If you want to know whom to blame for the surreal officiating fiasco that robbed Paul Ryan’s favorite football team of a win last night, the answer is Paul Ryan’s favorite political thinker. As improbable as it sounds, Ayn Rand’s lunatic brand of Marxism turned on its head is to a significant extent responsible for Lingerie Football League castoffs refereeing America’s most popular and profitable sport (with predictably catastrophic consequences).
To understand why, it’s first necessary to understand what sort of numbers we’re talking about here. NFL owners chose to lock out the sport’s referees because they’re trying to squeeze an extra $4,000 in revenues per game out of their cozy little $9 billion per year cartel arrangement. Now, to a normal human being $4,000 is real money, but NFL owners are not normal human beings.
They are people like William Clay Ford, who has made two masterful investments in his life, the second of which was to buy the Detroit Lions in 1963 for $4.5 million. The Lions -- one of the NFL’s least valuable franchises -- are estimated to be worth $855 million today. (Ford’s first key investment decision was to be born the grandson of Henry Ford.)
Ford is one of 18 billionaire NFL owners. It’s hard to grasp what that means, but put it this way: If a billionaire lost $4,000 in his couch cushions, it wouldn’t be worth it to him to dig around for the money. To a billionaire, $4,000 is, in economic terms, literally nothing. It’s a rounding error on the balance sheet of one of the many people he pays to keep track of such details. It adds no “marginal utility,” as economists say, to his already grotesque plentitude.
But $4,000 per game adds up, you say. A penny saved is a penny earned. Waste not, want not. Wrong. To a billionaire, $62,000 per year (which is what Ford and his ilk stand to lose if they get no concessions at all from the employees they’re locking out) is again literally nothing. It’s like a quarter to an ordinary person. Would you stop to pick up a quarter lying on the sidewalk? Probably not if you were in a hurry. That’s how William Clay Ford feels about a $62,000 bill.
The thing is, this fight isn’t really about $62,000 per year. Lots of people are denouncing the owners for being “greedy,” but we football fans would be far better off if the owners’ current behavior were being motivated primarily by greed.
First of all, if this fight were actually about the money, it would have ended long ago. Continuing the lockout is sheer idiocy from a dollars-and-cents perspective, as the owners are doing serious damage to the quality of their immensely valuable investments because of a fight over what is, for them, not even pocket change.
Second, greed has limits. “Principle,” however, does not – which brings us back to the true villain of this debacle, crazy old Ayn Rand. The guiding principle of Rand’s thought has been summed up well by Jonathan Chait:
She believed that the principle of trade governed all human relationships -- that in a free market one earned money only by creating value for others. Hence, one’s value to society could be measured by his income. History largely consisted of "looters and moochers" stealing from society’s productive elements. In essence, Rand advocated an inverted Marxism. In the Marxist analysis, workers produce all value, and capitalists merely leech off their labor. Rand posited the opposite.
This, of course, is the wacky idea that has spread like an ideological infection through American political life, and that is embraced most fervently by the super-rich Lords of Capital who own baubles like NFL franchises and the contemporary Republican Party.
Ungrateful “moochers” like NFL referees – mere laborers who, unlike the captains of industry who deign to pay their wages, have failed to climb to the top of our ruthlessly meritocratic social pyramid -- need to be shown their place. Although locking the refs out and replacing them with utterly incompetent substitutes is a nonsensical decision from an economic perspective, there’s a higher principle to be vindicated here, which is that the Heroic Businessman is responsible for everything good about America, and the lesser orders had better not forget it.
That, at the deepest ideological and psychological level, is why the NFL owners are insisting on doing their best to wreck the sport, in much the same way that their political lapdogs, like the Rand-worshiping Ryan, are dedicated to wrecking the nation.
Update: Speaking of wacky ideas and the politics of free association, Ryan tried this morning to connect the fact that union-busting owners are using scab labor with Obama’s policies: "And you know what, it reminds me of President Obama and the economy," [Ryan] contended. "If you can’t get it right, it is time to get out. I half think these refs work part-time for the Obama administration in the Budget Office. They see the national debt clock staring them in the face. They see a debt crisis, and they just ignore and pretend it didn’t even happen. They are trying to pick the winners and losers, and they don’t even do that very well.”