Apr 15, 2013, 11:03 AM EST
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.
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