from wanting to still be in the sports world. And it's my belief that if caps are set, there will still plenty of talented people who want to be part of the system. I mean, you know, $500,000 a year may not be the greatest incentive, but that cap is only tied to government-infusion dollars. And the real issue, Neal, is that in the corporate world, in the public corporate world, we have compensation committees setting compensation who are appointed by CEOs whose compensation is being set, who go out and get compensation consultants who are paid by the corporations. And there's - something doesn't figure there and that leads in part to this, look at what the other guy got; we'll give you more...

CONAN: Right.

Mr. SHAPIRO: And it keeps spiraling out of control. But the bottom line is, I do not believe that caps set at reasonably high level will deter talented people from being in the corporate world. It may send some from the big bonuses that they got in the investment banks on Wall Street to boutique firms, but there are plenty of talented people who want to create and build and will benefit in the long run if they build profitability, regardless of the caps.

CONAN: Getting back to that question asked earlier, how much is too much, have you ever been involved in a negotiation with representing an athlete, say, and you're talking about - and I'm just going to pick numbers out of the hat here - but you're talking about $100 million or something like that over 10 years in baseball - that money in baseball is guaranteed. It's not like some of the other sports, nevertheless. And there's a big argument over another $2 or $3 million. Have you ever told the athlete, you know, this doesn't matter? You know, $2 or $3 million more does not...

Mr. SHAPIRO: I have told them it doesn't matter. I mean, remember, I wrote book called "The Power of Nice: How to Negotiate So Everyone Wins - Especially You!," and the bottom line is, you know, again, when you negotiate, you negotiate to achieve certain goals, but you don't negotiate to destroy the other side or to come out feeling that you necessarily have a victory. If my client gets to an economic point where we're debating a fraction of what he has achieved and if he's happy where he is, I'm going to encourage him to stay there and not go to the marketplace to find a few more dollars and be unhappy someplace else.

CONAN: Here's - we've gotten over 250 emails on this subject, so let's read a couple of them. Some Tweets: EHanson9 Tweets: I think people who create the most value for the organization should make the most money, namely, the inventors, developers, of products. PinkHeels goes with: Nurses! We save lives! End of discussion. And finally, ManuKumar(ph) reminds us: We live in a market economy. The market determines the worth of a job or a role.

This from Mark in Jackson, California: The rich and very rich allow for the existence of artisan and craft industries. I'm a winemaker, and I love the super rich. They buy wine, they buy wineries, and through that, create lots of great jobs. Artisan food, skilled craftsman and great carmakers and mechanics all need the rich.

This from Don in Cape Coral: This is - one thing you have to consider is that public employees - such as police, fire and teachers - receive generous retirement packages with insurance. As does the military, you should point out. I work in the private sector for a high-tech company, and while we make a higher salary than most public workers, we do not receive retirement package, no medical insurance. People I know that are retired public-service workers are doing quite well now.

And this from Amarina(ph) in Grass Valley, California: I'm a registered nurse and I believe the pathetic reimbursement rates for doctors. These people have - I can't believe the pathetic reimbursement rates for doctors. These people have our lives in their hands.

We're talking today about, well, who should make the most money? 800-989-8255; email is talk@npr.org. Our guests - just to re-identify - Ron Shapiro, an agent attorney, the author most recently of "Dare to Prepare: How to Win Before You Begin!," and Dean Foust, the Atlanta bureau chief for BusinessWeek. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's go to Junette(ph), Junette with us from Spanish Fork in Utah.

JUNETTE (Caller): Hi, there. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JUNETTE: I think the comment earlier that garbage people should make more money is kind of silly. The qualifications are very low; there's no education. I think when you have to have education, when you're employing people, when you are doing things that require more experience, your money that you're making should naturally be higher.

CONAN: Yes, I think a lot of people would argue that. A lot of people might say, though, that sanitation workers do something that few of us would be happy to do.

JUNETTE: Oh, I do appreciate my garbage getting picked up, but I think often, when we accept the salary for a job, we are happy to get that salary because it matches what we are qualified to do.

CONAN: All right, Junette. Thanks very much for the call.

JUNETTE: Thank you.

