Paradigm shift at the ballpark

We face unprecedented economic and political turmoil, which demands that we make deep changes to how we look at the world. A paradigm shift is needed, and it has to include everyone to some extent. So it seems that we might be watching for early signs of change in unusual places. For example, we might take special interest in opinion shifts among baseball fans.

One of the biggest obstacles to a cooperative economy is the widespread perception that people are greedy. As the reasoning goes, we must have the opportunity to make obscene amounts of money, or people will not be sufficiently motivated to get out of bed in the morning, let alone invest the time, energy, and money needed to get an enterprise off the ground. 

We can hold up examples like Mondragon, where the Basques of northern Spain have built a huge system with cooperative ownership, despite the supposed obstacles of shared profits and a relatively low cap on executive salaries. Not only are profits from any firm that makes more than 110% of average redistributed to those that make less than 90%; they also limit executive pay to only six times starting wage. Mondragon has been at it for more than half a century, and has generally outperformed the capitalist sector in Spain.

Mondragon is proof that it is possible to make a market-based system work without the usual capitalist excesses. However, that doesn’t mean that this would translate to the individualistic and fragmented culture of the United States. Indeed, the Basques are an unusually coherent bunch and we should not assume that we can simply copy their successes. And if we are going to copy their successes, we must first have a widespread discussion of them. Unfortunately, Mondragon is ultimately less interesting than the latest steroids scandal or trade.

Nevertheless, we should not underestimate the speed with which the ground is shifting beneath us. The economic collapse might be bottoming out, but it also might not. There will always be economists who will tell us it is a great time to invest, and we know that the stock market is a notoriously bad barometer of how the economy is affecting people on Main Street.

In any case, the various bailouts have already turned out to be a gargantuan redistribution of wealth upward. For example, Warren Buffett is making out like a bandit, and everyone already knows about the hundreds of billions in “bonuses” that are our tax dollars at work. Even if the economy stabilizes immediately, we face a prolonged period of worsening joblessness and poverty. Lots of people are extremely angry right now.

I suspect that the most interesting phase of this adventure is still before us, and if a recent news story about the new Yankees Stadium is an indicator, it might not be far into the future. An article called “It’s not a stadium, it’s a monument to greed” criticizes the opulent new stadium as being an excessive relic of an age gone by.

And where did I find this populist rant? Mother Jones? The Nation? The Socialist Worker, perhaps? You wish. This attack on the Yankees’ “sense of entitlement and unrestrained excess” was published by the New York Post and reproduced by Fox Sports, neither of which are bastions of wild-eyed radicalism.

In a sign that the surreal anti-wealth sentiments expressed by many in the establishment has spread beyond the opportunistic halls of Congress, these thoroughly mainstream media outlets have joined the fray, planting the seeds of populist ferment on the pitcher’s mound itself. Consider this excerpt:

“Those $2,625-per-game Legends tickets behind home plate are selling slowly, and that certainly is because there is a whole class of banking/Wall Street/real estate moguls who would have scooped them up, but has gone the way of flannel uniforms. But also because those seats not long ago would have screamed status, and now speak only to greed. The working world will not look onto those sitting there with envy. They will wish that those seats came with a dunk tank, not waiter service.”

Meanwhile, the powers that be are frantically spinning this mess like North Korean propagandists. On the Yankees’s web site, one story proclaims that Yogi Berra approves of the stadium but provides only ambivalent quotes about how he has to “get used to it” and needs a map and a golf cart to get around. It doesn’t sound like love at first sight.

Even more out of touch was the MLB house reporter, whose story started, “Mariano Rivera liked “everything.” The 48,402 fans at Yankee Stadium seemed to agree.” I know we can’t expect self-critical journaism from mlb.com, but this is a pretty ridiculous generalization. It seems that they smell torches burning and are desperately trying to calm the mob before it votes with its feet. People are already cutting costs everywhere, and overpriced tickets at the new “George Mahal” are a great example of discretionary spending.

Meanwhile, across town at the other fancy new ballpark, Citigroup is downplaying the fact that part of their payback for the massive taxpayer bailout is the ability to maintain their naming rights at, ahem, Citi Field. Top executives won’t even attend the first game, let alone throw out the first pitch. It’s a different world out there.

The pitchforks are coming out at the ballpark, so it seems that the only real question is what direction the inevitable wave of change takes. Can we channel all this frustration and fear into positive change that is based on other models that work better? Or will we go once again down the road trod before by the French and Russians, the Cubans and Chinese, in which elites cling to their status and privilege until the public’s rage spins out of control?

Anyone who thinks that this economic shift is going to simply result in a few years of pain followed by a return to business as usual should probably think again. This is an unprecedented economic crisis, and ultimately nobody knows what the future holds (although we can probably rule out great prosperity for everyone as trickle-down economics works its magic). We must find ways to build new ways of doing business, models that provide more fairness and resilience than the failures of capitalism.

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