Acton Institute Powerblog

The Economic Analogy of Michael Jordan

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Much has been made of income inequality in the United States this election season. Income inequality exists in the United States, more so than almost any other developed nation. Around sixty years ago, America’s Gini coefficient–the best measure of income equality, where zero represents the least inequality and one the most–was .37. Today, it is .45.

These numbers are startling, especially for a country that so proudly proclaims all men to be “created equal.” But, as Matthew Schoenfeld points out in The Wall Street Journal, income equality is a far cry from the equality the Framers preached in the Declaration of Independence.

Schoenfeld’s article, titled “Air Jordan and the 1%”, transposes the issue of income inequality from the public policy arena to the basketball court. For many people in and around public policy, a rising Gini coeffecient is enough to call for economic redistribution. Of course, this narrow reasoning doesn’t hold up in other arenas, as Schoenfeld’s basketball analogy points out:

And that brings us to Michael Jordan, who starred for the Chicago Bulls from 1984 to 1998. In 1986, the Bulls’ median player salary was $300,000. The team’s lowest-paid player made $135,000, and its highest-paid player made $806,000. The team’s Gini coefficient was 0.36. But Jordan’s superstardom increased the team’s popularity and revenues, and by 1998 salaries looked different. The median income was $2.3 million, the lowest was $500,000, and the highest (Jordan’s) was $33 million. The Gini coefficient had nearly doubled, to 0.67.

Jordan’s salary of $33 million consumed over half the payroll, but everyone was better off. The median player in 1998 made more than seven times what the median player made in 1986, while the income of the lowest-paid player in 1998 quadrupled that of his 1986 peer.

Schoenfeld’s analysis calls to mind a line from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. In the book, de Tocqueville claims, “Americans are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.” Equality is certainly a necessary virtue, one that ensures that all can enjoy basic rights and freedoms. But it is not equality alone that generates human flourishing. This is what the Framers, de Tocqueville, and the 1984-1998 Chicago Bulls got right. Humans require freedom and opportunity to fully tap into their inherent creative potential. To return to basketball:  Every successful offense is built around creating the best shot, and the opportunity for a slam dunk always trumps a prayer from half-court.

Andrew Knot


  • Roger McKinney

    Unfortunately, only the left seems interest in inequality measure like the Gini coefficient. Free marketeers need to do more work on it because it is important to people. Was .37 an unsustainable blip? What is sustainable? Has the rise since then resulted from immigration from the south? Or is inflationary monetary policy, which takes from the poor and gives to the rich, the problem? Or is it the aging of the Baby Boom generation? Is there something wrong with the way Gini is calculated?

    Socialists want to blame freer markets since Reagan, but there has been no freeing of the markets since Reagan.