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CEO pay has risen faster than you think

Although surging CEO pay has been in the spotlight since the Great Recession, in fact the trend dates back decades. The 1980s, 1990s and 2000s were also a lucrative time for chief executives, with their pay soaring 937 percent from 1978 through 2013, according to a new study from the Economic Policy Institute.

To put that in perspective, that's twice the rate of growth enjoyed by the stock market during that period. It's also miles beyond what the liberal-leaning think-tank calls the "painfully slow" 10.2 percent increase in a typical employee's compensation.

CEOs last year earned 296 times the average worker, up from 30-to-1 in 1978, the report found.

The gulf in pay between top execs and rank-and-file employees goes beyond the public debate over fair compensation and rising economic inequality. Although companies commonly argue that they need to provide competitive pay packages to lure top CEOs, research has found that excessive pay can drag on corporations and hurt shareholders, especially given the trend giving hefty raises even during economically tough times.

"The economy is recovering for some Americans, but not for most," EPI noted. "The stock market and corporate profits have rebounded following the Great Recession, but the labor market remains very sluggish."

In 2013, the average CEO made $15.2 million, according the study, which examined the top 350 publicly traded U.S. companies and includes the value of stock options exercised that year. That was a 2.8 percent rise from 2012, and represents a 21.7 increase since 2010.

Interestingly, the study excluded Facebook (FB) because of its "outlier high compensation numbers." If the Silicon Valley giant had been included, that would have pushed CEO pay to $24.8 million last year and the CEO-to-worker pay ratio to 511-to-1.

The disparity in wealth and income between the top 1 percent of American earners and the rest of workers, along with the weak economic recovery, appears to be fundamentally changing social attitudes in the U.S. Nearly 6 out of 10 respondents in a recent CNNMoney poll said they believe the American dream -- however they wish to define it -- is no longer achievable.

Alluding to the divergence between top earners and average workers, French economist Thomas Piketty recently told CBS MoneyWatch that inequality in the U.S. has reached "spectacular" heights.

While some may believe that CEO pay is a reward for a job well done, EPI found that the pay packages are often linked to a company's share price. When it goes up, the CEO pay package also benefits. But some of the rise in corporate profits and share prices are "driven by macroeconomic developments," the study notes.

"For most firms, corporate profits continue to improve, and corporate stock prices move accordingly," the report says. "It seems evident that individual CEOs are not responsible for this broad improvement in profits in the past few years, but they are clearly benefiting from it."