News item: film star Burt Reynolds will receive $5 million -- plus 10 percent of the gross -- for his upcoming movie, "Cannonball," topping the $3.7 million Marlon Brando received for "Superman."

A pet theory has to be neither profound, popular nor practicable. Mine concerns money -- specifically, the way society allocates (or, perhaps, misallocates) money for the various tasks we perform called "work."

The exercise of my pet theory was prompted by spring-training talk of a baseball players' strike. It seemed that baseball players, already one of the highest paid classes of workers in the country (average player salary: $135,000) wanted more money. Now, it may be that, on the merits, they all deserve a raise. What troubles me, however, is the way our society determines the worth of the functions we collectively compensate.

Is there really more social utility in what Pete Rose, Reggie Jackson and Ron Guidry do than in the job of the sanitation worker who carts away the leftovers of our conspicuos consumption? Enough, that is, to justify our paying Guidry (at his "too low" current salary) ten times what we pay a sanitation worker? And, although eleventh-hour negotiations averted a baseball players' strike, would it have done the same damage to society as a strike by the sanitation workers, the firefighters or transit workers?

News item: Track star Renaldo (Skeets) Nehemiah, a University of Maryland junior, will receive $50,000 from the Puma shoe company for endorsing its products.

Doesn't it strike you that, somehow, we should compensate the brave man or woman who climbs a utility pole in a storm to restore electricity at least as much as we compensate the band leader of a television talk show? What about the nurses, paramedics and enlisted military personnel who literally protect our lives and property? Are not these functions or more value to society?

Simply stated, my pet theory suggests that society should compensate its members on the basis of the utility of the task each performs. Some may suggest that the distinction is based on talent -- that Pete Rose makes more than a high school teacher because he has more talent. But does he? Does it really take more talent to hit a baseball than it does to take an overcrowded, ill-equipped classroom of often jaded, undisciplined and poorly motivated kids and teach them the rudiments of English grammar or algebra? And if hitting a baseball really does take more talent than teaching, who decided this, and when?

And even assuming, for the sake of argument, that talent is the critical element in pay scales, we must ask ourselves: should it be? Should we reward the lucky few with God-given ability to act, sing or throw a football with more money than we reward the patience and compassion of a special education teacher? Isn't his "performance" just as valuable, just as worthy of compensation as the best performance by Burt Reynolds?

Doesn't one's willingness to do society's dirty work count for something? If Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg risk tennis elbow from years of lobs and backhands, what do textile workers and coal miners risk from years of breathing dust? If Tony Dorsett and Earl Campbell risk banged-up knees each time they strap on their shoulder pads, what do police officers risk each time they strap on their guns?

News item: Specialty models in New York, whose hands, feet, ears, busts and legs are hired to promote the sale of such products as scotch, cosmetics, cameras and underwear, make between $75,000 and $80,000 annually.

There are numerous and serious inequities in the way society conpensates its members. My pet theory is not that there are problems with income distribution in the traditional sense -- that is, that there are haves and have-nots, that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. Rather, it's that we compensate for the wrong things; we reward the wrong values and abilities.

There is nothing inherently wrong with there being some people who are rich and some who are not as rich. It's that some of the people who ought to be rich -- or at least, richer, based on the value to society of what they do -- aren't.

Of course, maybe we want to be entertained. Maybe we're willing to work for a meager, marginal existence as long as Reggie Jackson will thrill us with three back-to-back home runs in a single World Series game. Maybe we don't mind if Burt Reynolds gets millions for a single picture as long as he and Sally Fields outrun the overweight hillbilly cop, and fall in love in the process. If so, then we can't blame Reggie and Burt: We have only ourselves to blame -- and so much for pet theories.

Maybe Booker T. Washington was right, to paraphrase the famous line from his turn-of-the-century Atlanta Exposition Address: "There is as much dignity in tilling a field as in hiting a baseball."

Only not as much money.