What Bernie Sanders Could Learn from Tiger Woods

I’m not a huge golf fan — truth be told, I know next to nothing about the sport. But I nevertheless was fascinated by Tiger Woods’s recent interview with Time magazine, where he talked about the prospect of having to retire from golf at the age of 40 due to injury.

That would be tragic, for him and for the sport. His greatness increased the popularity of golf, and inspired many of today’s best players. But it also occurred to me: what if we thought about Woods’s achievements the same way we are taught to think about economic inequality?

Here’s Bernie Sanders from a September speech:

There is no justice, and I want you to hear this clearly, when the top one-tenth of 1 percent — not 1 percent, the top one-tenth of 1 percent — today in America owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. And in your hearts, you will have to determine the morality of that, and the justice of that.

Couldn’t you say the same thing about Woods? Surely he has won as many major tournaments and as much prize money as the bottom 90 percent of golfers. Is that just?

Well, you can’t answer that by simply staring at a ratio. There’s no intrinsically correct ratio between what the best achieve and what everyone else achieves. The real question is: how did they achieve it? Did Tiger play by the rules and win through his superior ability? Or did he pull a Lance Armstrong and cheat his way to the top? If he earned his success, how is his success unjust?

The same goes for economic success more broadly. The question is not how much more wealth the 1 percent or .1 percent own than the rest of us — it’s whether they earned it or plundered it.

And the fact is, they overwhelmingly have earned it by producing massive economic value. Just think of someone like Jeff Bezos. How did he become worth tens of billions of dollars? By creating Amazon, which millions of people use every day because it is so superior to the alternatives. How many of us create anything approaching that much economic value?

The Amazon example is instructive because it highlights one way in which the analogy with Tiger Woods breaks down. For Woods to win, other golfers have to lose. But that’s not how business works. Business works by helping other people win. Those billions of dollars owned by Jeff Bezos represent countless win/win transactions that took place between Amazon and its customers.

Sure, the world would be more equal if Bezos had never created Amazon — but we would all be worse off.