Perk Up: In Defense Of Wretched Excess

Against The Grain, RKF, 010208 CBS/AP

What’s so wrong with ostentatious perks for ostentatious execs? In his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer says maybe not much.


Consistent with our strict full disclosure, no conflicts of interest policy, I have been asked to reveal the perks of my job.

I can’t complain. I think it’s fair.

After all, I am a low-middle-manager and part-time opinion-spewer at CBSNews.com, which is a division of CBS News, itself a division of CBS Inc., a subsidiary of Viacom, which is ... well, I’m actually not allowed to disclose Viacom’s mother ship, it’s just too global, big and scary for public consumption.

But as cog of a publicly traded corporation, I get perks.

Sure, I might not have a $6,000 shower curtain like the Tyco guy. And I don’t have a personal wait staff like ex-General Electric czar Jack Welch. But I bet my work would be better if I did.

"Perk" is the slang abbreviation for perquisite. "Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary" defines perquisite as: "Something gained from a place or employment over and above the ordinary salary or fixed wages for services rendered; especially, a fee allowed by law to an officer for a specific service."

I love the sample sentence Webster’s uses: "The pillage of a place taken by storm was regarded as the perquisite of the soldiers. -- Prescott."

I think L. Dennis Kozlowski and his Tyco storm troopers could relate to that. Corporate raiding is tough, thankless work, so what’s a little pillaging? A standard perk. Chill out.

As for me, I think it’s pretty clear that most of my colleagues here in the northeast section of the third floor of the Washington bureau believe that my most envied perk is the Panasonic Auto-Stop Electric Pencil Sharpener (and I emphasize the words "auto-stop" – you cannot over-sharpen a pencil with this baby).

Famous TV correspondents, people you’d recognize in airports, have used this machine, but they don’t have one of their own. It's mine. I don’t have this particular perk written into my contract or anything, but let’s just say that senior management and I are on the same page on this one.

You should also know that I am free to thumbtack anything I like to the spongy plastic walls of my cubicle – family pictures, dry cleaning stubs, exotic frog calendar, Willie Mays baseball card. I have total, 100% control. Not bad, right?

Then there’s also the Motorola SKYTEL two-way (sort of) pager I get to wear. This seven-pound chunk o’plastic hanging from my belt ensures that I can look like a genuine geek. It also enables me to know all about the latest missing child case when I’m coaching soccer or the newest corporate indictment when I’m eating dinner. How cool is that?

There’s more. When I travel for work, I get a meal allowance. It’s $6 for breakfast! Take that, Mr. Jack Welch. For $6 in Manhattan I can dine on one unopened walnut and a bottle of Yoo-hoo.

My point is not to brag about my own good fortune and to rationalize it.

To the contrary, it’s clear that if I had to endure being paid gazillions a year in regular compensation and bonuses, I would need more perks just to survive. You think it’s easy to inflate earnings, disguise losses, raid pension funds and trick wily auditors. This stuff leaves a spiritual void that regular money just can’t fill.

It’s catty and small to begrudge guys like Kozlowski a $30 million compound in Boca Raton or a $17 million Fifth Avenue Apartment. And he’s supposed to live in these places without a shareholder-bought $15,000 umbrella stand or a $6,300 sewing kit? These are the guys that go out there and create wealth, build buildings, lift all ships.

Now we’re going to have swarms of investigative reporters, Nader’s Raiders, shareholder activists and ambitious prosecutors pouring over footnotes in annual reports to catch the next perk crooks.

Leave it to the goodie-goodies to stifle the entrepreneurial spirit.

Can’t we all just get along?

Anyway, I have to go. Someone wants to use my pencil sharpener.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is Editorial Director of CBSNews.com based in Washington.

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Against the Grain

By Dick Meyer
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