Sunday, April 27, 2014

They earn it

Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, has been in the news recently because TMZ published a recording in which he said some not-very-nice things about racial minorities.  Those private remarks were not well taken by people who participate in or follow the NBA, the professional sports league with the highest percentage of players of color.

I can count on one finger the number of hours I have ever spent thinking about the Clippers and their owner.  Having read his remarks, I have to say they are nothing more than the sort of garden-variety racism that successful white people of a certain age feel comfortable expressing when they don't think anyone they don't know is listening.  They are surprising only because they are so ridiculous.

But I was interested to hear something else he had to say.  At one point in the recording--which is of a conversation between Sterling and his girlfriend--she asks him, "Do you know that you have a whole team that's black, that plays for you?"  And this was his reply:
You just, do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have—Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league? 
Now, Donald Sterling is something I'm not and will likely never be--he's a billionaire, almost twice over.  But he and I do have something in common, or at least had.  I have, at various times, had employees who worked for my businesses, just as he has and does.  And there have been times when I've given my employees things, like paid time off and end-of-year bonuses, that I didn't have to give them.

One thing that I understood to be the essential nature of the relationship with my employees was that I was not "giving" them the salaries they earned, nor was I "giving" them anything they chose to buy with the money they earned.  Rather, the money I paid them was for services they rendered to me. It was a financial transaction that I viewed as roughly equal on both sides.

I doubt very much that any of Sterling's employees, from Chris Paul and Blake Griffin on down to the janitor that empties his trash, think of the paychecks they receive in exchange for those services as a "gift" from Sterling.  I think it might be quite surprising to them to learn that Sterling apparently thinks his signature on those paychecks is an act of kindness, and not a fair exchange of their time for his money.

As for the players, I expect they would be highly surprised that Sterling believes he "makes the game."

I have often wondered where this idea was coming from, that wealthy people were "job creators" who needed to receive special benefits in the form of low taxes for putting their capital into jobs.  Sterling's attitude, which fits well with ideas other wealthy people have expressed recently, has crystallized for me exactly why wealthy people think they deserve special treatment.

They think the ordinary commercial activities they engage in, specifically employment, do not constitute a fair exchange.  They believe they are doing a public service by employing people, rather than getting fair value for the money they pay.

I don't disagree that we need jobs.  The labor market is tough for unemployed people right now--especially for the long-term unemployed.  But billionaires like Sterling are kidding themselves.  They are getting a more-than-fair benefit from the bargains they enter into with their employees.  They aren't doing a public service.  And they don't deserve any special treatment simply because they participate in the market for labor.  They get plenty of benefit from the time and effort of the people they hire.

Everyone in the media and the sports world will focus on Sterling's racist comments, and rightly so.  But couldn't we get a little attention on the far more anti-social attitude he expressed toward his employees?

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