Bhaskar Sunkara on Jeremy Lin

by Reihan Salam

Bhaskar Sunkara, who may well be America’s wittiest Marxist, has a “properly dialectical” new VICE column defending high salaries for professional athletes:

It’s not hard to convince a liberal that migrant workers deserve a living wage. It’s tougher to argue that [Jeremy] Lin deserves an extra five million, but the same logic applies.

It’s a struggle between management and labor and management has made plenty of money milking a player like Lin for all he was worth—international media interest, jersey and ticket sales, the Cablevision deal, not to mention that without him the Knicks might not have even made the playoffs.

This strikes me as an entirely fair assessment. The problematic turn comes in the next section: 

Big salary haters get it wrong when they factor the fans into the equation. Talking about Jeremy Lin’s “greed” … may be a good way to sound like a populist. But it actually puts you in the operative position of siding with an owner who is way richer than Lin will ever be. That’s the kind of populism that put Bush in office.

Say we do manage to lower player salaries or restrict their mobility—who’s saying we’re going to get lower ticket prices or anything but higher margins for already wealthy owners?

So what’s to gain from the politics of resentment? It’s the same type of politics that fuels anger at teachers, firefighters, and other public sector employees. “Why them?” is the petty loser’s version of “Good for them. Why not me?” [Emphasis added]

Note the critical turn. We shouldn’t object when workers aggressively seek a better deal from their employers, in part because the employers, and the shareholders they notionally serve, presumably profit from strong performance on the part of the workers. 

The trouble arises when we think through who exactly employs public sector employees. One of the more interesting questions addressed by the political theory of the corporation is over the nature of ownership. Is the corporation owned by its shareholders or is it owned by itself? Or, in a related vein, is the state “owned” by its citizens — am I allowed to take a sofa that belongs to a local public school to my apartment for my own personal use, as I am, after all, a citizen? — or do citizens eligible to vote have certain limited control rights over management which don’t entail “ownership” as conventionally understood, because the state essentially owns itself? 

So the question is this: who actually employs teachers, firefighters, and other public sector employees? Bhaskar wants us to believe that these workers are negotiating with the likes of James Dolan and the Knicks, i.e., greedy bastards who deserve to be taken to the cleaners. Another view, however, is that they are negotiating with the duly elected representatives of the wider citizenry, which is responsible for meeting the revenue needs of the state. This in turn suggests that we the citizens are not fans, which is to say that we are not passive spectators with no direct financial stake in the outcome, but rather that citizens are collectively “the owners.” Viewed through this lens, the notion that we should negotiate with teachers, firefighters, and other public sector employees in such a way as to create the most value for citizens make intuitive sense. 

Now this is why the critical move for Bhaskar and his allies is to (a) make the class of people who finance the public sector as narrow as possible and (b) to undermine solidarity to the extent possible between those who pay slightly more in taxes than they receive in transfers and those who pay far more in taxes than they receive in transfers. Once we drive a sufficiently large wedge between the broader citizenry and the class of taxpayers, arguments like Bhaskar’s become more plausible.

To some, this would be an argument for raising taxes on the less affluent or on households with children or substantial mortgage interest, etc. That is not my view. Indeed, I think the tax treatment of households with young children should be more generous than it is at present. Rather, I think that it is important to preserve solidarity among citizens on questions of tax, rooted in a lifecycle perspective, i.e., one might pay a low share of income in taxes while raising children or while investing in human capital, yet one will presumably pay a higher share as those children leave the household and as the investment in human capital is recouped later in life, etc.