Congress and the NBA, Double-Teaming America

Two institutions that were once somewhat noble now represent the worst excesses of American society.

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Quick: Name a dysfunctional group of overprivileged egomaniacs.

If you're a sports fan, your answer is probably the National Basketball Association players and owners. If you're a public-affairs junkie, Congress is probably your nominee. Either way, there's plenty of shame to go around.

[See 11 things wrong with Congress.]

The NBA and the U.S. Congress obviously occupy different parts of America's mindshare. One represents entertainment, at least during the playoffs, when people are paying attention. The other has the solemn responsibility to make laws and is enshrined in the Constitution. Yet both institutions have descended into a state of farce that collectively reflects the Kardashification of the entire nation.

The NBA has been in a "lockout" since July, which means the players aren't playing and there are no games to watch. This is the usual pro-sports dispute between millionaire players and billionaire owners, with each side convinced it's the victim of the other side's greed. So far, the NBA has canceled the first six weeks of the season, with the remainder in jeopardy. There's wishful talk of somebody starting a new league, and some players are doing stints with teams in China and other countries.

As for Congress, Americans can only dream of a year-long lockout. Unfortunately, the disputes on Capitol Hill happen while legislators are on the clock, which means they get paid—by taxpayers—for effectively doing nothing. The latest fiasco is Congress' refusal to start paying down the debt that has resulted from its own discordant taxing and spending policies over the last decade, which sooner or later will overwhelm the whole U.S. economy. Meanwhile, we may be headed for another recession. But there's no urgency to deal with that either, because an election is coming in 12 months and campaigning is awfully demanding.

Both of these institutions once represented something noble about America. Before it became a forum for obnoxious showoffs, pro basketball was a dream destination for talented kids who worked hard and often got a college education while angling for the big time. Congress once attracted ambitious strivers who wanted to help make their nation better. No more. Both institutions have been captured by narcissistic careerists content to exploit everybody around them for their own gain. Here are 4 problems they have in common:

They're too rich. The average salary in the NBA is about $5.2 million. Team owners, who tend to be business magnates dabbling in basketball, probably earn a lot more. In Congress, about 46 percent of the members have a net worth higher than $1 million, which is about 46 times higher than the proportion of millionaires in the overall population. And in addition to base salaries of $174,000 per year, every member of Congress is entitled to gold-plated benefits worth another $82,000 per year, according to one study.

[See 12 ways to thrive in a stagnant economy.]

There's nothing wrong with being rich, and it's not surprising that there are highly paid people in organizations that represent the top of the pyramid in their professions. But there is a problem when rich people form an insular society and start to talk only among themselves, which seems to be what has happened at the pinnacle of basketball and politics. When that happens, foolish decisions get made because of pride, dogma, and the perception that somebody else has more. When individuals can afford to discard practicality and make bad decisions, they often do.

Indifference toward others. The NBA negotiations have mostly involved players and owners explaining what's wrong with the other side. It's the same pattern in Congress, where Democrats and Republicans blame each other for gridlock that's preventing sensible reforms that would help the economy grow. Basketball professionals and politicians are portraying themselves as the victims. But the real victims get little attention and have no voice in the battle of the big-mouths.

The NBA lockout is devastating for many concession workers, restaurant and hotel employees, radio announcers, and small businesses whose livelihood is tied to the league. In such a finicky economy, losing a couple of hundred dollars a week in tips or hourly pay can cause a lot of financial pain for the minions serving at the pleasure of basketball royalty. Meanwhile, neither side in the NBA smackdown has proposed lower ticket prices or any other gesture as a sop to aggrieved fans.

[See why America's credit rating could fall again.]

Congress' failures are far more momentous, since nearly 14 million Americans remain unemployed and looking for help. Negligence in Washington could even induce another recession that throws millions more out of work. But make sure to tune in for the Sunday talk shows, where each side will explain why a standoff is the only sensible outcome.

They think the details matter. Each side in these respective disputes wants you to listen very carefully, because once you understand all the details, you'll surely agree that the players/owners/Democrats/Republicans are morally correct. What they don't get is that fans and voters don't really want to figure out who is right. Instead, they expect highly privileged and presumably competent people to solve their problem, the same way ordinary people have to solve problems every day: by prioritizing what's most important and making tradeoffs.

When intransigence becomes ruinous, a few onlookers may invest the effort to understand the finer points of the dispute. But most will just tune out. One poll on the NBA showed that 88 percent of Americans say they're not affected at all by the lockout, with just 12 percent saying they miss the games. Congress' approval rating is so low that more Americans approve of pornography, communism, and the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Even BP apologized after screwing up, something neither Congress nor the NBA seems institutionally capable of doing.

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They assume they'll stay relevant. Will all of the NBA's fans return once the lockout is over? The owners' tough stance suggests they think they can afford to wait it out, then simply push reset once there's a deal to bring the players back. But in the meanwhile, fans are finding other things to do and showing more interest in college basketball and even pro hockey. Pastimes routinely swing in and out of favor, and with much of the nation stewing over the gilded privileges of the 1 percent, it seems a bit presumptuous for multimillionaires to count on Joe Six-Pack's loyalty.

Congress, alas, has more of a monopoly than the NBA. But voters are consistently leaving both major parties to join the disaffected ranks of the independents, a voting bloc that's now big enough to decide national elections. If Congress were a company dependent on paying customers, it would be out of business by now. But since it's legally entitled to exist, it stumbles along, leaving citizens to fear that it's a morally bankrupt microcosm of America as a whole. And it's not even good TV.

Twitter: @rickjnewman

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