Thursday, May 08, 2014

Donald Sterling, "The Free Market" as Coded Language, and a McDonald's That Sells Spaghetti and Blankets

I've been following the whole Donald Sterling fiasco pretty closely and one of the most interesting arguments I've come across in the many pieces I've read about it is from a faction of people who believe the NBA should not have done anything and should have instead let the "free market" sort it out. Of course here I'm using the term "interesting" in the passive-aggressive Midwestern sense, in that anything that doesn't make sense gets politely termed interesting. Because this argument most definitely does not make sense.

What is this free market argument? As always, it involves the free market magically doing the right thing, but more specifically, these folks are arguing that the NBA was wrong to intervene, because had they just left everything alone, fans would have decided not to patronize the Clippers, players would have decided not to play for the Clippers, advertisers and other corporate sponsors would have cut ties with the Clippers, and on and on until the market forced Sterling out.

While this line of thinking obviously ignores quite a bit of what we know about reality (ranging from the fact that many fans have continued to support their teams through far worse controversies, players are under contract and can't just up and leave the franchise without huge difficulties, advertisers have shown their complete willingness to work with utterly despicable people, etc.), it's interesting in how it not only shows how humorous free market fetishism is, but how it's becoming a loaded code word on the level of "states rights."

Much as proponents of states rights will say that slavery or segregation were really bad and they truly, honestly disagree with the practice but just think the federal government doesn't have the right to intervene in such situations, the "free market will fix it crowd" similarly pretends to be upset with Sterling, but just doesn't like the heavy-handed actions of the NBA.

But I say "pretends to" because that's obviously not the case. Because the NBA has neither acted with a heavy hand according to their own corporate franchising model, but even more so because this is actually a pretty prime example of the market forcing this change (without any government intervention whatsoever).

Why isn't it heavy handed for the NBA to force a sale of the Clippers (which has not happened yet but appears quite likely at this time)? Because the Clippers are not an independent business, but a franchise of the NBA. This is why the NBA can have things like salary caps or the ability to trade their employees, because technically the teams are all just subsets of one corporate entity (the NBA). These things would be gross violations of labor and business law if all 30 teams were actually completely separate businesses. So it's more akin to how individual McDonalds are independently owned and operated, but at the discretion of the McDonalds corporation and the ability to run one can be revoked at any time.

Which brings mean to the McDs that only sells spaghetti and blankets, as imagined by the late, great Mitch Hedberg (the joke starts at about 44 seconds in):

For those to lazy to watch or for when the video is inevitably taken down, the crux of the joke is that Mitch notes the end of McDonalds commercials always end with "prices and participation may vary," so he jokes about opening a McDonalds that doesn't participate in anything. It's a good joke. But of course in reality if any McDonalds owner were to do anything even close to that their franchise would be yanked away immediately. Which is more-or-less what the NBA is doing to Stern Sterling (whoops! confused my S-named morons associated with the NBA).

But what really exposes the "Oh, I totally oppose what Stern Sterling has said and done, I just believe in the purity of the free market" argument to be a lie is that the free market is exactly why Stern Sterling is losing the team. The NBA, a private corporation, seeing the mountains of bad press, the threats of fans and advertisers to quit supporting the league until something was done, and a potential strike of both the Clippers and their first-round playoff opponent Warriors, decided that to protect their revenue streams, they needed to discontinue their relationship with Donald Sterling. This was all done without even the threat of government interference. A purely business decision made by a private business. The ouster of Donald Sterling couldn't get more free market if Ayn Rand came back from the dead to team up with Ron Paul to personally arrange a hostile takeover of the Clippers.

And this is why the free market argument is clearly a code word meant to derail the conversation from one about the continuing presence of racism in our society to one of how private businesses should be allowed to act. Because again, this was pretty much the model example of the free market taking care of things with no outside intervention. So if you're going to use the notion that it should have been left up to the free market when that is unequivocally what has already happened, it makes it pretty clear that maybe your problem is more that this was one of those rare occasions in which someone's life-long legacy of overt and institutional racism finally brought some consequences...


Craig said...

I agree with you on some of your Sterling views here, but you have a huge error in your post. You freely interchange the name, "Sterling" and "Stern" as the owner. The owner is Sterling. The former commissioner was Stern. The current commissioner is Silver. Too many "S names" for sure, but important to get that straight.

Woz said...

Ha, good catch. I've also got quite a few criticisms of Stern, so I guess that slips through sometimes...