Former basketball star Gilbert Arenas was known throughout his NBA career as a prototypical locker room distraction. Such a distraction, he once brought a gun into a locker room and according to him, all in fun and games, engaged in a Mexican standoff with another gun wielding teammate which resulted in a suspension for both. In 2010 Arenas was traded to the Orlando Magic, and shortly after acquiring him, then cut him under an amnesty provision in the league. Meaning they could cut him from the team, and the team wouldn’t have to take the salary cap hit from his contract, however they still had to pay him the contract value.
So in effect this man was grossly overpaid for his value as a human being in a functioning society all the way back in 2007, and what little value he did offer for playing a sport, he hasn’t provided and subsequently still was owed $38 million for doing nothing but existing.
In his mind it was the team’s fault for overpaying him, but he somehow believes that he earned that money because for intermittent periods of time he went in the gym to workout three times a day. I don’t mean to just pick on Arenas here because every athlete in professional sports is overpaid for what they do, as are the owners and plenty others that constitute the extremely rich, but Arenas is just a really easy example.
Breaking Down Arenas Dollars
- Over the course of his twelve year NBA career Arenas made a total of around $176 million dollars. After 10% off the top for his agent and assuming the full 45% in taxes when Arenas is fully paid from his existing contract, he’ll have banked around $103 million dollars, and that’s assuming no investments or interest earned on this money.
- In pre tax/agent cut dollars Gilbert averaged over $9,000 dollars a minute while on the court in his last season. He made almost 20k for every shot attempted hit or miss.
- According to the Census Bureau the median American household income is 52k. Our stilted capitalism declares that one Gilbert Arenas is more valuable during one year of playing basketball than 282 families combined.
- Over the course of a lifetime the average American will make approximately $1.2 million. Gilbert Arenas at the age of 31 has made 85 times what an average American would make in their entire life.
- According to Arenas in an interview regarding his remaining money owed on his contract he said “I could spend every penny I have in the bank and I still have $38 million coming.” If he did just that, and let’s say Arenas lives to an extremely old age of 110 years old while never making another dollar, he would still average $481k a year, or close to 9 times what the average family makes in a single year.
A Question of Value and Utility
What Arenas exemplifies is how the rich believe they have earned their enormous stacks of cash, as if no one else works hard, or provides as much value to our society. It’s an extreme narcissism, a vanity that leads them to believe they are special, and that other people are deserving of their ills for not being them. After all, those other people didn’t go to the gym three times a day. All that hard work in the gym is apparently worth the $101 extra mill Arenas has been paid in his 31 years on this planet, compared to the mere million or so the average American makes over a whole lifetime.
And that’s the thing, we must drop this idea that hard work is a valid reason for extreme wealth inequality. When you look at how hard people work that simply go to college and need to work thirty plus hours a week while carrying a full class load, and going into massive amounts of debt in the process, it’s a tough argument to say they aren’t working harder than Arenas ever did. For that matter, it’s a tough argument to make that Arenas ever worked harder than any blue collar worker that our society is quick to look down upon. The emotional toll of struggling to make ends meet, and the physical toll of working a job where you’re on your feet all day, lifting, hammering, scrubbing… that is hard work, and in thankless jobs that make the foundations of our economy move. Without people laboring all these hours doing jobs that provide food, clothing, cars, houses, electronics, educations, logistics, engineering, maintenance, shipping, software etc. we’d have none of material wealth our society currently enjoys. Everyone deserves to make a decent living wage for contributing.
In Gilbert’s defense one could make an argument that athletes inspire us and entertain us. That they show what is possible through practice and determination, how teamwork can lead to success. That’s a nifty little argument that breaks down fast. What most athletes get are advantages. Biological advantages in size, luck of the draw advantages getting the right coaches that can develop them and promote them to further their athletic careers. These advantages are then nicely packaged by leagues like the NBA, NFL, NCAA, MLB, and then sold to the American public at an absurd markup. This isn’t to say that sports isn’t valuable to a society as a form of entertainment, it’s simply massively overstated in its value, and it’s especially overstated when poverty exists, and people are going without basic needs because of a deflated labor market and low paying jobs.
You have to start questioning worth and utility within a society, not just worth as someone that generates more revenue in a corrupted system, but worth as true economic value. Under this scale a stock boy/girl at your local grocery store has more value than someone like Gilbert Arenas. That stock boy/girl is an integral piece in getting food to people, adding real world value, and is paid next to nothing for his or her services. He or she is told to work harder if they want money for college, to start to save for a home, or anything of value other than paying for their most basic needs, while many of the extremely wealthy provide little value and are simply creating rules within the system to syphon off revenue from those that produce.
For instance, let’s take a hedge fund manager that buys up properties as future commodities and some of whom are paid substantially more than professional athletes. What they are really doing is using capital to artificially drive up property values and making it more expensive for other not so rich people to start up small businesses or buy homes. They have a negative net gain on economic production that can be in the billions of dollars of damage to our economy. Yet they are paid at ridiculous rates because the structure of our capitalism is fundamentally broken and not properly regulated.
In truth no one deserves this much money, and if you were to make an argument who might deserve a far bigger share it would come down to scientists, doctors, or engineers that are doing very complex work and creates new technologies and systems that can benefit billions of people. You know jobs that require a lot more work than athletes put in, and inspire us to achieve and become better people. However these people rarely crack into the millionaire club. ven in these cases though, they have advantages in money, time, and teachers.
What we do when we grossly overpay members of our society is we devalue other human beings. It’s wonderful if you want to do something that improves your life or the life of others, however we must recognize there are tangible advantages that monetarily successful people get due to an economic system that says wealth inequality isn’t a bug, but a feature. Even though the impoverished may make substantial contributions that are valuable to their communities but because their work isn’t commodifiable enough they will be damned to poverty. And explaining to the downtrodden they deserve a life of poverty because they weren’t lucky enough to be born into the right family is the apogee of pomposity from the aristocracy who seem to be begging for a revolution.
The rich have more than they could ever use or need, and money supply is a zero sum commodity outside of banking institutions. If one takes significantly more of corporate profits, everyone else has less. There’s no getting around this. Our measure of monetary value within a society is unjust and likewise the ensuing wealth inequality from that misappropriated value is extreme. So to Mr. Arenas I say I’m glad you are able to live a comfortable life where you were able to play a sport and receive so much for doing so little, but the externalities of your wealth are unacceptable, unsustainable, and unjust.