A while ago the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, gave some kind of recognition to Robert Lewandowski, who seems to play football well. I don’t follow these things closely, but that’s not the point.

The event caused a bunch of commotion, for a few reasons. Mainly, the current Polish government, including the president, is pretty terrible, so any reason to criticize them is taken up vigorously. Also, we’re in the middle of the pandemic and Poland generally managed it pretty badly (looking at the excess deaths compared with the past). Celebrating a super-rich and ultra-privileged football player instead of, for example, healthcare workers seems like a poor choice.

One of the widely-discussed topics was also how rich Lewandowski is, especially in comparison to other people, who seem to fulfill more important societal functions. Someone pointed out the watch he wore at the ceremony costs as much as a flat and, unsurprisingly, the discussion was pretty polarized. One question in particular caught my attention, because it comes up frequently and feels like the essence of the issue:

“Why do footballers earn so unimaginably more than nurses?”

There are many levels of discussing it (and, as is often the case, many people seem to discuss these questions with each other, while thinking about different levels and the results are not pretty).

First of all, there’s the question of why this happens in the mechanical sense, i.e. what are the mechanisms that lead to this outcome? This is not very interesting, but probably worth covering just to make sure we’re on the same page. Simplifying, in our current economic reality, people are collectively willing to pay Lewandowski more for his entertainment than they are willing to pay any given nurse for her healthcare.

Then there’s the fact that there are many football players and not all are paid as much. Also there are many nurses! Maybe as a society we spend more on healthcare overall than on football overall? I have no idea how many football players there are compared to nurses and how much both groups are paid in aggregate and that’s besides the point.

Most people seem to ask the question rhetorically, with the implied judgement of “it is so unjust for a footballer to earn so much more than a nurse, capitalism is broken and needs to be abolished”. (At least in my head and I’m mostly arguing with myself over here.)

Here’s how I think about this. Nobody designed our current economic system with this outcome in mind, nobody sat down saying “let’s come up with free market ideas so that future athletes can earn obscene amounts of money, while nurses barely scrape by”. Seems pretty obvious that the current situation is a consequence, not the most important one, of a bunch of upstream mechanisms. Maybe it points to some upstream fact about how the system is set up, but it’s not very enlightening because it’s just a consequence. Nobody set out to create a system to operate this way.

So sure, it’s useful to point out absurdities and that’s how we can fix things. But let’s not fix systematic problems by tackling consequences - we have to address the upstream problems.