The Atlantic, May 2015

The Atlantic is largely written from the viewpoint of the rich, and this month’s issue is no exception.  But then, the rich are not a monolithic group, and it can be instructive to think about the differences that separate one subgroup of them from another.  After all, it is in their conflicts and contests that spaces sometimes open up in which the rest of us can make our voices heard.

A profile of Michele Roberts, head of the players’ union in the National Basketball Association, brought to my mind Yogi Berra’s remark, “The players don’t deserve it, but the owners don’t deserve it more.”  It also includes a concise explanation of the economics that give the owners the upper hand as they collect billions and leave the players with millions:

Despite (or perhaps because of) their athletic gifts, players have little incentive to engage in a protracted fight with the league. LeBron James may be a talent like no other, but even his prowess will not last long, which means a strike or a lockout could be devastating to his earning potential.

“The problem is that basketball players have an average career of four years and an average salary of $5 million per year,” says Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College. “Given that and given that these guys love to play basketball, they don’t really have the basis to stay unified for a substantial period of time. They’re saying, ‘You want me to risk half a season so my salary could go from $5.1 million to $5.2 million?’ That’s going to be Michele Roberts’s main challenge.”

Tim Harford reports on businesses that scalp reservations for tables at fashionable New York City restaurants, and asks why restaurants shouldn’t charge for reservations.  The only reason I can think of is that it might take some of the sport out of it.  A table at a fashionable NYC restaurant is the prize in a game with rules and tactics known only to a few, and is as such a sign of one’s initiation into that select company.  If such tables were awarded to the highest bidder, well, if you’re one of the richest people in New York, everyone who might see you at a fashionable eatery already knows that about you.  You can’t add anything to the reputation you already have by simply buying another expensive thing, while winning at the reservation game may show that you are still youthful enough to go to the trouble of playing the game and still wily enough to win it.  So making reservations simply a money game might reduce the attractiveness to super-rich New Yorkers of the most fashionable restaurants,  Whether that would make NYC restaurants more or less profitable overall I don’t know, but it certainly would reduce the premium that the most fashionable restaurants can charge.

Ross Douthat, of all people, asks “Will Pope Francis Break the Church?”  Close to half the article consists of concessions that most of the remarks quoted in the press as evidence that the pope is a bold reformer are exactly the same as remarks that his two immediate predecessors made, while a sizable chunk of the remainder are things he never actually said at all.  But Mr. Douthat still tries to play up the “reformer pope” storyline that has been running in world media for over two years now.

A profile of Justin Trudeau, leader of Canada’s opposition Liberal Party, includes this paragraph about polling data comparing his image with that of the current prime minister, Stephen Harper:

Earlier this year, pollsters asked Canadians which party leader would be best in various roles. Trudeau—who has, since joining parliament, smoked pot, gotten a tattoo, and practiced yoga in front of the parliament building—was the top choice for vacation buddy, dinner guest, pet-sitter, movie recommender, and wilderness survivor, and was rated “most likely to stop and help if your car was stranded.” Harper got picked for head of a company and contract negotiator.

Considering the relative importance in a prime minister’s working day of, on the one hand, management and negotiation, and, on the other, vacation buddying, dinner-guesting, pet-sitting, movie recommending, wilderness surviving, and roadside assisting, one may as well say “Harper got picked for prime minister.”

On the magazine’s website, Robinson Meyer offers suggestions on “What to Say When the Police Tell You to Stop Filming Them.”  Included is a link to the American Civil Liberties Union’s very handy guide on photographers’ rights.

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