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Block's argument still off point

Published: Thursday, October 5, 2006

Updated: Sunday, December 14, 2008 01:12

Dear Editor,

In Greek mythology, the Hydra was a monster who grew two new heads every time the hero cut one off. Eventually, no matter how many heads the hero cut off, he eventually tired, and the Hydra won.

I'm starting to feel that no matter how many points I refute, new unrelated points (Chad?!) will appear until I too am exhausted, and Walter Block's Hydra strategy of argumentation will succeed.

I will try to conserve my energy by concentrating on the original issue. I am continuing primarily because I think that this university's commitment to critical thinking is important, and that it is good for the students to see this in action.

Professor Block claims that "the stratospheric salaries paid to Shaq and Brad Pitt are not at all a result of their union membership," but rather their productivity. It is worth noting first that the example is not an honest one. Block was originally making a point about the productivity and wages of the average "worker" on the "shop floor" and then responded to an imaginary challenge by appealing to the very top performers in labor markets that have nothing to do with a shop floor.

So let's talk about professional athletes. Professional athletes generally have a unique set of skills that are very valuable to their employers but are not transferable to other jobs. A quality NFL player now makes millions of dollars a year. The questions is, what would that player do if he did not play NFL football? His unique skills do not make him productive at an elite level in any other job.

This is the dilemma that faced each player individually before unionization. The owners employing them knew those players had no options and thus offered them compensation that was only a small fraction of their productivity. If a player refused, the owner faced only a small decline in quality, as there were other players almost as good with similarly limited options. (This is what is meant by having "more workers than work.") The player, on the other hand, faced a massive plunge because he had no other marketable skills. All the bargaining power was with the owner.

Note that, unlike Block, I am not simply proposing theories - this is what actually happened. NFL players were, for example, forbidden to have agents, required to pay for their own equipment, and not paid when injured. Nor was this peculiar to football. In the National Hockey League, injured players were even forced to work the concession stands and parking lots during games, and the most productive player in NHL history, Gordie Howe, retired with a pension of $800 a month. Only when the players in the major professional sports organized to bargain collectively did any of these conditions begin to change. Productivity did not change; bargaining power did.

Remarkably similar stories can be told regarding the relationship between movie studios and actors, which led to the formation of the Screen Actors Guild. So Professor Block's central claim that compensation "depends almost entirely" on productivity is demonstrably false, even using the unreasonable examples he chose.

If we actually look at the average worker on the "shop floor," the point only becomes more painfully obvious. Professor Block wishes a formal debate with me on this issue, I am, in the spirit of modeling critical thinking, at his disposal.

Sincerely,

Boyd Blundell, Ph.D. Assistant Professor Religious Studies

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