I don’t like Buzz Bissinger. I mean, I really dislike the guy. Maybe he’s a talented writer. I don’t see it, but he’s sold a hell of a lot more books than I have. Friday Night Lights is now a TV show. Three Nights in August—didn’t George Will already write a book about a season with Tony La Russa?— is going to be a movie. Good for him, but I find him to be quite boring. He’s an everyman’s sophist populist, the kind who knows better but just doesn’t care. He’s Buzz Bissinger, and if you cross him, he’ll kick your ass!
In yesterday’s NY Times, Bissinger digs deep to take as lazy a stand as you can against baseball player salaries. He pits an unfortunate soul with health issues versus baseball All-Stars, because it’s obviously the fault of baseball players that some people have expensive health problems. And if you disagree, you must hate poor people.
How can one have so little when so many have so much? It’s a simple question that has difficult and possibly unsatisfying answers. But, why do a little thinking or research? Buzz is here to rehash some populist cliches. Let’s go through them, shall we?
But I found it difficult to square the finances of what was taking place here, All-Stars from the American and National Leagues collectively collecting $392 million in salaries for the 2008 season, juxtaposed with employees from the once-mythic carmaker about to get vivisected.
The news out of General Motors the same day as the game had been particularly grim, symbolically marking the end of the American economic empire as we know it. There was talk, so unimaginable as to be surreal given its once-seeming impregnability, that G.M. would eventually have to file for bankruptcy. Among the announced cutbacks: a 20 percent reduction in salaried-worker costs, elimination of health care for older white-collar retirees, and a suspension of the company’s annual stock dividend of $1 a share.
Baseball player make lots of money. The make more than me, they make more than most people in the world—though I suspect there are some that make less than Buzz. Why is this? They have a unique skill, one that is highly valued by everyone sitting in the stands and watching them on television. The reason baseball players make a lot of money and women’s soccer players do not (despite their exceptional athletic skill) is that people like to watch baseball. They’ll pay money to see it. Isn’t appropriate that players get some of that money? And if they don’t get it, then who does? The owners. Now there’s a group of billionaires that we can all sympathize with.
But what about those poor buggy-whip makers whom the automobile bankrupted? Or the protectionist trade restrictions that forced Americans to purchase inefficiently-built GM cars? And let’s not forget the unions who keep labor costs high. My point here isn’t that I side with any of these winners or losers, it’s that winners and losers are a part of life. You’d think that sitting at an All-Star game that dragged on 15 innings might bring about this connection. To point out losers and bad situations without thinking much further about them other than noting that they are bad and wishing they would not occur is lazy. The good news is that winners and losers in the creative destruction of market economies are normally short-lived and the general result is long-run economic growth that benefits society.
But, Buzz marches on.
In May, the unemployment rate was 5.5 percent, up nationally a full percentage point from a year ago. The same month, in the sharpest rise in May in five years, employers cut 50 or more workers from their work force in 1,626 instances, what the Bureau of Labor Statistics bloodlessly referred to as “mass layoff actions.” And it seems likely that job losses will only accelerate into 2009.
Hmm, when I was an undergraduate, we used to talk about 5.5 percent unemployment as being close to the natural rate, not high. But, why not let recent history cloud our assessments. After all, Buzz has some important points to make.
But the tick of obscene salaries just keeps on ticking in professional sports, the one sector of the economy I know of, except for maybe Internet pornography, that still dances merrily along in the bubble of its isolation from the real world. As we try to figure out not just what is fundamentally wrong with the American economy but with America itself, look no further than what is being shelled out to the men who play with bats and balls roughly eight months out of the year (after all, they need their rest after such taxing work).
How much money do you make Buzz for harassing bloggers in on HBO, or for revisiting a subject that George Will already covered? Your bubble seems to be doing just fine. My guess is that you make a good bit more than the average American. How else could you afford expensive camera equipment, whose honor needs defending? What about Will Smith, who was recently reported to have earned $80 million last year, more than 10 times the average salary of a major-league All-Star. What about the owners who pay the players? Again, people make money; some make more than others. The main reason for the disparity is that few individuals are vastly more talented than the rest of us, and because there are many things that they could do with their time they ultimately end up earning high salaries. The reason Buzz uses players is that they’re an easy target to pick on.
But, don’t worry. Buzz has some policy advice for us.
Take the salaries of these players and apply a 10 percent cut — half of what is being lopped off at G.M. — and you could easily save the 80 jobs that are being lost at The Chicago Tribune for a savings of $9 million. It’s a pie-in-the-sky suggestion.
It’s not pie in the sky: it’s a stupid, lazy, suggestion. (I’m sorry to keep using the word “lazy”, but it is appropriate.) If I wake up tomorrow to find $9 million in my bank account, when I’m feeling philanthropic, Chicago Tribune employees aren’t going to be on my recipient list, at all. Seriously, I’m buying a solid-gold rocket car before I’m donating money to displaced college graduates living in the United States. Hell, I suspect most of those laid off would even consider this ridiculous suggestion. The Chicago Tribune owns the Chicago Cubs.
But Buzz, finally does get there, eventually. Players are not the root of this evil, we are.
Baseball players are not in the business of saving other businesses, and we as fans are equally to blame with our insistence on keeping the beast in gold. Season tickets through the roof. Five dollars for hot dogs, three of which must go for the sogginess. Authentic uniform shirts upwards of $180. So far at least, we are still paying out. “Sports is one of the last things that people let go of,” Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College and an expert in the field of sports business, told me. “It is one of the things most deeply ingrained in our culture.”
It’s good to see Buzz check in with an expert. It’s my number-one fan Andy Zimbalist, fresh off a very public embarrassment in court. He was able to use his reputation to charge the City of Seattle nearly $900 an hour for work that would be shredded on the stand. Why he and the City of Seattle thought he was a good choice to testify the exact opposite of the consensus of the economics profession, I don’t know. Especially, considering that a court in Kentucky recently rejected his “expert” testimony stating “Zimbalist’s approach… has not been tested; has not been subjected to peer review and publication; there are no standards controlling it; and there is no showing that it enjoys general acceptance within the scientific community. Further, it was produced solely for this litigation.” Ouch! But hey, let’s hear what he has to say, here’s $18 grand for 20 hours of work. Why didn’t Buzz ask him for some of his money?
But, there is a silver lining here.
Zimbalist believes that professional sports, like other industries, will have little choice but to pare down if the economy continues to falter. “I think the salaries in all of the sports follow revenues,” he told me. “The longer and deeper the recession, the more sports industry will feel it.”
I for one can’t wait.
But we just went through this. Players make a lot of money because fans are willing to pay to see them play baseball. You can’t wait for player salaries and revenues fall? So, you hope that the economy drops into a deep recession so that sports stars might not be so wealthy? Are you kidding me? That is some kind of schadenfreude. And I thought environmentalists cheering high gas prices were a little over the top.
What’s wrong with America is that an established writer like Buzz Bissinger, gets a forum to lecture us, only to fall back on the laziest cliches in the business. There are rich people and poor people, let’s redistribute wealth and we’ll all be happy! He complains about the shoddy work of “bloggers”—you know, because they’re all the same—yet he’s backed by all the resources of The New York Times and this is the best he can do? Buzz, I think you’re full of shit.