Dollars and sense: What do we value in 2009?

How much money is enough money? It makes a difference who you’re asking. Enough money in, for instance, the Navajo Nation northwest of Gallup, N.M., is very different from enough money on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Ca. It also matters whether you’re 17 or 77. When I was in college, I worked from midnight to 8 a.m. manning the school switchboard and my $28 for staying up all night to answer the phone a couple of times made me feel like a robber baron.

Lately, however, I have been pondering the question of wealth when I looked at the salaries offered to Major League Baseball’s premier free agents this winter. To wit: In December the New York Yankees signed pitcher C. C. Sabathia to a seven-year deal worth $161 million — or an average of $23 million a year. They also signed first baseman Mark Teixeira to an eight-year contract worth $180 million — or roughly $22.5 million a year, if the salary were distributed annually.

Meanwhile, the University of Vermont is coping with a projected $28 million shortfall. In other words, Sabathia’s salary is about 80 percent as large as the likely UVM deficit. Teixeira’s is, too. Together, the pair could take a major chunk out of the shortfall without dramatically changing their lives.

Now, I am not saying they should do that. These are individuals who are the very best in the country at what they do. I imagine, for instance, that the two best lawyers or the two best plastic surgeons are compensated similarly. In the midst of the Great Depression, a reporter asked slugger Babe Ruth how he could justify earning more than President Herbert Hoover and he is said to have replied, “Well, I had a better year than he did.”

Likewise, the Yankees have every right to spend what they want. Despite the U.S. bailout of the banking industry, we haven’t yet raised the hammer and sickle over the Capitol.

Nor do I want to question either player’s philanthropy. For all I know, they give away huge chunks of their wealth to the homeless or are quietly underwriting hospitals or schools, in much the same way that pitcher Pedro Martinez helped finance the school and the church in his hometown in the Dominican Republic. Likewise, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, the former chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs, has spent over $100 million on environmental campaigns. My point? There are a lot of people in this country who make enormous sums of money and are spectacularly generous in return.

Nonetheless, I find the amounts a little staggering in light of the havoc the recession is wrecking on public services and family finances. To wit, the Yankees are now paying one pitcher an approximate salary that is eight times the annual budget of Burlington’s Committee on Temporary Shelter, a nonprofit which on any given year serves roughly 1,600 people who either are homeless or precariously close to becoming homeless. The ballclub is paying one first baseman five times the annual budget of Spectrum Youth and Family Services, the Burlington organization that provides housing and support services for teenagers who are homeless or at risk, and annually serves 500 kids at its drop-in center, another 100 in its overnight shelter, and at least 500 more in various outreach programs.

At some point, the economy will recover. The good times will return. I have enormous faith in both the incoming administration and the spirit of activism that marks so much of the country right now. But a barometer of how far we have come will be whether we have found a way to celebrate (and compensate) the most talented among us, while supporting our schools and sheltering our least fortunate.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on January 11, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

One thought on “Dollars and sense: What do we value in 2009?

  1. Allan Nicholls says:

    I continue to enjoy your columns. I manage to always have a good laugh or some other appropriate response to your writing.
    That must be good.
    I met you years ago with Dana Yeaton at the premiere of Midwives, which I also quite enjoyed…not as many laughs as the column, though…
    I am interested in discussing an idea that I am working on that involves Burlington College, Lincoln and the summer.
    I am currently working at The Film School of Burlington College, where I can be reached at your leisure.
    Thanks for keeping it interesting…

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