Commentary

We no longer get what we overpay for

Updated: May 8, 2009, 2:42 PM ET
By Patrick Hruby | Page 2

Game over. Can we all just admit it? America is up a creek, down a deep hole and facing another six innings with nothing but the Washington Natinals' Nationals' bullpen to call on. Finito. End of an era. Kaput. The surest sign of our hastening national and cultural decline, our first-class slide to second-class status?

We no longer can get what we overpay for.

[+] EnlargeYankee Stadium
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesThe new Yankee Stadium definitively proves $1.5 billion just doesn't buy what it used to.

Look around. The New York Yankees -- with more than a dash of taxpayer help -- sink $1.5 billion into a sparkling new stadium, a baseball Xanadu stuffed with every imaginable amenity save gold-lined pharaonic burial chambers. The early return on their investment? Something off a Bear Stearns balance sheet. Eyesore empty seats have forced the club to cut ticket prices; the park itself plays like an experimental home run research wind tunnel, threatening to turn the Yankees into the pre-humidor Colorado Rockies. On the field, the team forked over $341 million to acquire free-agent prizes CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira, who now qualify as toxic assets. Sabathia is 1-3, Teixeira is batting .209 and the squad, which missed the playoffs last year, is a mediocre 13-14. Even the eventual return of top-dollar, ultraluxe Alex Rodriguez ($32 million salary in 2009) promises as many tabloid headaches as runs batted in.

Of course, the Yankees are hardly alone.

Kansas City erects the $276 million Sprint Center to lure an NBA or NHL franchise. The building hosts circuses and motivational seminars. The federal government loans AIG a staggering $85 billion. The imploding insurance giant then requires another $85 billion in bailouts. The Obama administration passes a nearly $787 billion stimulus bill. The package may pull the nation out of recession. Or not. The Detroit Lions hand top overall draft pick Matthew Stafford $41.7 million in guaranteed money. But there is no guarantee that the newly wealthy signal-caller will be any more competent than Ryan Leaf.

It wasn't always this way.

Once upon a time, running up the tab beyond all reason was our strength. Our national trump card. With the possible exception of the Louisiana Purchase -- and a steadfast refusal to pay a lot for our mufflers -- bargain shopping has never been the American way. We don't do econobox coupes; we do tricked-out Hummers. Supersized freedom fries. We drop $5.6 million for Jared Jeffries, $5.8 million for Dan Gadzuric, $12.4 million for Raef LaFrentz … and then supplement our NBA stars with a $106 per diem.

And why not?

[+] EnlargeSprint Center
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelKansas City built the sparkling Sprint Center in hopes of attracting an NBA or NHL tenant.

Historically, Americans could be reasonably confident that if they would just part with enough cash -- and by "enough," we mean way, way over budget and/or sticker price -- they could enjoy adequate, satisfactory results. Enough to make the outlay almost worthwhile. The Yankees didn't win the World Series every single year, but they usually were in the hunt and generally fared better than the Kansas City Royals. A bloated, veteran-heavy NFL payroll would kill cap space tomorrow, but it got you into the playoffs today. Build a shiny arena; have a pro team move to your city. (Even better: Have the NHL create a team for your city.) Take Washington: Massive federal deficits kept the economy humming along. Gigantic boondoggle defense outlays -- SDI, anyone? -- helped bankrupt the Soviet Union. Take personal finance: Buying overvalued houses beyond one's means made sense, because they would be more overvalued in a year's time. Maxing out your credit card(s) wasn't just encouraged; in the wake of Sept. 11, it was downright patriotic.

Indeed: Let the cautious, reasonable Chinese squirrel away their undervalued yuans and boost their household savings rate. Not our bag. Not when the entire American Century was built on overdrawing our bank accounts, consuming our way to global economic hegemony, assembling an unmatched military-industrial complex with $500 Pentagon screwdrivers. In the 1990s, James Cameron was ridiculed when the budget for "Titanic" swelled to a then-unthinkable $200 million; damn if the director's boat-sinking opus didn't earn $1.8 billion globally while making Hollywood the king of the world.

Sigh. Those were the days.

In the here and now, responding to problems by tossing around greenbacks like the Washington Redskins at 12:01 a.m. the day free agency commences seems … downright ineffective. Maybe even passé. A Time magazine cover story declares "The New Frugality" (which is probably bad news for would-be Barry Zitos). The NFL draft increasingly has become an exercise in trading down, the better to pinch pennies. The Atlanta Hawks let super sixth man Josh Childress take the money and run to Greece -- and win more games this season than last. A new proposed defense budget nixes costly, whiz-bang Navy stealth cruisers and Army "Future Combat Systems" in favor of older destroyers and unmanned, unsexy aerial drones. MLS seems anxious to dump overhyped David Beckham and his overloaded contract. Isiah Thomas -- whose Jerome James-vintage New York Knicks may have been the canary in America's break-the-bank coal mine -- will be giving back his entire Florida International coaching salary, perhaps acknowledging that even a single dollar is overpayment for his services.

Game over. Can we all just admit it? No more $4 cups of coffee, no more way cool, way pricey, way unnecessary F-22 Raptors, no more constructing stadiums for pro franchises that do not have a lease deal in hand and/or exist yet. The time has come to embrace value. To bargain shop. Maybe this is for the best: After all, we're broke. Flat-out. And even when the current recession ends -- when we actually can afford to overspend once more -- we'll have to face a truth more terrible still.

Namely, what's the point of having good money if you can't throw it after bad … and hope to make bad moderately better?

Patrick Hruby is a columnist for Page 2.