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A baseball player making a lot of money is not an indictment of the American financial system

Apr 15, 2013, 11:03 AM EDT

Detroit Tigers v Oakland Athletics - Game Five Getty Images

I’m the last person who will tell someone to keep their politics out of baseball, but if you’re gonna do it, make sure your politics aren’t plum dumb stupid.

Sadly, Slate’s Edward McClelland couldn’t get that second part right, as he dedicates a column to saying he can’t enjoy following the Tigers anymore because Justin Verlander makes too much money. Because that’s allegedly representative of the problem with growing income inequality in this country and that’s bad:

Over the past 40 years—the period of rising economic inequality that formerSlate columnist Timothy Noah called “The Great Divergence”—Americans’ incomes have not grown at all, in real dollars. But baseball players’ incomes have increased twentyfold in real dollars:the average major-league salary in 2012 was $3,213,479. The income gap between ballplayers and their fans closely resembles the rising gap between CEOs and their employees, which grew during the same period from roughly 25-to-1 to 380-to-1 … I’m singling out professional athletes for my class envy because they’re the highest-profile beneficiaries of changes that have enriched those at the top of the economic order while impoverishing those at the bottom.

Growing income inequality in society is not concerning due to some people having a lot and some not having a lot in and of themselves. It’s concerning because a lot of these people are making money that is in no way connected to the value or income they generate. It’s concerning because it creates separate classes of people who are increasingly stuck in their lot with no chance to move up. Extreme income stratification has been shown to hinder overall economic mobility. The idea: if Class A gets rich and Class B does not, Class A’s kids are increasingly privy to advantages (private schools, opportunities luxuries, etc.) that serve to keep them in their class while excluding the Class B kids.

It’s not entirely clear how that all works on a micro-level, but the upshot is that the very promise of the American Dream — that a poor kid can make good one day — is much, much harder today than it was yesterday because the gulf he or she has to leap is much, much larger. It’s a complex socioeconomic thing that is not simply about someone having money while someone else does not and which is not solvable by some single policy or tax code change or whatever.

What it is certainly not about is some ballplayer or entertainer or musician — who, as McClelland freely admits has extremely specialized and valuable skills — making millions. Indeed, a poor kid flinging a baseball and turning that into $80 million or whatever is the ultimate inequality hack. It takes that poor kid out of the dilemma he’s so concerned about in the first place.  And unlike that CEO or executive class about which we should be somewhat concerned, at least baseball players’ salaries correlate pretty nicely with the value they’re creating for the business. Baseball’s receipts have exploded at just as high if not a higher rate than salaries have, and ballplayers are the reason for it. They’re creating value in terms of butts in seats, so why shouldn’t they be paid for it?

And even if none of that stuff was true, the explosion of baseball salaries involves so few people — a few dozen get those giant contracts, a few hundred get what most of us would call “rich” — that it is less than a drop in a drop in a bucket of the problem.  Concerned about inequality? Look at the thousands of kids of corporate CEOS and executives who are taking up spots in good colleges due to their dad’s donations when those seats used to go to kids on minority or Appalachian scholarships or something.

But I get the sense that McClelland knows all of this on some level. Partially because he’s writing for Slate and their M.O. is often contrary silliness for its own sake. But it’s mostly because McClelland tips his hand:

As baseball players accumulate plutocratic riches (Rodriguez will have earned a third of $1billion by the time his contract expires), I find myself wondering why I’m supposed to cheer for a guy earning $27.5 million a year—he’s already a winner. When I was 11, I hero-worshipped the Tigers’ shortstop because I could imagine growing up to take his place. Obviously, that’s not going to happen now. Since my past two jobs disappeared in the Great Recession, I can’t watch a professional sporting event without thinking, Most of those guys are set for life, while I’ve been buying my own health insurance for 5 1/2 years. Paying to see a baseball game feels like paying to see a tax lawyer argue in federal court or a commodities trader work the floor of the Mercantile Exchange. They’re getting rich out there, but how am I profiting from the experience? I know we’re never going back to the days when Willie Mays lived in Harlem and sold cars in the offseason, but the market forces that have overvalued ballplayers’ skills while devaluing mine have made it impossible for me to just enjoy the damn game.