CONAN: This from John in Durham, North Carolina: Mothers, because they put up with more crap than any CEO and their work has a bigger effect on the future of humanity...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Than any banker or software billionaire. I think none of us are going to vote against that, not and go home tonight. Let's go to Stephen, Stephen with us from New York.

STEPHEN (Caller): Yes, I think that vegetable and fruit farmers should be making some more money. We certainly can't go without having food in our country, and right now, our farmers are not making enough, especially our small farmers, to survive.

CONAN: And is this the business you're in, Stephen?

STEPHEN: Yes, it is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And how are you doing? This is in New York; I take it this is not planting season yet.

STEPHEN: It's not. I'm hanging in there, but you know, I'm certainly not living, you know, the high life. And I don't necessarily want to, but I think the rewards should be higher. When I see the reward for people who aren't necessarily doing essential services, you know, making such extreme amounts of money, I just don't think it's right.

CONAN: And no one would argue that your work isn't difficult or that your margins are fat. Nevertheless, you get to work outside. You get to do something you presumably love to do.

STEPHEN: Yeah, I'm quite happy with my work.

CONAN: All right, Stephen. Thanks very much.

Mr. SHAPIRO: Neal, could I interject for just one second?

CONAN: Go ahead, Ron Shapiro.

Mr. SHAPIRO: Because I want to give a "should." I have a son who's a general manager of a major league team, son-in-law who's a head coach of a NFL team. I have another son - many children, but another son - who runs a nonprofit that mentors at-risk kids. The two professional sports guys believe that that son who earns a fraction of what they earn should be earning twice what they earn. He's impacting on at-risk children, which is, you know, one of the great challenges in our society today.

CONAN: Well, that gets back, Dean Foust, to, well, our culture and it's how we make these decisions and the system, as people describe it. I mean, there was this outrage, again, when we heard at Wall Street that the - John Thain, who decorated his office to the tune of $1.2 million, had taken the bailout money or had distributed the bonuses that year early, just before accepting the bailout money. Nevertheless, people say, wait a minute, bonuses, they're part of the system. I get 40 percent of my annual income from bonuses.

Mr. FOUST: We are a market economy. Your point about bonuses, that was one of the flaws in the system that the Obama administration is trying to correct, that so many people in the financial sector had - the way that the compensation packages had been structured were that bonuses were an entitlement, and I think they're trying - some of the moves they're trying to make are trying to do away with that. You know, we are a market economy. My brother is a social worker. He worked - for years his job was helping place children from troubled homes into foster homes and helping them work through the problems in their life and to help them become functioning adults, and he makes a fraction of what a professional athlete does. So, you know, to some degree, the salaries that a society says does indicate the values of what that society considers most important.

CONAN: And should we weigh job satisfaction? Again, talking to the farmer just a moment ago, should we weigh job satisfaction into all of this? Because, well, if you love what you do, you're certainly, generally, willing to take a little bit less.

Mr. FOUST: Well, we were all told by some - many of us, by some mentor at some point in our life to follow - when it comes to deciding a career, follow your heart or go with your heart, and the money will follow. And when we're 22 years old, we never want to hear that. But as we get older, as we all get older, we find that that was sage advice.

CONAN: Hm. Ron Shapiro, what do you think?

Mr. SHAPIRO: Well, I think - let me just pick up on market economy. Let's take a look at the ultimate controlled economy, when Soviet Russia was Soviet Russia. Who was the highest paid - who - that they placed the most value on in that society, where they could control everybody's economics? It was the goalie...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHAPIRO: On the hockey team in Russia. Isn't that crazy? I mean - but again, as Dean says, it reflects the values we live by. We want to be entertained. We put a disproportionate amount of our resources in that world. I wish we could reorient it, because your listeners today spoke about a lot of people who ought to be paid more.

CONAN: And according to an unscientific survey of our emails, Tweets and calls, the teachers won as the most often suggested, and we're going to end with this email from Dan, an honest man in Chicago, who writes: I should make the most money. Let's thank Dean Foust, the Atlanta bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Thanks very much. He was with us from WABE in Atlanta.

Mr. FOUST: My pleasure.

CONAN: And Ron Shapiro, who was with us from the Baltimore Sun's studios in Baltimore, where he's most recently author of "Dare to Prepare." Ron, thanks very much. Nice to talk to you.

Mr. SHAPIRO: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: I'm Neal Conan. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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