NBA Players Are Rich

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I think Dave Zirin’s article welcoming NBA players to the 99 percent mostly serves to underscore some of the conceptual weaknesses of the underlying frame. Literally speaking, of course, NBA players are generally part and parcel of the top 1 percent. Joe Johnson, for example, earns about $18,000,000 per year, which is considerably more than your average Wall Street trader. Now you could very fairly argue that this is a bit misleading since NBA players tend to have very short careers. But this highlights a weakness in the tax-the-rich agenda, which is indifferent to this kind of consideration. Indeed if you imagine Johnson trying to be prudent and save a very large share of his income during his prime working years you’ll see that the progressive tax agenda — which would subject him to higher rates on the front end, and then subject his investment income to a second round of higher taxation — is actually quite hostile to Johnson’s interests.

One point you might make about NBA players is that notwithstanding their high wages, they’re still in the structural position of “workers.” They don’t control the means of production. They earn their income through toil rather than by clipping coupons. This is true, but it misunderstands the nature of modern income inequality. CEOs bringing home eight figure paychecks work for a living just like Joe Johnson, they’re not the idle rich of yore. The story of the past 10 years is one in which capital has been immiserated, not one in which owners have gotten rich by sticking it to workers.

None of this changes the fact that the NBA owners are much much richer than the players, and it makes perfect sense for egalitarians everywhere to sympathize more with the players. But much as Dana Goldstein says about K-12 education this is an issue that can’t be shoehorned into the “99 percent” frame without losing all coherence.