What’s Wrong with America? Buzz Bissinger

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.

15 Responses “What’s Wrong with America? Buzz Bissinger”

  1. Bill Johnson says:

    WELL SAID!  Life is too short to get irritated by idiocy (especially when there is no cost to me), but dolts posing as economists (vis-a-vis Bissinger), and presecribing additional artificial, poorly considered restrictions on what is a fairly efficient enterprise (demand=prices=compensation) is just infuriating.  Great column!

  2. Edward says:

    Rather than shamelessly chiding an industry that has provided the general public a form of release from the grim realities of high gas prices and dampened economic growth, he should take a good long hard look in the mirror.  If I were backed by the resources of a paper on the verge of financial ruin, I wouldn’t be so confident in my illogical diatribes. 

    I suggest that Mike Lupica, Jim Rome and Buzz be locked in an octagon and have their bloodfest showcased on the next UFC PPV.  Now that is something that would divert my hard-earned dollar from the evil empire of MLB.  Buzz would be pleased.

    Good column, Dr. Bradbury.

  3. Jack says:

    This was such a dumb op-ed, as the author decided to use baseball superstars as its example of The Problem. Too bad the author wasn’t smart enough to identify the Actual Problem (which most anyone else can); GM’s top execs have made terrible decisions for years and years. And they’ll just keep doing so, as there’s no accountability (just like in our government and most sectors of Big Business). GM, in particular, can screw-up forever, as they know the US Government will bail them out when it’s time.

  4. Mary O says:

    Buzz is upset about the loss of newspaper jobs – understandable since that is his profession. However, he fails to see that the media is changing and that with those changes come job losses – just like the buggy whip salesman. Many companies survived the change to automobiles by re-imagining themselves, but those who didn’t see the writing on the wall failed. 
    In addition, at least ball players are “doing something” for their pay (unless they’re injured, in which case they are being payed to heal). How about the insane payoffs to guys like Nardelli – $210 million to leave after he has tried to ruin the company! If GM’s CEO leaves, what are the chances he gets a big payday? 

  5. Matt H says:

    This will sound weird but I am kinda mad at myself for visiting this page today because I didn’t realize that a writer that is given such a large forum could be so out of touch with the basic economic principles of society. It is frustrating that Buzz is allowed to spew this crap using such flawed logic and to read the comments agreeing with him. Kudos JC for a well reasoned response.

  6. Brian K says:

    Well done JC.   Having read both your book and Mr. Bissinger’s book on baseball, you have proven again that only one of you is worth reading.

    I find Mr. Bissinger’s comments annoying bordering on self-serving.  Why do people like him and Mike Lupica continue to bite the hand that feeds them?  Baseball is a Six Billion Dollar business.  Sure players make a nice percentage of that, but owners are taking home a substantial piece of that pie as well.  Considering that there are only 30 teams and roughly 1,200 players on an MLB payroll, the individual owner is bringing more home.  Finally, if watching baseball players perform their craft were as popular as watching auto workers, people like Mr. Bissinger would not paid his handsome six figure sum to write. 
    What do you say Buzz?  How about you put your money where your mouth is and give back 10% of your book profits?  If it good enough for the players, it should be good enough for you.  I am guessing not.  Therefore, until I hear otherwise,  you have again proven to be a misinformed, pompus, mean-spirited hypocrite.

  7. Peter D says:

    I love your ‘blog, and, as usual, I agree with this post (and I also loathe Buzz Bissinger), but I’d like to add something: baseball players are paid a lot of money because, for whatever reason, people are willing to pay a lot of money to watch baseball.  But one could also argue that Bissinger is paid for the exact same reason: people pay money to hear what he has to say.  There are enough people with enough money who value style over substance, and thus prefer aggressive quasi-controversial knee-jerk platitudes to thoughtful (and correct) insight, that this guy has such a large audience.  This could be due to our poor education system, a deeper vein of anti-intellectualism in our culture, or whatever; in any case, Bissinger knows his audience and caters to it.  Whether he is baiting them or if he really believes the bullshit he spews is irrelevant–neither would excuse his irresponsibility in publishing this op-ed–but the fact that we are dismayed by it really reflects that–as Bissinger does in his article–people like you and I value something, namely, non-stupidity, that the economy as a whole does not.

