LeBron James: Where's the outrage about his salary?
At a time when 15 million Americans have no job at all, we should be indignant about pro athletes like LeBron James earning more than $15 million a year.
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Indeed, we’re not talking about poverty – or wealth – at all. And that tells us something truly depressing about our current economic moment: We’ve lost our sense of moral outrage about inequality. Vast riches, amid rising levels of unemployment and destitution: Who cares?Skip to next paragraph
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Even President Obama, when he weighed in on the James sweepstakes, said simply that he hoped the hoopster would sign with Obama’s hometown Chicago Bulls. No mention about how much these players earn, and how much the rest of us need those earnings.
And make no mistake: We do need them. While James was dithering about which team would give him millions of dollars, Obama was crisscrossing the country pleading for Congress to extend unemployment assistance to the nation’s 15 million jobless adults. Republicans – and some Democrats – balked at the proposal, complaining that any such aid would swell the federal deficit.
And surely it would, absent a tax hike on the wealthy. But don’t hold your breath for that. Even after Obama rolled back George W. Bush’s tax cut, the top marginal tax rate on the richest Americans remained below 40 percent. Under Ronald Reagan, who is still the GOP’s preeminent historical icon, the rate was 50 percent; and in the 1950s, which conservatives often venerate as America’s Golden Age, it topped 90 percent.
So there’s plenty of wealth to go around, if we’re willing to share it. And in the past, we did. But no longer. We might bemoan our rising tide of inequality, but we’ve lost the political and even moral imagination to do anything about it.
And that brings us back to Babe Ruth, whose 1930 salary of $80,000 converts in constant dollars to more than $1 million today. But that’s chump change in contemporary pro baseball, where the average annual salary exceeds $3 million. And at the top end, as in basketball, players earn nearly 10 times that.
Who needs to take home $15 million or $20 million per year? Nobody. But we all need to take account of the wealth – and the poverty – in our midst.
Perhaps we can use these astronomic athletic salaries to make a fresh case for higher marginal taxes on the super-rich, just like we had in the old days – and just as many European democracies have today.
LeBron James shouldn’t get paid such an extraordinary sum, when millions of Americans aren’t getting paid at all. And it doesn’t matter how good a year he had.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at New York University. He is the author, most recently, of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”