Meanwhile, if you apply the same math to the founders and their equity, in every single case they are paying themselves multiples of what they are offering me and significantly above their own market value, despite them not having done anything yet beyond getting seed funding.
What then happens is that startups like these end up getting what they pay for - they get the appropriate level of talent at market price. This maybe a market-optimal result but the cumulative effect of all these startups doing this is that most top people have sort of written off "working at a startup" as a reasonable career option, because of pay and what pay implies about the talent level of the people they would work with. This hurts all startups, even those that are willing to pay up to get the right talent. And if top engineers won't even consider your company, offering top-tier comp may backfire - you run the risk of overpaying for the same talent you could've gotten at a lower price. It's hard to break out of this cycle - consider how the same few schools are able to persistently attract the best students - and I suspect the entire startup ecosystem is trapped in it.
The behavior of startups is not intrinsic, it is the product of incentives. If I created a startup tomorrow, I am confident that I could pull world-class engineers out of FAANG. But to your point, I would not play games with compensation. I hire the people I would hire because they are clever, they aren't going to be fooled by bullshit nor would they respect me if I tried that. That is an essential quality of good startups that should not be lost in this mix.
This is easy. Offer relatively competitive TC with a real potential upside to the equity package and a work environment that's attractive. BigCorp is mired in politics and decision-making that's grounded in risk mitigation. Do something legitimately interesting and folks will come. Give them some agency and the ability to really get things done and they'll stay.
It's easy to deduce that those folks would be more interested in hard tech than any paint-by-numbers startup. I've worked at startups and well-established companies, and have found it surprising how easily really good engineers will turn down lucrative but uninteresting opportunities at well-established companies and how readily they'll take an "interesting" role for less or sometimes way less money.
As an aside, I’ve just re-read a Terry Pratchett novel and your description of the good engineers’ behavior made me think of Leonardo da Quirm :)
To my mind that's an engineer whose curiosity is uninvested in the outcome of the exploratory work.
I've known good engineers and great engineers and to some degree, they were all like Leonardo da Quirm, though not all quite as naive.