  8. Brian G says:

    “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.”

    This is a suggestion? How? In what way is this a suggestion? What exactly is being suggested?

    step 1. MLB Owners cut every players’ salary by 10 percent.
    setp 2. The tribune hires 80 employees.

    I think we’re missing at least one step.

  9. Peter D says:

    I love your ‘blog, and, as usual, I agree with your post (and I also loathe Buzz Bissinger), but I’d like to add something: baseball players are paid a lot of money because, for whatever reason, people are willing to pay a lot of money to watch baseball.  But one could also argue that Bissinger is paid for the exact same reason: people pay money to hear what he has to say.  There are enough people with enough money who value style over substance, and thus prefer aggressive quasi-controversial knee-jerk platitudes (or petty sentimentalism) to thoughtful (and correct) insight, that this guy has such a large audience.  This could be due to our poor education system, a deeper vein of anti-intellectualism in our culture, or whatever; in any case, Bissinger knows his audience and caters to it.  Whether he is baiting them or if he really believes the bullshit he spews is irrelevant–neither would excuse his irresponsibility in publishing this op-ed–but the fact that we are dismayed by it really reflects that–as Bissinger does in his article–people like you and I value something, namely, non-stupidity, that the economy as a whole does not.

  10. Norman Oder says:

    Appearing on the Brian Lehrer radio show in NYC on July 14, Zimbalist did a lousy job defending his public statements supporting the Yankee Stadium deal and his not-peer-reviewed study endorsing Atlantic Yards (the arena + 16 towers project in Brooklyn).

    Had there been an equal debate, Zimbalist would have been flattened. He continued to insist that the Yankees deserved praise for paying for their stadium, without acknowledging the host of special benefits to the team. He continued to insist that Forest City Ratner was using only as-of-right benefits for Atlantic Yards, despite ironclad evidence to the contrary.

    More here:
    http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2008/07/sports-economist-zimbalist-criticizes.html

  11. David Simons says:

    As you say, Mr. Bissinger (“Buzz” to his buds) is a successful writer, but he isn’t a good one. I slogged through Three Nights and noticed long dry patches punctuated by overwriting (“The kind of existential hit that would have kept Camus and Sartre in the money, if they had played baseball”) and misused cliches. Son, there’s no shame in not knowing what the Maginot Line is, but if you really don’t know, don’t use it in a sentence about a pitcher’s windup and its effect on base stealing. At least he double-checked the Wikipedia entry on the Hammurabi Code before dropping that bomb.

  12. walsh says:

    obviously, there is nothing that Bissinger says in this op-ed that has any worth whatsoever. while he is clearly so far off the mark in everything he says here, i fault the new york times more than him. it is one thing to write an op-ed filled with asenine and troubling sentiments but it is entirely different for it to be published in the largest newspaper in the world. do they not have editors at this paper? it is a joke that somebody could read this and actually AGREE with its thesis. i hope the times took a beating for printing this horribly thought out piece.

  13. Buzz Flewhart says:

    Three points for using the word “schadenfreude”!!

  14. Marc Schneider says:

    Bissinger is a true nitwit.  He wrote a piece in The New Republic touting Ed Rendell for VP based on the notion that we want a VP that says whatever comes to mind, no matter how offensive or off the wall because, well, we like candor and wouldn’t it be great to have a VP that didn’t care about the ramifications of what he said.  Great thinking, Buzz.  I understand he will be donating half the proceeds of his latest book to save workers’ jobs at GM.

  15. Brandon H says:

    Do you think Bissinger and Moore would get into an argument while maintaining to agree on an absolutely senseless theory?

    I do.