BELIEVABILITY. Folks may have vaguely noticed the sordid story of United Health Group CEO William McGuire trickling out over the past couple of days. In an age of obscene CEO pay, McGuire put every other executive to shame: At the end of 2005, his stock options were worth 1.8 billion dollars. Unfortunately, those options were backdated -- the dates were forged to begin at the lowest point for the stock, so the holdings would be worth more. And now everyone hates the guy. Eat your heart out, Shakespeare.

What's so infuriating about McGuire's compensation package, however, wasn't the malfeasance that went into augmenting it, but the grotesque and inexplicable wealth it offered in the first place. A couple billion for a CEO beyond his salary? That must be some productivity. Possibly the best justification for the cash came compensation committee member Mary Mudlinger:

"We're so lucky to have Bill," Ms. Mundinger, a longtime compensation-committee member, told the [Wall Street Journal] earlier this year. Of his rising pay, she said: "He needs to be compensated appropriately so that his business model has believability in the market."

So in order to justify McGuire's business model -- ceaseless premium increases on members, tons of underwriting, and an expansion into low-cost, low coverage plans -- he had to be compensated in the billions. Otherwise, his strategy would have lacked "believability" on Wall Street. I wonder how the Prospect would react if I wandered into Harold's office or the next board meeting and explained that I need a six-figure salary in order to burnish the credibility of my writing. Yeah. I wonder.

--Ezra Klein