In the wake of BP's calamitous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, CEO Tony Hayward is stepping down, but he will be receiving a severance package amounting to an estimated $18 million.

"That's what he gets for presiding over a record oil disaster and massive losses," commented Chris Hayes, Washington editor of The Nation, who was guest hosting MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show on Tuesday.

Hayes went on to note, however, that "Tony Hayward's $18 million payoff is an absolute pittance compared to the kind of cash top CEO's are raking in." He cited a recent Wall Street Journal story which revealed that over the past decade, the two highest-paid CEOs at public companies each took in over a billion dollars in compensation, while others in the top 25 received compensation in the hundreds of millions.

What makes these pay rates really "infuriating," says Hayes, is that "CEO pay is both a cause and partly a symptom of the staggering increase of inequality in this country.

Hayes cited a study recently released by the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities which shows that if you're in the bottom 20% of earners, "you're making only 16% more today than you would have in 1979." If you're in the middle fifth, you're making 25% more. "But the top fifth of earners in this country -- they're making 95% more."

"And that's not the really shocking part of this graph!" Hayes exclaimed. "Check this out. This is how much better the top 1% of Americans are doing now. The income of the very richest among us has shot up by 281% since 1979."

"There's a social pyramid in this country," Hayes commented, "and as you climb it, you encounter a smaller and smaller group of people doing better and better, while everyone at the bottom stays where they were. And it's precisely this kind of systematic inequality that incentivized the corporate fraud of the last decade."

"A select group of people are able to completely immunize themselves from the fate of the rest of the society," Hayes concluded. "Our entire social and economic way of life in this country is broken and unfair and inequitable and we need to figure out a way to repair it."

Noting that the George Bush tax cut for the wealthy is due to expire next January, Hayes suggested, "We could let it. What remains to be seen is whether the Democrats in Congress have the political will to take that step."

This video is from MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, broadcast July 27, 2010.

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