“American society proclaims the worth of every human being,” economist Arthur M. Okun, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, wrote in his 1975 book on the subject, “Equality and Efficiency.’’ But the economy awards “prizes that allow the big winners to feed their pets better than the losers can feed their children.”

And it asks the big question and attempts to answer it:

So what happened since the ’70s that has sent executive pay upward?…

The case of Dean Foods appears to bolster the argument that executive compensation moves with company size: The profits for Dean Foods in 2009 were roughly 10 times what they were in 1979, adjusted for constant dollars. Engles’s compensation has averaged 10 times that of Douglas.

“It’s a different company today,” company spokesman Jamaison Schuler said. He declined to comment further.

But some economists have offered an alternative, difficult-to-quantify explanation: that the social norms that once reined in executive pay have disappeared.

The Post reports that back in the day, Dean Foods CEO Kenneth Douglas thought he was overpaid making what would now be a million bucks a year. He turned down raises from his board. The paper quotes a 1975 Forbes interview with ITT’s CEO who talks about the social pressure keeping his pay in check.

If you need further evidence of the amount of reporting that went into this piece, look at how Whoriskey tracked down Dean Foods board members from the 1970s to talk about Douglas:

“He would object to the pay we gave him sometimes — not because he thought it was too little; he thought it was too much,” said Alexander J. Vogl, a members of the Dean Foods board at the time and the chair of its compensation committee. “He was afraid it would be bad for morale, him getting a big bump like that.”
“He believed the reward went to the shareholders, not to any one man,” said John P. Frazee, another former board member. “Today we get cults of personality around the CEO, but then there was not a cult of personality.”

It’s worth noting for our audience that those cults of personality were created in large part by the media, particularly the business press, and particularly business magazines.

While the Dean Foods anecdote is tremendous, this piece could have been made even better by adding another example or two.

And I probably would have also zeroed in on the fact that despite falling 9 percent over thirty-five or so years, Dean Foods workers are still averaging $23 an hour. That’s about $46,000 a year, what we consider a very good wage these days, particularly for blue-collar workers.

That shows that Dean workers have been some of the few lucky ones, even while its benevolent and paternal leadership turned into one that held its wages in check while lining its pockets. Unlike a lot of other things, it’s hard to offshore milk production, packaging, and distribution to folks making fifty cents an hour. And that’s where the anecdote comes up missing: The Dean workers aren’t representative of what’s happened to American workers over the last thirty-plus years.

Maybe that’s coming. Here’s looking forward to the rest of this series.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu.