nba

I have no clue who who Mirza Teletovic is but he’ll make $10 million a year now. I can’t tell you who Evan Fournier is, either. He’s averaged only 11 points, 2 assists and 2 rebounds a game for his career but now he’ll be making $17 million annually. The NBA’s new, increased salary cap is sending salaries through the roof for players who barely bring value to their teams, let alone society. Meanwhile, paramedics have a median annual salary of $39,165 and teachers in America average just over $36,000 starting out. At those salary levels, it’s highly unlikely that we have the best and brightest working in those two occupations–as badly as they are needed– and that leaves us worse off as a society. Our economic system allows people to create immense value in all sorts of ways, including playing basketball and that’s wonderful. It cannot, however, address many of our actual needs and that’s a serious problem. There are some things capitalism just plain can’t do and it’s on us to figure out other solutions.

Good teachers are absolutely necessary if we are to have a decent society. The best and brightest minds in America would be open to teaching if the salaries were more comparable to bankers but how would a capitalist then make any money if they had to pay those salaries, build school buildings, train personnel, provide lunches and everything else needed for universal education? The same constraints exist for paramedics. There’s no way for either profession to generate the interest or monetary value necessary to secure million dollar salaries and there’s no realistic way to tax citizens in order to make up the difference. In the end, teachers and paramedics simply take the scraps taxpayers provide and we live with the results, as our best talents seek more lucrative careers. The market has no solution to this problem but it is a problem that has damning consequences for our nation.

Still there is the curious case of Timofey Mozgov. He will make $16 million a year and I can’t remember him getting off of the bench when the Cavaliers played the Warriors in the NBA Finals. He provided relatively little value to his own team and certainly none for the broader society and yet the market found a way to reward him. The difference is NBA players can generate revenue and a lot of it. Television revenues are the primary driver behind these big player salaries. The NBA makes money largely because television networks pay enormous amounts for the rights to air games. The networks can afford to pay those huge sums because A) advertisers pay them big money to show ads during games because millions watch television while NBA content is on and B) those same networks charge cable providers a pretty penny to carry their content and those cable providers then pass on those costs to us. There is a market to see athletes compete and we have no problem paying the cable bill for it. No similar market exists for seeing children educated and no advertisers can step in to help out much either so no money is generated. The market can’t help us.

I don’t begrudge athletes making serious cash because they create serious value and in some ways they might be under-compensated relative to the value they produce. Go them! The answer is not to tear down athletes who create monetary value but to lift up those who create social value, even if they don’t create great monetary value. Capitalism can’t do that–it is a choice we must make. The market provides a host of flatscreen televisions to choose from but not brilliant public servants or even clean water, for that matter. It’s unlikely that public servants will ever make million dollar salaries but we certainly could do better by them. That may require us to reject endless corporate tax breaks and funding senseless wars. Collectively we must decide to incentivize saving lives rather than outsourcing jobs if we are to reward those who create social value. These are choices and the market can’t make them for us. We make these choices each time we vote…or not.

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