Ballmer Rides Again. Capitalism At Work

The saga continues for L.A’.s second best basketball team, if you don’t count colleges. If there was a satirist as skillful as Swift or Austen, Waugh or Amis pere at work today, here’s material ready made for them. But why bother? Truth is increasingly more hilariously ironic than fiction.

The ancient owner of the Clippers, Donald Sterling, is caught whispering not-so-sweet racist somethings into the ear of his mixed race “companion.” A “shocked” NBA decrees he is too bigoted to be a plantation owner any longer. Even more piquant, the other woman (his wife) is given the power to find a buyer since he is banned from touching the asset in any way. Vengeance is mine, saith the wife.

Before you can say rich boy’s toy, who should step forward but Steve Ballmer, recently deposed as crown prince of Microsoft, a company whose growth during his 13 year tenure as CEO flat-lined while rival Apple was blowing the doors off.

As so often happens in corporate America, Ballmer was richly rewarded for failure. His absurd bid of $2 billion for the hapless Clippers is only about ten percent of his net worth, but was more than enough to outbid a group made up of people normally too rich to bid against — David Geffen, Oprah, Larry Ellison. You know what Ballmer has to be thinking, “Take that, successful business people!”

So Sterling’s punishment, for being caught saying the sort of thing you suspect half the owners may be thinking, is to accept $2 billion for a team he bought in 1983 for $12.5 million. That comes to a pretax return of 15,900 percent. That ought to teach him a lesson in manners.

As for Ballmer being willing to splurge so wildly for the Clippers, a wag on the Motley Fool Money podcast noted that he’s got lots of experience overpaying for worthless properties. During his tenure, Microsoft blew a half billion on the soon forgotten Kin, wrote off $6.2 billion for aQuantive and booked a $900 million loss for Surface RT. Good going, Steve.

Now he’s joining an exclusive club where his harshest critic, Adam Hartung of Forbes, says he’ll fit right in. Hartung has faulted Ballmer for failing to innovate at Microsoft. While competitors sprinted ahead, he sneered at the iPhone and other new new things. Instead, his business plan was to keep milking the cash cows by forcing users of Windows and Office to keep paying for periodic upgrades. Even there he failed. The upgrades were often more like downgrades — the hated Windows ME, the even more bitterly loathed Vista and the greatest gift to cyber crime ever, the virus friendly Explorer 6.

Luckily for him the NBA, like all pro sports leagues, is all about milking cash cows. There’s no real business competition. The game is rigged to enrich all owners through shared media revenues. Even if your team is vile, people will show up to watch them get beaten by good teams. Best of all there’s no risk of innovators crashing the party. The members have to vote to admit any new members to the club, like Augusta National.

This means genuinely gifted owners are not much more likely to prosper than incompetent clowns, but no one is going to lose his shirt. You know, socialism for rich guys. It also means a fair share of owners are Ballmer-like autocrats who, in the immortal words of Jim Hightower describing George H. W. Bush, were born on third base and think they hit a triple. Hartung delicately describes Ballmer as a short-tempered, obnoxious, egotistical business failure. In short, a kind of non-racist version of Donald Sterling.

On the other hand, the world should probably be grateful he has chosen sports mogul as his retirement hobby. Bill Gates is off trying to cure malaria. If Ballmer had decided to emulate him, the death toll in the third world would undoubtedly spike higher. Instead, he can preside into his dotage as the maximum leader of the NBA’s equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters’ patsy opponents, the Washington Generals. Go Clippers.

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