“Why not?” Ruth famously replied. “I had a better year than he did.”
That much was true. The stock market crashed in October of 1929, triggering what would soon be known as the Great Depression. By 1933, one-quarter of able-bodied Americans were out of work. Unable to reverse the trend, President Hoover became the butt of jokes across the land: an empty pocket turned outwards was a “Hoover flag,” and a homeless encampment was a “Hoover village.”
Hoover earned $75,000 in 1930 – five thousand less than the Babe, who hit his 500th career home run the previous summer. But the reporter’s question implied that neither of them should be making that much money, when so much of the country was mired in poverty.
And that was the context missing from this summer’s hoopla surrounding basketball superstar LeBron James, which concluded last night with an hour-long TV special on ESPN. After months of speculation – would he stay in Cleveland? would he go to Chicago? – James announced that he will sign with the Miami Heat. He’ll join Heat guard Dwyane Wade – who decided to stay in Miami – and Toronto Raptors power forward Chris Bosh, the Heat’s other big-time free-agent acquisition.
After that, Internet chat rooms and radio call-in shows lit up with predictable darts and arrows. Especially in Ohio, critics derided James for forsaking his native Buckeye State. Others questioned whether James, Wade, and Bosh – who are all accustomed to carrying their teams – could share the ball with each other.
But almost nobody complained that James – like Wade and Bosh – will make sinful piles of money, at our worst economic moment since the Great Depression itself. On the contrary, they actually praised these guys for taking less than they could have earned playing elsewhere.
See, on the open market, each of them could get about $20 million dollars per year. But to comply with the Heat’s salary cap, they’re probably going to make about $15 million. That’s right: $15 million. We’re not talking about a vow of poverty here.
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?
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.”