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Home / Reality Or The Lack Of It  /
Who's The Fairest Of Us All?
fariness

If you're looking for fairness, don't look in the mirror for an example


We've all complained about life and screamed, for parents and spouses to hear, that life just isn't fair. 

More than two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that men are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."  Jefferson wasn't an idiot.  He never guaranteed happiness, only the pursuit of it; and as all of us know who've gone after the prettiest girls in high school or the biggest spending potential clients, pursuit of something hardly guarantees you'll actually get it.

Some of us are born rich, some poor.  Some of us are born in so-called free countries, others in dictatorships.  Some in seemingly good health, some with congenital heart defects, and others as Siammese twins connected on the ass.  Recently, my father sent me a video link of an Australian man with no arms or legs   This man learned how to 'walk' and swim and become a motivational speaker.  Inspirational, sure, but fair?

There's an old adage that if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.  That's a great philosophy if life gives you high quality lemons and ample sugar.  How do you deal with life giving you rotten lemons and no sweetener?  The adage is silent on that one.

I considered writing an article on fairness because of all the press I was reading lately about a television show I haven't ever seen.  Two And A Half Men has been on the air eight years and is a tremendous success for producer Chuck Lorre and the CBS television network.  In the show's eighth season, its then star, Charlie Sheen, had gone on to earn between $1.2-2 million an episode, depending upon whether you take his back-end profit participation into account.  Sheen was television's highest paid star during the 2010-2011 season. 

Via Sheen, we come to our first test of fairness.  Is it fair that someone appearing in a 22 minute episode of television can earn between $55,000-91,000 per minute of televised performance?

The predictable response is obvious.  It's not fair.  The work isn't all that tough, a lot of qualified people could do it, and based on supply and demand for acting roles, a salary of $55,000 per minute – more than most people on the planet earn annually – is way too much for doing way too little.  Do Charlie Sheen's performances in Two And A Half Men improve societal welfare to an extent that Sheen's salary is justified?  Few of us would argue that a medical researcher concocting an inexpensive bona fide cure to cancer should be recompensed generously (even though, in reality, he wouldn't be).  The saving of human lives, especially on grand scales, justifies a higher salary to most of us than prancing about on a soundstage.   

An economist would answer differently and look at the bottom line.   How much does Two And A Half Men generate in revenue and profits now and in expected future syndication income for the producers and the network?   If the amount they pay Sheen still leaves ample profits on the table for them, why shouldn't they pay what seems at first blush to be an obscene and undeserved amount.

This, of course, presupposes that Sheen is indispensible to the show's success; if he were not, why pay him out the 7-figure paydays every week?    The network's attitude of halting production to accommodate Sheen's drug rehab schedule and readjusting the set furniture's location to support him, literally, when he couldn't stand upright after a cocaine binge shows that all organizers concerned must've considered Sheen's involvement tantamount to the show's stellar ratings.

And yet the network and producers soon backpedaled on this logic when Sheen launched a tirade of insults against showrunner Chuck Lorre.  Now Sheen was completely replaceable.   Sheen was fired and an expensive settlement paid to him, at least by normal reality standards, and cuddly stud and Twitter guru Ashton Kutcher was hired to fill his shoes.

Here's where we encounter our second stab at fairness.  From the network's point of view, relative to Sheen, Kutcher was being hired for a "steal."  His official salary was reported as $700,000/episode or about $32,000/minute.  This payday was called into doubt by many a Hollywood insider, who consider Kutcher's real payout to be more like $850,000-900,000/episode ($38,000-41,000/minute).  There was enough skepticism about the reported salary that news organizations were just stating that Kutcher was being hired for "less than a million dollars an episode."  In addition to the lucrative pay, Kutcher gets the use of an exclusive and spacious double decker trailer/disco valued at $2m.  All more than fair . . .  if you're Kutcher.

Two And A Half Men is the story of two brothers.  The younger brother gets divorced and taken for a ride on his divorce settlement, so he and his young son (= half a man) move in with the older brother, played by Sheen.  Even if you've never seen the show, the very title tells you the show's stories are about the interactions of the brothers and the young boy living with them.    

