A fine distinction is implied in the subtitle of "America's Paychecks." The subject is not "who earns what," a topic fraught with touchy intangibles, but "who makes what," a hard-nosed, bottom-line approach that avoids value-judgments although it can hardly avoid causing intense mental anguish in many readers.

Harrop has chosen a volatile subject. Given the double-digit rate of inflation and the time-consuming mechanics of book production, he is necessarily a bit out-of-date. Most of his figures date from 1978, and even when he manages to squeeze in a few from 1979, he is only provisionally up-to-date.

The problem of timing is most acute, perhaps, in the case of Johnny Carson, whose current financial condition cannot be accurately stated in print without resorting to ticker-tape. But whether or not it is accurate that he makes "a salary of $2.5 million plus another $2.5 million from a percentage of the commercial earnings," the existential reality endures: "Carson is truly the Muhammad Ali of the television world."

The reference to Ali, who is probably the most superbly competitive human being of our time, is highly appropriate. Once you get past the basic point where survival is at stake, America's paychecks become scorecards in a free-for-all competition.

"Americans are considered an uncommonly materialistic people." Harrop explains. "One consequence of this weakness has been to equate a person's intelligence and significance with how much he makes. Because of this ingrained attitude, many Americans are driven to try to learn or guess how much someone else earns, to see, in effect, how they measure up. The same people are usually just as anxious to prevent other people from discovering how much they themselves make. Almost everyone denies playing this game at the very moment they are playing it most."

The game is played intensely in Washington, but the local rules are somewhat confusing because money is only part of the payoff (power is more important to many people and not subject to tax). Also, as the Abscam incident shows, not all the money is reported on W-2 forms.

Cabinet members generally take a substantial salary cut when they sign on with the government for $69,630 per year, but they are still about $1,000 above the Senate majority and minority leaders and nearly $9,000 above rank-and-file members of Congress. Jimmy Carter, with a salary of $200,000 and another $90,000 for expenses, is making more in real money than did George Washington, whose $25,000 per year would be worth about $100,000 today. But Carter's pay is the same as Richard Nixon's was and worth only half as much. The presidency has been sliding downhill economically since income tax was introduced in 1913. Before then, Woodrow Wilson's $75,000 salary had about as much buying power as $547,000 today. No wonder Carter is so worried about inflation.

The president's salary looks insignificant when compared to the more than $2 million per year paid to David Mahoney, chairman of Norton Simon; the $1.9 million paid to Archie R. McCardell, president of International Harvester; or even -- far down the executive line -- the $975,000 income of Thomas A. Murphy, chairman of General Motors.

Being an ex-president is also fairly lucrative. On a pension of $100,000 (plus considerable other income), Gerald Ford is doing better than President Valery Giscard d'Estaing of France, whose salary is only $80,000. With a pension of $78,000. Richard Nixon is not doing quite so well, but he also has his royalties and a few other sources of income.

Still, these figures look relatively small at a time when Marlon Brando has received $3.7 million plus 11.3 percent of the gross for a cameo role in "Superman" and Steve McQueen, Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood are all demanding $3 million plus a cut of the gross for each film.

In a sense, practically everyone in the United States is winning the game if we consider it as a contest between generations. Take construction workers who have a relatively high hourly wage but unsteady employment over a period of time. "Their earnings," Harrop reports, "have gone from an average of $593 per year in 1900 to $3,333 in 1950, $9.137 in 1970 and to $14,392 at present." Even allowing for inflation, there has certainly been some advance -- particularly when health, pension and other benefits are figured in.

But the advances of workers and the spectacular coups of Carson, Brando and McQueen fade into insignificance when we start looking at real money -- for example, the author's now ironic note that "One of the sons of H. L. Hunt has used his annual income of nearly $300 million to invest heavily in the silver market." Clearly, the question is not what you earn; it's what you make.