Top bosses and film stars get multi-million pound salaries because talent is scarce. Everyone knows this. Which is a shame, because it's bull, as this fantastic paper by Marko Tervio explains.
Start from the premise that talent is initially unknown, and can only be revealed by working with expensive equipment. So, for example, we can only find out if a manager is any good if he's in charge of a big venture, or if an actor has box office appeal if he's in a mega-costly film. It is, therefore, very expensive to learn who's got talent and who hasn't.
What's more, people with talent cannot offer to share this cost with employers, either because of lack of cash or risk aversion: people don't pay for the chance to become bosses or film stars.
In these conditions, what's scarce isn't talent, but revealed talent. There might be loads of people with the ability to be film stars or bosses, but only a handful get the chance to show what they can do. Marg Helgenberger gets big money not (just) because she's a better, more popular or more beautiful actress than others, but because she's a proven quantity.
This has three consequences:
1. The industry employs lots of mediocrities on good money - people just above the threshold of acceptable competence. Employers prefer these to untried but potentially better workers because the risk of a single failure - the box office flop of a $100m film, or the failure of a large company - far exceeds the possible benefit of finding lots of people a little better than the barely competent.
2. Output is inefficiently low, and prices high. This follows from the industry being staffed by the barely competent rather than the brilliant.
3. People who have proved that they are genuinely brilliant earn huge salaries as economic rent.
Tervio illustrates this with Hollywood films. Compare films today with those made by the studio system of the 1930s and 40s.
Today, there's vast inequality among film actors, as there's only a handful of proven box-office stars, and the quality of films is indifferent.
By contrast, the studio system allowed potential stars to share the costs of revealing their talent with producers, by entering long-term contracts which gave low pay even to stars; the lower cost of making films then also helped. This allowed for many more great films to be made, as more great actors could enter the industry, but with less inequality among the stars.
In this sense, superstar salaries arise not because talent has become scarcer, but because it's become harder to reveal talent.
In other industries, however, the opposite trend exists. Clive reminds us that in the 1980s a mere economics writer got a flash Beemer from the Indy. This would be unheard-of today. This is because back in the 80s, it was hard to reveal a "talent" for writing on economics. Today, any idiot can do this (see here, passim), so revealed talent has become more abundant.