Sunday Pearlstein: When life imitates basketball

at 09:45 AM ET, 11/19/2011

The conventional wisdom on the season-jeopardizing dispute between the NBA and its players union goes something like this:

Millionaire owners and millionaire players are once again squabbling
Miami Heat's LeBron James plays in a league that got too rich, too fast and is now adjusting to a new economic reality — just like the rest of us. (J Pat Carter — Associated Press)
over how to divvy up a $4 billion annual booty, even as 15 million Americans can’t find full-time work and the average worker hasn’t received a raise in a decade.

Certainly, there is a legitimate question about how out of touch the owners and players are with the economic reality of the fans who actually pay that $4 billion, either by buying tickets or the products marketed through TV advertising during NBA games.

Allow me, however, to suggest a slightly different take - namely that the dynamic playing out in the NBA is the same dynamic playing out throughout the U.S. economy.

Like the NBA, the economy got too big and too rich. A flood of cheap credit drove revenues, prices, wages and asset values to unsustainable levels, creating an economic bubble that made everyone feel richer, and act like they were richer, than they really were. Now that bubble has burst, and we are all in the midst of a long and painful set of negotiations over how to distribute the losses and apportion the pain of adjusting to new economic realities.

In the case of the NBA, that means owners paid too much for their franchises, players were overpaid, tickets were overpriced, there got to be too many teams playing too many games to satisfy networks that paid too much for broadcast rights. All of these prices reflect an unsustainable demand for the NBA product and an unrealistic expectation that robust growth rates would extend into the future.

The excess should have been obvious to anyone who attended a Wizards game in recent years, where it cost at least $150 a person for a decent seat to watch a game that was as likely as not to be an uninteresting blowout, with play interrupted every five minutes for some nonsensical stunts designed to distract you while the broadcasters were running commercials that made it possible for some superstar to sit on the bench with a knee injury and still earn $150,000 for the game.

In order to maintain the fantasy of never-ending revenue growth, the NBA had to keep adding teams to the league and games to the schedule, diluting the talent on the court and the fan intensity in the stands. It also had the effect of widening the income gaps between the superstars and the journeymen and between teams in big markets and small.

The downturn has only just begun to force the NBA owners and players to confront new realities. The early signs could be seen in the falling attendance numbers, an inability to raise ticket prices and the $300 million loss that the owners, collectively, claim to have suffered last year. You can also see it in the large and growing gap between the face value and sales prices of tickets through online resale sites, and the so-what attitude on the part of fans and the public to the prospect of the season being canceled.

The players, to their credit, have acknowledged the new reality, agreeing to lower their share of revenue from 57 to 50 percent - in effect, a 12 percent across-the-board pay cut sufficient to wipe out the owners’ losses. But the owners, who have been unable to agree among themselves on an effective revenue-sharing program to close the yawning gap between the revenues of big- and small-market teams, are demanding that the players solve that problem as well by agreeing to tighter team salary caps and restrictions on free-agent bargaining. These contract changes would further widen the pay gap between superstars and everyone else.

Declining sales, falling wages, teams that are worth less than their owners paid for them, a growing gap between the haves and have-nots - all of this should sound rather familiar. It is exactly what is happening throughout the economy as it adjusts to its own post-bubble reality. Just because the recession is technically over does not mean that the adjustment is complete.

There is a lot of momentum and inertia in any system, and one thing we know about economic systems is that wages and prices are much “stickier” on the way down than they are on the way up.

In fact, even four years into the downturn, Americans continue to live well beyond their means, consuming more than they produce and investing more than they save. The best approximation of this gap is the country’s trade deficit, broadly defined, which last year was $470 billion, or slightly more than 3 percent of gross domestic product. That’s down from the peak of 7 percent of GDP in 2006, but still too high for the world’s richest country, reflecting a near-record federal budget deficit, an overvalued currency and a household savings rate that is below what it needs to be over the long term.

Just getting this far in the rebalancing has required high levels of unemployment and stagnant or falling incomes for most Americans even while the rich grow richer. Completing the adjustment will require more of the same for several years to come.

What will it entail? Some wages and prices will have to fall, even as others rise. The exchange value of the dollar will have to drop against Asian currencies, resulting in more expensive imports even as exports rebound. Residential and commercial property values may have to fall further, making them more affordable for some even as current owners and their lenders write off billions of dollars more in losses. In industries still saddled with overcapacity, more companies will close their doors.

And because the economy is complex and interrelated, all of these things will affect all the others in ways that no one can accurately predict, creating winners and losers.

Here’s a small example:

Last week’s Bloomberg Businessweek had a cover story about the “dirty jobs” that are vacant - cleaning fish, plucking chickens, washing dishes, picking tomatoes - because illegal immigrants have left and even unemployed Americans refuse to do them.

The business community is inclined to think this a supply-side problem - that Americans are spoiled and lazy and protected by an over-generous safety net. But it is equally plausible that, in the post-bubble, post-illegal immigrant era, fish and chicken wholesalers, tomato farmers and restaurants will have to offer better wages, benefits and working conditions to attract the workers they need, even if it means charging higher prices. And if those higher prices mean that people will buy less fish and chicken, and fewer tomatoes and restaurant meals, well . . . that’s just part of the free market’s natural adjustment process.

Don’t get me wrong: Such adjustments can be painful and disruptive and can seem quite unfair, particularly when they require people to give up something they already had, or thought they had.

That is why NBA team owners and players may be willing to cancel the season and give up $4 billion in revenue over remaining issues that, at most, involve the annual distribution of a couple of hundred million dollars.

It is why Europeans can’t agree on the modest sacrifices necessary to save the euro and prevent the European economy, along with global financial markets, from collapsing.

And it explains why a partisan stand-off over a $50 billion a year in tax increases in a $15 trillion economy prevents Congress from reaching a long-term budget agreement that everyone knows is necessary to prevent our own calamity.

From the point of view of an Indian rice farmer or a Kenyan goat herder or a Mexican factory worker, we must all look like millionaire team owners and millionaire ballplayers squabbling over how to divide the box-office loot. Something to think about this week of national thanksgiving.

pearlstein@washpost.com

 
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