William F. Buckley
The gas problem was nicely framed in the past fortnight by two news items. The first was the report that Lee Raymond received $400 million in his retirement package as chairman of ExxonMobil. The second was the published sketch of the projected backboard for airline passengers willing to travel more or less standing up, helping out the airlines' need for extra revenues to pay for -- Lee Raymond's gas.

That is a populist formulation, invited by recent news. Concerning it, a few comments.

Mr. Raymond is correctly charged with, at the least, an extraordinary act of indecorum. Granted, the capitalist model does not (and should not) limit the size of a wage or a bonus. ExxonMobil paid $23 billion in taxes last year, which gives us some idea of the scale of an activity whose gross income exceeds the combined income of IBM, General Motors and AT&T.

That is why it is best to fault Raymond and the directors of ExxonMobil using the language of civility: a lack of decorum is what it was. One correctly declines to specify a limitation on figures that arise from the workings of the marketplace, which are not to be confused with machinations of the marketplace. If Mr. Raymond were guilty of a violation of antitrust laws, or of the anti-gouging laws, one could look at the towering figure of his retirement package as corresponding perfectly to the high reaches of avarice and contrivance.

But no such charges have been leveled. Which means observers are left to cope with the sheer vulgarity of the transaction, wondering how it happened. Why didn't the directors put on such brakes as decency required? Why didn't Mr. Raymond stop after, say, $100 million, and assign the rest to a fund to help standing-room-only airline passengers?

The public reaction tends to indignation and then to wondering about means of punishment.

But means of punishment are difficult to come up with. Ideally one would see stockholder action resulting in the ouster of every director of ExxonMobil who voted to authorize the gargantuan retirement package. The shareholders of ExxonMobil have direct means of expressing themselves: by voting against the current directors, or by selling their shares in the company, if they believe that the profligate sum paid to Mr. Raymond is an indication of company extravagance.

What about that general public? How can it punish directors who do not do the right thing?

William F. Buckley

William F. Buckley, Jr. is editor-at-large of National Review, the prolific author of Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography.

Be the first to read William Buckley's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com delivered each morning to your inbox.