If that kind of thing is keeping you from enjoying the damn game, you probably weren’t appreciating the damn game all that much to begin with. And you probably need to work on your own issues and insecurities before pointing out the alleged problems with baseball.

  1. ramblingalb - Apr 15, 2013 at 2:44 PM

    While almost anyone can do most jobs, very few can play baseball at the major league level, and even fewer can thrive.

    He’s basically against the free market, along with supply and demand. Such ignorance is painful and hard to believe.

  2. greysolon - Apr 15, 2013 at 8:01 PM

    Envy is never pretty.

  3. dcrudy - Apr 15, 2013 at 8:07 PM

    With the stories there are in the first two weeks of the baseball season, this is what you’re writing about ? Seriously ?

  4. joerymi - Apr 15, 2013 at 10:57 PM

    These are the same people that want to continue to hold back NCAA athletes from making a cut. Not only is it a silly argument, it is just plain wrong.

    So, a left-winger making the point that the money made from baseball ought to stay at the top only? Interesting…

  5. sfm073 - Apr 16, 2013 at 1:12 AM

    Baseball salaries are what they are bc us fans are willing to pay 50$ for a ticket, 15$ to park, 6$ for a hotdog, 8$ for a beer and 100$ for cable a month. If we refused to pay this then the players and owners wouldn’t be making this money. It’s our fault.

  6. sarcasticks - Apr 16, 2013 at 1:40 AM

    Concerned about inequality? Look at the thousands of kids of corporate CEOS and executives who are taking up spots in good colleges due to their dad’s donations when those seats used to go to kids on minority or Appalachian scholarships or something.

    Of course only male parents could be a CEO or executive.

  7. louhudson23 - Apr 16, 2013 at 3:28 AM

    It isn’t about fairness. It is about breaking the cycle by allowing the accrual of personal wealth without further reinvestment in the economic system. The tax burden(as percentage of overall tax revenue) on the wealthy and corporate interests has continued to fall to historic levels and economic disparity to rise to the same historic levels.. Social and physical infrastructure continues to crumble,and the ability of others to become trained and educated consumers and employees falls with it.It is an unsustainable cycle and a return to the days before the middle class and true economic mobility and prosperity for our country….

  8. xjokerz - Apr 16, 2013 at 6:58 AM

    I agree . In 1 year Verlander makes more money than the entire detroit police department. And people wonder why trash like in Boston today happened .. Time to get our priorities straight

  9. bklynbaseball - Apr 16, 2013 at 12:56 PM

    Of course, no one lines up to buy tickets to watch the Detroit Police Department do its job. You know, if 2 million people in your town were willing to pay upwards of $30 a piece to watch you do your job day in and day out, you could probably command a pretty hefty salary yourself. It’s called SUPPLY AND DEMAND people. And you’re right; if it was REALLY important to us [meaning all of America], we’d change it. We give a lot of lip-service to what we want people to believe is important, but what we actually spend our money on says something totally different. We tell our kids that education is important, but what’s the first thing that gets whacked in any local, city or state budget in a crunch?? EDUCATION.

    And Justin Verlander’s salary has nothing to do with what happened in Boston – no logic whatsoever in that statement.

  10. irishdodger - Apr 16, 2013 at 2:14 PM

    So he has a problem w/ pro athletes’ salaries increasing while the rest of the country’s employed decreases or remains stagnant. I would love to see what he thinks about tuition to state universities increasing at an astronomical rate which leaves graduates in debt before they ever graduate (usually w/ a degree geared for a career that comes w/ a salary that ensures they’ll never pay it off).

    Fat, bitter & socialist is no way to go thru life.

  11. xjokerz - Apr 17, 2013 at 4:10 AM

    When did I say what Verlander makes has to do with Boston ? ….. Learn to read first buddy … My point was simple, we as a society need to get our act together.. its a disgrace that arod makes 500,000 per game and its a disgrace in the nfl drew brees last year made 60,000 per pass ( he made 40 million in 2012) last year its not just a mlb problem its a complete professional sport problem…And let me just stop you on the supply and demand crap… Next you’re going to tell me that the free market economy is actually working .. Lol

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