Still hot on the trail of precisely what the Reagan administration means by "truly needy," we come to the case of Philip Caldwell, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the Ford Motor Company. Yes, I know it was only a few weeks ago that I suggested that we had a promising lead in the testimony of John McAtee Jr. of Greenwich, Conn., who said his salary of $150,000 a year as the new acting head of the U.S. Synthetic Fuels Corporation was so far below a living wage that he might be forced to move out of Greenwich. Yes, I know I brought up the possibility that everyone who makes less than $150,000 a year might be forced to move out of Greenwich -- moving west in a station-wagon caravan that I thought of as a preppie "Grapes of Wrath." Yes, I do still think of those poor Greenies on the road west. I figure that they've made it about as far as the suburbs of Chicago now. They set up their sad Greenie encampment outside Lake Forest, and try to make a supper out of a little cold breast of chicken and Chablis eaten on the tailgates of their station wagons. The men have tried to hire on as seasonal bank presidents, but they face great hostility: the people who already have jobs as bank presidents understandably feel threatened by the sudden appearance of a horde of Greenies willing to work for $130,000 or $140,000 a year. When inquiries are made about housing -- the mothers want desperately to get the pasty-faced little Greenie children out of the station wagons and into some place where they can get regular showers and a change of buttondowns -- the real estate agent says, "G'wan, we don't want your kind here."

Certainly the Greenies could be considered needy. Certainly John McAtee Jr. -- or, as he has long been known around the locker room at the Greenwich Country Club, Jack the Kvetch -- could be considered needy. But for truly needy, it seems to me, we have to look to the executives of major American corporations. When the Reagan people talk about who has suffered under the Keynesian terror, the most appalling tales of atrocities feature as victims the executives of major corporations. It is the executive who has been seared by government red tape attached to his corporate body. It is the executive who has been brutalized by environmental zealots who would not even allow him to discharge his wastes. It is the executive whom government bureaucrates flail with confiscatory taxation until he no longer has the use of his own incentive. Listening to the Reagan people talk about the suffering of corporation executives, it is obvious why the president has said that the United States will no longer spend much time worrying about the status of human rights in countries we deal with: there is too much to do right here at home.

All of which brings us to Philip Caldwell, chief executive officer of the Ford Motor Company. For the year 1980, Caldwell received no incentive bonus at all -- the main problem being, as I understand it, that in 1980 the company lost $1.5 billion. Well, you might say, Caldwell still got his base salary of $400,000 -- what the Reagan people must mean when they talk about maintaining a "safety net." Also, you might think it odd that I show any sympathy at all for Caldwell, since I was the one who recently proposed to American industry the Disincentive Negabonus concept -- an idea that, I am sorry to say, got much less attention as a cure for low productivity than these fancy schemes like encouraging welders in Detroit to eat sushi on their lunch breaks. Under the Disincentive Negabonue plan, the salary of top executives would be tied not only to profit but also to loss, so that for the year 1980 Philip Caldwell would owe Ford $274,358. Lee Iacocca would owe Chrysler Ford.

The point, though, is not sympathy but the sympathy of the Reagan administration people who get tears in their eyes when telling stories of executives who under previous administrations were forced to watch the public degradation of their smokestacks. I can see the administration insiders gathered in the White House now, leafing through Business Week's Annual Survey of Executive Compensation.

"Did you hear about Phil Caldwell?" Donald Regan (1980 salary, according to Business Week, $846,000) asks.

"Oh no! Not Phil!" David Stockman says. Stockman is from Michigan, and he knows full well that some vigilante state safety agency, not subject to White House control, might have grabbed Philip Caldwell and made him submit to the mandatory insertion of airbags.

"He only made 400 grand last year," Regan says. Everybody in the room knows what tham means. They know that three executives of Union Pacific, just one company in an industry regularly announced as being too poor to carry passengers, made more than $2 million in 1980. They know that the executive vice president of NL Industries, a company they have never even heard of (Could it be a Wall Street venture-capital group originally called No Loss Industries? A conglomerate built on a fastfood chain called the Nueva Latke?) made $3,225,000. They are aware that there are shortstops making more than $400,000.

"Will he have to . . ." Stockman stops, his voice cracking with emotion.

"No, no. He's still in Grosse Pointe," says Justin Dart (1980 salary, $1 million). "That cutoff point there is three and a quarter this year."

The room grows quiet. Stockman stares into space. He thinks of Phil Caldwell, trying to explain to his wife and children why he isn't up to earning the sort of paycheck that David Lewis over at General Dynamics ($3,012,000) or Donald Kelly at Esmark ($1,961,000) brings home. He thinks of the Greenies camped outside Lake Forest -- the men gathered in little groups, discussing, in voices hollow with despair, whether things might be better in Shaker Heights or River Oaks or Scottsdale or Carmel. He thinks of poor old Jack the Kvetch in Washington, having to spend his lunch hour in Episcopalian thrift shops comparison-shopping Topsiders. Among those people, Stockman is thinking, there is one who is truly needy.