$11 per week raise vs. $277,000 per ballgame

A reader charged me the other day with comparing apples and tennis balls. I prefer to think of it as an imaginative mind making profound connections between two seemingly unrelated phenomena. But that’s just me.

So let’s compare pay and what people are worth, an absurd debate if there ever was one, based on two stories this week.

A member of Congress, Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), has made a connection about two halves of the same apple. She’s worried the 2.1 percent pay increase for uniformed armed services members, if it becomes law, would have to be paid for with money from military readiness accounts. Davis was off in her arithmetic. An E-4 specialist or corporal, who earns $24,000  per year for the first two years, would have $42 a month more, not $11. Maybe she meant $11 a week. Regardless, not enough to cover payments on a new F-150 Lariat. $42 is about the price of a box of 148 Pampers Swaddlers with wetness indicator. If you invested the $42 each month for two years, and could guarantee a 3 percent return, eventually you’d have … not very much.

But Davis has a point. She said, presumably quoting an authority like the Congressional Budget Office, the raise would cost the military $330 million in 2017. And wonders where it would come from.

While it seems a little nuts to debate $11 a week for an Army corporal, it’s a typical discussion in the context of government. Somehow in the great cosmic government calculator, a corporal willing to put him- or herself in harm’s way to defend an ideal gets paid $24,000 plus room and board.

On the subject of salaries and human worth, each domain is rational only within itself, but irrational when compared to others. This week, the Washington Post’s Tom Boswell speculated about whether the Nationals owners would try and obtain a long-term, $450 million contract with slugging phenom Bryce Harper, a 23-year old who is not an Army corporal.

Here we’re talking in terms of $450 million for 10 years. In the  great cosmic baseball  calculator of ticket and TV revenue, competitive comparisons and owners’ stomachs, that’s a reasonable goal. It works out to $277,777 per regular season ballgame, whether Harper plays or not.

Within the scale, economics and human capital makeup of professional baseball in 2016, such bets are riskier than they seem at first blush. Lightning can strike. I still shudder at the Tony Conigliaro hit-by-pitch episode from 1967. It  calls out as a warning across the bridge to the free agency era.

But here’s where the absurd comparison gels. Once the term of service is over — the military’s equivalent of the reserve clause — service members become free agents in the big economy, where the sky’s still the limit.

The Marine Corps may have the best bead on baseball. Two team owners, Mike Ilitch of the Detroit Tigers and Larry Dolan of the Cleveland Indians, are former Marines.

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