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Are CEOs worth that much more?

The huge pay gap only makes sense if CEOs add hundreds of times more value than other leaders in society.

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Healthy democracies and dynamic economies require strong leadership in every sector of society. But current pay practices send quite a different message: Only corporate leadership really matters.

The enormous size of today's CEO paychecks only makes sense if we assume that these individuals add tens, hundreds, even thousands of times more value to our society than the leaders we hold responsible for educating our youth, protecting our national security, providing essential public services, or crafting the laws that govern us.

Here's one example: University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann was one of the highest-paid nonprofit leaders in 2005, with $675,000 in earnings, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy's most recent survey.

That's hardly a paltry sum. But compare her pay with the $60 million pocketed last year by Bob Simpson, the chief executive of XTO Energy. This company had lower revenues last year than UPenn and employs less than 2,000 workers. Ms. Gutmann, for her part, oversees an enterprise with nearly 5,000 faculty and 24,000 students.

Is running an oil company really 90 times more valuable than leading one of the top-ranked institutions of higher learning?

Overall, the 20 highest-paid executives of publicly traded corporations make, on average, 38 times more than the country's 20 highest-paid nonprofit leaders.

The pay gap stretches even wider between the corporate and public sector. Last year, the top 20 highest-earning CEOs made 183 times more than the top 20 federal executive branch employees (a group that includes our president), 204 times more than our 20 highest-paid military generals, and 212 times as much as the top 20 ranking members of Congress.

The private equity boom has pushed the pay ceiling for business leaders even further into the stratosphere. The highest-paid hedge fund manager last year was James Simons of Renaissance Technologies, while the top-earning nonprofit leader was Harold Varmus, the Nobel Prize-winning chief executive of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Mr. Varmus made a more than generous $2.5 million. Mr. Simons's take: $1.5 billion.

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