Friday, January 25, 2013

Uneducated Anger

This morning, NPR ran a Planet Money story positing that LeBron James is "underpaid." The basic argument was that James generates FAR more income than he receives in salary. From the standpoint of pure economics, the story relates, James should be pulling down a cool $40 million dollars a year. But he doesn't and there are a number of reasons for that, some of which, we are told benefit James.

But, this being NPR, cue the pious hand-wringing by the dutifully public-minded about how it's an obscenity that LeBron James pulls down an eight-figure salary to "run up and down a court with a ball" and "play a kids game," while teachers only made 40,000 a year. A few teachers waded into the fray to add their voices to the chorus of pious bitterness about the nations "out of whack" priorities and lack of value for what really matters. A few "free market" types waded in with (rather weak) defenses, giving the peanut gallery another set of handy targets for their sanctimony.

But lets look at things a bit differently. The NBA, regardless of what you think of it as a business, is an elite sporting league. There are a total of 30 teams, and each team may have no more than 15 members on the roster. If there were a grand total of 450 teachers in the United States, I'm pretty sure that they'd be raking it in like nobody's business. Instead, as of 2009, there were some 7.2 million teachers (from Pre-K through college) in the United States. If every player in the NBA made LeBron's salary, the combined total would only be enough to pay teachers a little less than $1,100.00 a year. If the entirety of the NBA player roster made the $40,000,000.00 a year that the article suggested is more in line with the value LeBron James brings to the Miami Heat, we could take all of their salaries and pay every teacher in the nation $2,500.00. On the other hand, if we took the combined salaries of teachers and made that the NBA's player salary pool, each and every active player who wore a team uniform would make more than 1,000,000.000.00 a year. (James' current salary utterly vanishes in the rounding error.)

Being both a bit broader and more accurate about things, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2008 there were about 16,500 professional athletes (basketball players to rodeo riders) in the United States, making an average of $79,460.00. While this does best the roughly $52,800 made by public school teachers, the fact there were roughly 3.5 million primary and secondary school teachers means that were there as many paid athletes in the United States as there were teachers, the collective salary pool of all professional sports wouldn't make for a decent part-time job. As a society, we clearly value teachers much more than we value sports. Allowing ourselves to believe otherwise because we're too busy being "outraged" to understand even the basics of the underlying economics doesn't strike me as the best way to honor education.

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