In the first 11 minutes of the first work day of 2005, the 10 highest paid chief executives in the United States were each paid more money, on average, than a full-time, minimum-wage worker received all year. In one hour, the average earnings for each one of these executives was more than the annual median U.S. household income.

These 10 corporate leaders earned an average of about $124 million in 2005. Topping the list was Richard D. Fairbank of Capital One Financial, who pulled down a cool $249 million and

needed less than six minutes of work to match the typical minimum-wage worker's annual earnings. The highest paid Los Angeles-based chief executive, Bruce Karatz of KB Homes, was No. 4 on this list, which also included Ray Irani, Occidental Petroleum (No. 6) and Angelo Mozilo, Countrywide Financial (No. 10).

By way of comparison, the median U.S. household income in 2005 was $46,326 and a full time U.S. minimum-wage worker brought home $10,712.

These astonishing figures are not limited to a few executives at the top. The chiefs of America's largest 500 corporations each earned as much money before lunch on the first workday of 2005 as the minimum-wage worker brought home in two years. These chief executives captured an average of $10.8 million that year. Half of all U.S. households each earned less money in all of 2005 than each of these executives averaged for just nine hours work.

What are these guys (yes, they're almost all guys) doing to earn as much as $119,000 an hour?

When I asked a friend, who doesn't make much money, how one could justify these stratospheric salaries, he simply said, "They must earn it." In other words, many of us think that chief executives are very smart, work very hard, generate monster revenues for their companies and are entitled to commensurate rewards.

So how do you explain Micron Technology, which had a six-year annualized loss of more than 21 percent and whose chief executive averaged $7.8 million a year over that period? Or Sun Microsystems' minus 31.5 percent annualized loss with a chief executive who got $13.3 million? Or Lexmark's 15 percent annualized loss with a chief executive who got $8.9 million?

OK, so you're thinking that those are anomalies. What about the many companies that have earned lots of money over the long haul? Shouldn't leaders be compensated for stellar performance?

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.