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Who came up with the model for excessive pay? No, it wasn’t the bankers – it was academics | Aditya Chakrabortty

All the focus has been on bankers’ bonuses, yet no one has looked at the economists who argued for rewarding bosses by giving them a bigger financial stake in their companies

Take a big step back. Ignore those sterile debates about how Dave screwed up over Stephen Hester’s pay and where this leaves Ed. Instead, ask this: which profession has done most to justify the millions handed over to the boss of RBS, his colleagues and counterparts? Which group has been most influential in making the argument that top people deserve top pay? Not the executives themselves – at least, not directly. Nor the headhunters. Try the economists.

The ground rules for the system by which City bankers, Westminster MPs and ordinary taxpayers live today were set by two US economists just a couple of decades ago. In 1990, Michael Jensen and Kevin Murphy published one of the most famous papers in economics, which first appeared in the Journal of Political Economy and then in the Harvard Business Review. Its argument is well summed up by the latter’s title: “CEO Incentives: It’s Not How Much You Pay, But How.”

The way to get better performance out of bosses, argued the economists, was by giving them a bigger financial stake in their company’s performance. You couldn’t have asked for a better codification of bonus culture had you stuck a mortar board on Gordon Gekko’s head. So popular, so influential was Jensen and Murphy’s work that it opened the door to a new corporate culture: one where executives routinely scooped millions in stock options, apparently justified by top research that they were worth it.

The usual criticism of economists is that they missed the crisis: they preferred their models to reality, and those models took no account of the mischief that could be caused by bankers running wild. Of all explanations, this is the most comforting; all academics need to do next time, presumably, is look a little harder – ideally with a grant from the taxpayer.

But economists didn’t just fail to spot the financial crisis – they helped create it. They provided the intellectual framework and drew up the policies that helped caused the boom – and the bust. Yet rather than a full-blown investigation, their active involvement in this crisis and their motivations have barely got a look-in. As Philip Mirowski, one of the world’s leading historians of economic thought, puts it: “The bankers have got off the hook, and gone back to business as usual – and so too have the economists.” It’s the same discipline that spoke all that nonsense about markets always being efficient that is now deciding how to reform the economy.

A few weeks ago, I described the current economic system as a bankocracy run by the banks, for the banks. Mainstream economists play the role of a secularised priesthood, explaining to the laity just how and why the markets’ will must be done. Why are they doing this? Luigi Zingales, an economist at Chicago, calls it “economists’ capture”. Much of the blame for the financial crisis has fallen on regulators for being captured by the bankers, and seeing the world from their point of view. The same thing, he believes, has happened to academics. When Zingales looked at the 150 most downloaded academic papers on executive pay he found that those arguing that bosses should get more (à la Jensen and Murphy) were 55% more likely to get published in the top journals.

Anyone who saw the film Inside Job will recall the scene in which leading economists are shown puffing financial deregulation, or the outlook for Icelandic capital markets, or whatever – and then revealed to have taken hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, from the very interests they are advocating. But this goes wider than direct payment; many academics also believe those arguments about how markets work best when they are left alone. As the economist Steve Keen puts it: “Most economists are deluded.”

Maybe, but it also pays to be deluded. Think about the rewards for toeing the mainstream economic line. Publication in prestigious journals. Early professorships at top universities. The conferences, the consultancies at big banks, the speaking fees. And then: the solicitations of the press, the book contracts. On it goes.

Rob Johnson, director of the Institute of New Economic Thinking, quotes a dictum he was once given by a leading west coast economist. “If you got behind Wall Street,” he remembers the professor telling him, “you went to Lake Como every summer. If you left finance alone, you took a nice vacation in California. And if you took on the bankers, you drove a secondhand car.”

Were this corruption of analytical philosophy, say, this might not matter so much. But economics shapes our policy and our public debates – and it warps both. Yesterday, I listened to a discussion of Hester’s bonus (what else?) on the Today programme. Defending Hester, a journalist quoted some American finding that CEO pay had actually halved since 2001.

Chicago economist Steve Kaplan does indeed argue that “CEO pay in 2006 remained below CEO pay in 2000 and 2001″. What’s missing there is that 2001 was the height of the US dotcom boom, when bosses were getting crazy money. Kaplan also writes papers about how hard it is to be a chief executive. According to his CV, his consulting clients have included Accenture, Goldman Sachs and a bunch of other Wall Street banks. This is the way such arguments are prosecuted: without full disclosure of either evidence or interests. And in such arguments, it’s you that loses. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds