October 11, 2015

Here’s To You, Christian Lopez

Every once in a while, something happens at a sporting event that provokes a discussion of much deeper societal values. Such an event happened Saturday, July 9, at Yankee Stadium. Christian Lopez, the fan who caught Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit, a home run, made an instant decision to give the ball to Derek Jeter, even though he had an absolute right to keep it, and maximize the economic benefit from securing a ball that is very important in the history of baseball. To put this into perspective, the value of what the Yankees gave him for the ball was probably worth around $50,000. The ball could have fetched $400,000 in an auction.

Whether he made a values-based judgment that he had simply received a windfall and did not deserve to profit simply from being in the right place at the right time, or whether he believed that he would receive more long-term economic benefit from giving up the ball does not matter: he did an admirable thing.

Everyone’s behaviors are on a continuum from being totally generous of spirit to others to being totally mercenary and interested only in helping oneself. To be generous of spirit does not mean that one withdraws from the capitalist system, lives like Mother Teresa or Paul John Paul II, and deny or give away everything material. A person whom I consider an example of practicing behaviors that are generous of spirit, and whom I have always admired, and got to meet by serving briefly on a board of directors with him, is Neil Armstrong, the astronaut who was the first person to walk on the moon.

His behavior that I would consider exceptionally generous of spirit is his refusal to engage in any behavior in which he personally profited from his status as the first person to walk on the moon. He could have made millions of dollars in commercial endorsements from his lasting fame and celebrity, but he steadfastly declined every opportunity to do so. He has lived a successful life and is a wealthy person, but he recognized that many people contributed to his accomplishment as an astronaut and that he should not draw a disproportionate benefit from it.

I have aspired to be more like Neil Armstrong in not trying to extract maximum economic benefit everywhere I could. I have given free advice to many people for which they would have paid thousands, or even tens of thousands, of dollars, or arranged introductions that have resulted in financial success for others without receiving any short-term economic benefit, even when I was not financially secure earlier in my life. I did well financially, although I could have done better. I never once negotiated my own compensation package, even when others around me negotiated theirs.

I have met many people who have given generously of their time, their insight, and even their services and not asked for anything in return in the short run. I have also worked with people whom I know could have driven harder bargains with their employers. I admire athletes like Hall-of-Fame baseball player Tony Gwynn, who stayed in San Diego and made far less money than he could have made with many other teams. I also admire teachers who have stayed in seniority-based public education compensation systems and foregone great opportunities to make far more money in corporate training and education positions.

At the same time, I have experienced extreme distaste and stress by encountering people who think of the world as a place in which they have to extract compensation for every deed with economic value and have to extract as much as the market will allow them to extract. People who expected to be compensated for everything they did were very common in New York. Many jobs only made economic sense if the jobholder could get tipped consistently. However, there was a broader philosophy that no one ever did anything for others without getting paid for it, and closely related to the fact that everything could and should be compensated was a philosophy that everything was for sale.

I remember the scene in the 1991 film Goodfellas, in which the protagonist Henry Hill takes his future wife on a date to the Copacabana. From his car to his front-row table, he passes many hotel and restaurant workers and hands out money to every one of them. The front-row table clearly would not have been available to anyone else. It was moved into place and set up especially for Hill and his date. That scene was director Martin Scorsese’s depiction of a culture in which everything was for sale and that such a culture was so ingrained that it was a regular part of everyone’s daily routine.

In 1980, the 12-year-old son of one of our neighbors regularly cut our lawn. He was receiving what we thought was a fair price for his services. He tried to double his price, and when we asked why, he said that his parents told him to see how much he could get from us. He was told that if we objected, he could negotiate downward, but that he should try to maximize his short-term return. We never employed him again, and I sent him a note telling him why.

What the Christian Lopez story reminded my wife and me about ourselves was that we are people who believe strongly that our capitalist system works best when people give value without expecting to be paid top dollar immediately for everything they do. George Gilder, an American writer, philosopher, and Republican activist, wrote a powerful book in 1981 entitled Wealth and Poverty, in which, among other things, he described capitalism by saying that it “begins with giving.” What Gilder meant was that capitalism, by its nature, requires one or more individuals to expend capital at a point in time and to provide goods and services for which he or she will get rewarded at a later point in time. Capitalism requires an act of faith that investment will yield later reward.

To the degree that everything someone does requires immediate reward, the capitalist system collapses. Such a system usually does not enable the granting of credit, except in a very close circle of family and friends. Credit given to people one does not know is essential to the optimal growth of an economy.

Unfortunately, America has moved progressively toward a country in which there is more and more distrust, and more of an expectation of immediate gratification and maximum economic reward. Some of this is a result of an increasingly mercenary society. Some of it is the result of people being influenced by others to become more mercenary than they would be on their own. Sadly, some people have become more mercenary as they have become more financially desperate.

I was saddened by the experience with the 12-year-old boy. He seemed liked an enterprising young person who could have been generous of spirit, but whose mind had been poisoned by his parents, with whom we ultimately had a dispute on unrelated matters. I do not know what effect, if any, our refusal to continue to do business with him had on his values, but I suspect that his parents probably found a way to deflect the blame for that situation on to us.

It is reassuring that there are people like Christian Lopez in the world. He did the right thing. He may, or may not, ever receive economic benefit comparable to what he gave up. However, if he lives the rest of his life with values consistent with those that led him to make the quick decision to return the ball to the guy who truly created the potential for its economic value, Derek Jeter, he will live a far more satisfying life, and he might even be more financially successful than he otherwise would have been.

Here’s to you, Christian Lopez!!!