I'm a Yankees fan. From the room in Doctors Hospital on East End Avenue where I was born, you could see the old stadium lights. I started watching the Yankees way back, in 1965. My grandfather took me. He was a local politician in the Bronx and insanely proud of the team. He got Mickey Mantle to autograph a baseball for me with my name on it. I have that ball now. The ink is fading so badly you can hardly read that famous signature, but I don't care. I know it's there.
And I'm not one of these so-called Yankees fans who never actually turn up at the games. I've been at virtually every playoff game since 1977. If I've been out of the country -- and my work has been very international -- I've stayed up to any time of night to watch the game on TV. In my world, baseball matters.
But that's me: an ordinary American with ordinary American values. Unfortunately, somewhere in the past two or three decades, those values have taken a pasting. I'm not just talking about baseball, but about corporations and politicians too. Everything runs together in this story, so bear with me: I'll connect the dots.
Staying with baseball for the moment, you only have to go to a game to identify the problem. Back in the day, the Yankees stadium was a noisy place. The atmosphere was so intense, you had to shout to your neighbor if you wanted to communicate. So loud, I used to come home from games with my ears ringing. I got to taking foam earplugs, to every game but the playoffs most of all.
And this year? The place is half-empty. Here's a photo, taken from my seat, at one of the recent playoffs with the Detroit Tigers.
This should be a huge game. Huge, crowded, noisy, partisan, intense. And it was almost lifeless. I saw one guy leaning back, his legs stretched out on the empty seat in front of him -- a seat whose notional retail price was $370. There was almost no noise. And row upon row of empty seats. If the games had been like this in 1965, I'd never have gone back. Why would I? It's like a movie theater, but without the movie.
Now this is baseball, America's favorite pastime we're talking about, of course, and in part the recent history of the Yankees is little more than another turn of the sporting wheel. Expensive players. Too much mediocrity. Poor results. And angry fans choosing to express their disgust by staying away. That's the way it goes sometimes. If you follow a team for almost fifty years, you can't expect roses all the way.
Only it's not just about baseball, that's the thing. I've never been a quitter. Not as a fan, not in real life. If my team were doing badly, but it was still my team, I'd support the hell out of it anyway. That's what we fans do. But the Yankees have transformed themselves into something with the soul of Starbucks, the greed of Enron.
Any good company needs to make money, of course, and any good sports franchise has to run itself as successfully off the field as it does on it. But I don't care what industry a company is in. It has to care first and foremost about its customers and its products. Everything else follows from that: profits, dividends, a buoyant stock price. Apple is a fantastically successful company because Steve Jobs cared to a ridiculous, obsessive, brilliant degree about getting his products right. In every detail. Every time. Any successful company you care to think of is built with the same obsession in its DNA.
And America has lost that. Not completely, but way too much. Why did the federal government have to bail out the carmakers? Not because people had stopped buying cars, but because corporate Detroit had lost its soul. It had come to see cars as tokens in some kind of corporate game: counters on which to build consumer finance companies. The cars became worse, the debts became bigger. When recession hit, the rottenness of the whole industry became so obvious it was a miracle the collapse hadn't happened earlier.
The same thing with Wall Street. There was a time -- a time so long ago that those Yankees games were still the most exciting ballgames in the world -- when Goldman Sachs refused to handle hostile mergers because the firm worried about the ethical implications. There was a time when Wall Street generally actually cared about client outcomes, actually cared about adding value to the customer. You don't need me to tell you that those times are long gone.
And the thing is, you can never fool the consumer. Those games of corporate trickery may work for a while, but they never build an Apple, they never build a Google, they never build a Coca-Cola. What you get, instead, is increasingly frenzied corporate activity (consumer finance arms, debt securitizations, stock buybacks, pension restructuring). All that and debt: the inevitable consequence. More debt for consumers, more for the corporations, more for Wall Street, more for everyone. Debt is the ultimate kick-the-can-down-the-road technology: a way to make one dollar today by stealing two dollars from tomorrow.
And it never works. Not in the long term. Those accumulating interest costs -- and falsely inflated asset prices -- always come back to bite you. Detroit found that out. Wall Street found that out. But as a nation we haven't yet drawn the obvious lesson. Not yet, not properly.
We live in a country built on debt: a Ponzi nation at the heart of a Ponzi Planet. The government is loaded up with debt. The public debt outstanding -- our national debt -- is $16 trillion and counting. If you add in pension deficits and unfunded Medicare/Medicaid liabilities, you add tens of trillions more. If you add in corporate, financial and household debt, you get many tens of trillions more. Meantime, the government goes on borrowing. The Republican party doesn't talk about fiscal conservatism but about cutting taxes, which is the opposite of conservative. The Democrats can't even talk about fiscal conservatism, because that would mean coming clean on entitlement cuts.
These things matter to America more than ever. They matter because we are in an election year and because our national debt is now well over 100 percent of GDP. They matter because our political debate should be about little else -- yet we seem to care more about Governor Romney's binders full of women, President Obama's listless performance in the first debate.
I care so much about these things that I've written a book about it: Planet Ponzi. It's about the crisis we face and about what needs to be done to get out of it. (Also, because I'm a realist, it tells you how to protect yourself and your family against the forthcoming financial Armageddon.) Planet Ponzi is out now, and you can purchase it online for the cost of a coffee and a muffin (or for 1/75th the cost of those $370 Yankee seats).
Which brings us back to baseball. That empty stadium is estimated to have added $1.2 billion to New York City's tottering debt load. Yankee Global Enterprises LLC doesn't care about baseball. It cares about money. Its merger and marketing history includes relationships with the New Jersey Nets, the New York Giants, the New Jersey Devils and even the British soccer team, Manchester United. To the owners of the team, baseball is just another way to make money. They see nothing wrong with selling seats at $370 if the profits go up. Nothing wrong in loading debt onto the taxpayer, if your lobbying can make that happen. Profits are all that matter -- and it's just too bad that the stadium sounds like a museum. Too bad that little kids who go to games today will come away wondering why the hell grandpa cares about this stuff. Too bad that profits today risk sucking the life out one of the world's greatest sporting institutions.
Delmon Young was declared the MVP in the ALCS. His 6 RBIs was equivalent to the total runs scored by the entire Yankees team in all 4 playoff games. I honor him. As he destroyed my team, Miguel Cabrera went into the history books by achieving MLBs first Triple Crown in 45 years. I applaud his feat and salute the Tigers. They more than deserved their victory and I hope the Tigers go on to win the world series.
And I'm pleased. Pleased the Yankees lost. The team that had the most heart, leadership and passion won. The same way as countries win if they have those things. Sometime in the 80s or 90s, America lost its heart. It came to love living well today over building something awesome for tomorrow. Nothing good ever came from that philosophy. I speak as a Yankees fan and an American. And I'm worried as hell.