Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

The Impact of a Superstar Society: It's Winner Take All

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

The Impact of a Superstar Society: It's Winner Take All

Article excerpt

When Cal Ripken breaks Lou Gehrig's consecutive-game record early next month, he will be doubly unique.

Not only will Ripken have established himself as the all-time "Iron Man" in baseball history, he will have done it with a single team, the Baltimore Orioles. In this era of free agency and team-hopping, the latter is exceptional in itself.

Ripken is well-rewarded for his work, earning $30 million over five years. His talent and durability make him one of the big winners in what Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook call "The Winner-Take-All Society." In the book of that title, to be published just about the time Ripken sets his record, Frank, a Cornell professor, and Cook, who teaches at Duke, explain - in the breathless words of their subtitle - "How more and more Americans compete for ever fewer and bigger prizes, encouraging economic waste, income inequality and an impoverished cultural life."

The heart of their argument is that the reward system of professional sports and entertainment, built around superstars who attract huge audiences, has spread to many other fields of activity, distorting pay scales and a great deal more.

It's a vicious circle they portray. A handful of lawyers make enormous fees from representing celebrity jocks like O.J. Simpson or from brokering mega-merger deals between super-highflier business tycoons like Disney's Michael Eisner and Capital Cities-ABC's Thomas Murphy. The lure of their success draws the brightest young people into law schools and away from engineering, teaching or other more mundane fields.

The crush of competition for the most prestigious law schools impels these talented youngsters to enroll in the most noted (and expensive) undergraduate colleges. The colleges, competing for these students, sign up big-name professors at inflated salaries and reduce their teaching duties to sweeten the deal.

And so it goes, back through the orthodontia, the private schools, the celebrity label sports clothes and gym shoes these Robert Shapiro or Johnnie Cochran wannabes are given so they can keep up with - or a step ahead of - the competition.

Frank and Cook argue that, while each of these decisions, from kindergarten through law school, reflects a rational response by an individual to the forces of the competitive marketplace, the sum of all these choices is detrimental to our society. …

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