Sheen's 'brother' on the show is played by Jon Cryer, and his 'nephew' by Angus Jones.  Neither Cryer nor Jones ever reaped payouts of Sheen's magnitude.  Cryer, in the eighth season, was being paid $550,000/episode, and Jones, $350,000, making him the highest paid child actor on television.  Cryer and Jones were seen to be of some major value to the show to warrant these salaries.

But clearly not as much value as Ashton Kutcher.  If unofficial salary estimates are correct, Kutcher is making the equivalent of Cryer's and Jones' salaries combined.   Cryer and Jones have put in a combined 16 years into the show.   If you want to give Sheen the lion's share of credit for success of the show, fine, but Cryer and Jones surely deserve some portion as well, and whatever their share of the show's success is estimated at, that share has to be greater than Ashton Kutcher's, who until two weeks ago had never appeared in a single episode.  Is this fair? 

This is not the same situation where an upper-level manager earning six figures is working for a multinational for a decade, and then the company goes out and hires a CEO from outside the operation for a multimillion dollar salary plus stock options.  There is a huge difference in power and responsibility between an upper-level manager and a CEO.  As far as I can see, Cryer's and Sheen's responsibilities as actors – maybe not Jones', who has less screen time than the others – are nearly equivalent.  They must both show up for the same number of rehearsals and stick around for filming the same number of hours.  Okay, one could argue that had a different actor been cast instead of Cryer and played opposite Sheen, the show would still have enjoyed massive success.  Cryer wasn't that essential.   Why not then also argue that another actor playing opposite Sheen wouldn't stand in the way of the ratings either?  In fact, that's exactly what happened with Kutcher replacing Sheen, and Kutcher's debut brought in the show's highest ratings ever.

Most of us would be tempted to say this isn't fair.  Kutcher is being paid a lot more and handed more perks on his first day on the job than Jones and Cryer enjoy after eight years.  The simple fact of the matter is that life isn't fair, and I've used a (melo)dramatic example to illustrate.  Kutcher's the bigger brand name.   Brand names in whatever industry are always priced higher.  Perhaps in some cases, the quality of a recognized brand is lower than a lesser known brand.  So what?   People will always pay more for the famous brand. 

Is it truly any kind of revelation to say life isn't fair?  When I went traveling in Bangladesh back in the mid-1990's and witnessed widespread poverty firsthand, that the average American sitting on his behind watching cable TV and eating takeout KFC lived a better life than 99% of assbusting Bangladeshis, the stench of inequality was too overpowering to ignore.  Where one is born tilts the playing field tremendously.  Who one knows really is more important than what you know.  For many in careers where talent is no guarantee for widespread mainstream success (i.e. writing, acting, singing, painting), having a few well placed connections assist increases the chances one will eventually encounter that big break.

Alison Eastwood has some kind of acting career because of her father Clint's success as an actor and director.  James Murdoch is chief executive of News Corporation Europe and Asia because he's the son of billionaire tycoon Rupert Murdoch.  Haliburton received a $7bn Iraqi oil infrastructure contract because of former CEO Dick Cheney's position at the time as Vice President of the United States.

Is this fair, equality seekers?

We all like to operate under the façade that each of us enjoys the same opportunities and privileges as everyone else.  At least that's what I learned back in grade school.  We were told we could grow up to do and be anything we wanted to be, even President of the United States.  I won't go into all of the political shenanigans and corporate backing required to run for the U.S. Presidency, but I will comment that before Obama became Commander-in-Chief in 2008, all prior U.S. Presidents were white Christian males with ancestral roots going back to the British Isles.  Despite Obama's successful election, if you're hell bent on running for the next one and winning it, make sure you're not a female or a Jew or of Asian descent.  Your chances for securing an already difficult-to-obtain position will become virtually impossible.

The system isn't about fairness.  It's about exploiting what gives you an edge so you can win more competitions in the marketplace.

Is your edge who you know, what you know, tremendous talent, great looks, being in the right place at the right time, or some other trick up the sleeve?

Sorry to point it out to you, not all of us possess a unique edge that sets us apart. Until we recognize and fully embrace the concept that life isn't fair, we have no hope of adjusting our behavior to succeed in a world that was never as we wished it to be.    

If you liked reading this, consider:
 The Pounce Of Irrelevance
 The Cross And The Crescent: The Mass Market Of Religion
 The Complete Article Index