Wednesday, May 21, 2008

poor and huddled masses

Kevin Mawae is sick and tired of being confined to the lower class. He's worked for 15 years in a gritty industry and is tired of watching flashy prodigies get huge salaries that he could only dream of, despite being among the best at his job. Like most people in that situation, he wants to do something about it. He wants to limit the salaries and bonuses of that higher strata of workers. As it is, the current system of financial reward simply isn't fair in the mind of Mr. Mawae.

The catch?

Mawae is an offensive lineman for the New York Jets, and in 2002 made more than $9 million as the highest paid offensive lineman in the league. Yet the aforementioned sentiments are very real -- Mawae is upset with the contracts first-round picks are getting nowadays, specifically BC alum Matt Ryan's six-year, $72 million deal.

"I know there is sentiment around the league amongst the players like, 'Let's do something to control these salaries and control these signing bonuses' and things like that," said Mawae.

I'm reminded of a quote from P.J. O'Rourke that Greg Mankiw recently cited:

"I have a 10 year old at home, and she is always saying, “That’s not fair.” When she says that, I say, “Honey, you’re cute; that’s not fair. Your family is pretty well off; that’s not fair. You were born in America; that’s not fair. Honey, you had better pray to God that things don’t start getting fair for you.

I think there is something telling in Mawae's reaction to the Ryan contract. He wants fairness, but his conception of fairness extends only so far as he would benefit. You don't see Mawae admitting that his salary should be controlled to better serve fairness.

The consultant who's watching the Jets in the stands feels the same way about rookie contracts as Mawae, but not simply about rookie contracts, but Mawae's contract as well.

The low-skilled worker feels the same way as the consultant, but not simply about football contracts, but about the prosperity enjoyed by college graduates as well.

Of course, like Mawae, the low-skilled worker may be treated "unfairly" relative to some, but if he were to be treated fairly along with low-skilled people all over the world, he would not like the result.

I think this story is helpful for the greater discussion of poverty. Liberals still stick to their guns with "relative poverty" indicators, so that a person in the US with a car and a microwave is labeled "poor," the same as if he had malnutrition and a life expectancy of 40 years in a developing country living on less than a dollar a day.

The Mawae story is relevant because it demonstrates that there is no magic dollar figure when an individual ceases to believe he is not being rewarded fairly; pursuing the end of relative poverty is chasing a ghost. If we could somehow snap our fingers and the world's citizens were paid like NFL players, people would still think there were significant "relative poverty" wrongs that must be righted.

In this worldview, lowering the well-being of others, the redistribution of poverty, is a victory. When Mawae goes to the bargaining table with the owners, he has stated he will look to stop these high rookie salaries. Will he benefit at all? Likely not, it will simply mean more money for the owners.

When it comes to millionaire football players, who cares if they screw the pooch. The problem is when this same attitude leads individuals to throw away large pieces of the general economic pie because of petty jealousy and envy. The socially just shouldn't be trying to turn princes into paupers in the name of relative-poverty justice. Justice isn't relative.

Update: How does this relative poverty argument play out in the real world? Consider this article, Has Ireland’s Rising Tide Benefited Its Poor? Within, Lane Kenworthy explains how poverty is "on the rise" in Ireland according to standard indicators, despite the fact that the poorest Irish are better off now than they have ever been. Kenworthy offers a worthy substitute for the current relative poverty indicators -- income at the tenth percentile of income distribution; in other words, how much better or worse off are the lowest 10% of income-earners in a given area. Given this indicator, Mawae, the low-skilled worker, and the Irish would all see that their well-being has improved greatly over the past 10-20 years, even as "relative poverty" has grown, allowing us to focus our attention on the genuinely poor and huddled masses.

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