A couple of recent papers corroborate my view that it is indeed a con.
First, Thomas Lambert and Eundak Kwon show that movements in top US incomes since 1929 are correlated with both the political environment - "neoloiberalism" favouring high pay - and with the rate of surplus value, defined as the ratio of non-wage incomes to the wages of "productive" workers.They say:
The Marxian concept of the rate of exploitation appears to have some statistical validity.
Secondly, Olivier Fournout describes how the description of the CEO as hero in many management books resembles the depiction of heroes in many films. In both, our hero assumes a role, is reasonable, sensitive and listening, and unorthodox and creative - and takes risks. He writes:
The figure of the hero promoted by management literature and the American film industry is—at a structural level—the same.
This, of course, shows how the position of the boss is sustained by an ideological construct; the pretence that the boss is like a Hollywood hero serves to legitimate his role and his huge salary, just as stories of medieval chivalry helped to legitmate robber barons.
You might object here by pointing to work by Brian Bell and John van Reenan, which finds a strong correlation in recent years between UK CEO pay and performance:
Senior management appear to have pay that is strongly associated with various measures of firm performance...A 10% increase in firm value is associated with an increase of 3% in CEO pay but only 0.2% in average workers’ pay. Falls in firm performance are also followed by CEO pay cuts and significantly more CEO firings.
However, this finding does not reject the possibility that bosses, in aggregate, are exploiters.
To see what I mean, imagine a feudal society in which lords exploit peasants but claim, in exchange, to offer them protection. In this society, the lord who fails to offer protection might well suffer badly, as rival lords attack his land and rob both him and his peasants, whilst the successful lord who protects his peasants would see his wealth grow as he usurps other lords. There will then be a strong correlation between lords' performance and reward. But the lord-peasant relation will be exploitative.
A link between individual ability and performance is entirely consistent with an aggregate relationship which is unjust.