A consequence of the ongoing financial crisis has been a virtual standstill in the average wages earned by American workers. Some of the lowest paid workers, including employees of retail giant Wal-Mart and fast-food gargantuan McDonalds are the most recent high-profile recipients of across-the-board pay hikes.
Nonetheless, the income inequality gap is huge – and growing. Some of the obvious beneficiaries, such as CEOs of major corporations, draw compensation that drives much of the wage gap. But other high-paid individuals, including Hollywood stars, athletes and crime lords also make more than any American can dream of. On the other hand, many national government leaders draw surprisingly modest salaries.
Hollywood Movie Stars
Hollywood stars draw amazing salaries, although ponder this: male stars greatly out-earn their female counterparts. Nonetheless, even while they earn far less than male stars, female A-listers are still doing pretty well. This is true whether their annual earnings or per-film salaries are measured, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
For instance, Dwayne Johnson, perhaps better known as wrestling superstar The Rock, has built a solid action film career, earning an estimated 52 million dollars between June 2013 and June 2014, commanding an average 15 million per picture. Leading man Leonardo DiCaprio earned 45 million dollars between June 2013 and June 2014, but routinely averages 20 million dollars per film, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
By contrast, Jennifer Lawrence, the highest-paid female actress mentioned by the Hollywood Reporter, earned a not-bad 35 million dollars between June 2013 and June 2014. But the Oscar-winning actress also got a big raise for her most recent films. Lawrence’s paycheck jumped from 500,000 dollars to a cool 10 million dollars between the filming of the first two installments of the blockbuster Hunger Games franchise.
Superstar athletes draw huge salaries ranging well into seven and even eight figures. But those figures tell only part of the story. Even when those astronomical salaries are broken down into per-game figures as Business Insider did in 2013, the totals far exceed what many average workers make in an entire year.
For instance, quarterback Peyton Manning earns a reported 15 million dollars from the Denver Broncos. Manning took a 4 million dollar pay cut for his team in 2015, meaning he made 19 million in 2014. But since football players only play once every week, his weekly salary translates to an eye-popping 937,500 dollars. That’s right: every time Peyton Manning suits up for a game, he earns nearly a million dollars.
By contrast, basketball superstar Kobe Bryant earns 25 million dollars from the Los Angeles Lakers, a paycut from his 30.4 million in 2014 But since basketball players play many more games each season than football players, Kobe Bryant averages “only” 304,000 dollars per game, according to Business Insider. But there’s no need for sympathy – that total still far exceeds the national annual American salary.
Baseball star Alex Rodriguez is paid right there with Bryant; 25 million dollars. But baseball players play even more games each season than basketball players – which translates to a per-game average paycheck of only 154,000 dollars for Alex Rodriguez.
The average salary for Chief Executive Officers ranges comfortably into six figures, with many CEOs earning millions in bonuses and share holdings. And while the compensation of big names such as Larry Ellison of Oracle (more than 78 million in 2013) and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo! (almost 25 million in 2013) is stunning, the highest compensation packages are reserved for executives whose names are virtually unknown. For instance, the very top earning CEO in 2013 was someone named Charif Souki of Cheniere Energy, whose compensation totaled an amazing 141,949,280 dollars.
And while many CEOs log more working hours than the standard 40-hour work week, they are well compensated for their time and efforts. The average CEO earned more than 331 times the salary of everyday workers in 2013. Compare that figure with salaries for rank-and-file employees, which averaged just $16.94 per hour in 2013, or $35,239 annually, according to figures compiled by the AFL-CIO.
Hollywood often glamorizes drug lords, portraying them as decked in furs, dripping with bling and surrounded by fast rides and even faster women willing to grant their every desire of the flesh. TV shows like Breaking Bad threw around astronomical figures concerning the lucrative nature of illegal drug dealing. At one point Walt is offered 3 million dollars for cooking the equivalent of 3 months worth of meth. For those readers keeping score, that’s 1 million dollars per month, or almost 1,400 dollars per hour.
But that’s just fiction, right? Not so much. The International Business Times reports tremendous markups for illegal drugs: 3.5 times bulk price for marijuana; 18 times bulk price for cocaine. And just like in the movies, many drug dealers splurge on luxuries ranging from fine wines to fast cars.
In 2007, Mexican police and American Drug Enforcement Agency personnel raided the Mexico City home of Zhenli Ye Gon, a native of mainland China who had obtained Mexican citizenship. In one Zhenli’s bedrooms, police found more than 200 million US Dollars, 18 million dollars worth of Mexican Pesos, 200,000 dollars worth of Euros and 113,000 dollars worth of Hong Kong Dollars. The raid also yielded 11 Mexican gold bullion coins, jewelry, luxury cars, and of course, a stash of high powered weapons. Another drug dealer profiled in a story from the Pacific Standard in 2014 earned a more modest but still impressive estimated 150,000 dollars annually from illegal drug trading.
National Government Leaders
With his country sinking into recession in response to intense pressure from international sanctions, Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin cut his own salary by 10 percent, according to CNN Money. His remaining salary is 8.2 million rubles annually, which translates to about 136,000 US Dollars. French President François Hollande gave himself a 30 percent salary haircut when he took office in 2012, reducing his annual earnings from 255, 600 Euros (274,522 US Dollars) to 194,251 dollars.
By contrast, CNN Money reports that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her cabinet received a 2.2 percent pay rise in March 2015. The raise increased her annual salary to 213,000 Euros, or the equivalent of 234,383 US Dollars. China’s President Xi Jingping also obtained a raise at the beginning of 2015. But even after a 60 percent boost, his annual salary is still shockingly low — the equivalent of only 22,000 US dollars annually, according to CNN Money.
For the record, United States President Barack Obama is the highest-paid world leader. He earns 400,000 dollars annually, and also has a tax-free 50,000 dollar expense account. Not too shabby.
Earning Their Pay
Highly compensated individuals are frequently the targets of envy or resentment. But few individuals have the talent or discipline to pursue professional athletic or acting careers. World leaders and drug dealers (hopefully) have little in common, but both professions share a high level of stress and risk that many people could not (or would refuse to) cope with.
By contrast, many corporate CEOs seem to have hit the compensation jackpot. Even accounting for the long hours many of them log in and out of the office, they enjoy salaries that are multiplied many times over what their workers earn. And when CEOs get the ax, they often have soft financial landings thanks to lucrative severance parachutes. For the rest of us, it’s necessary to stockpile emergency funds for that nearly inevitable rainy day – and to afford large and small luxuries.
Super Tip: Start investing early to build your own wealth.
Audrey Henderson is a Chicagoland-based writer and researcher. She holds advanced degrees in sociology and law from Northwestern University. Her writing specialties are sustainable development in the built environment, policy related to arts and popular culture, socially and ecologically responsible travel, civic tech and personal finance.