Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Friday, December 14, 2007

Why you should care about steroids and baseball

When scandal happened, the Romans would ask "cui bono?" - roughly meaning "who benefitted?" Lenin asked generally of capitalism "kto-kovo?" (who-whom?) meaning, who is the subject and who is the object?

One response to the steroid scandal is to punish the players for "cheating." The Republican or conservative view would be to view this issue as exclusively one of moral choice by players who deserve to be punished for knowingly making a bad choice. While the players deserve opprobrium for their actions, it is a huge mistake to insist that this is merely a matter of personal moral choice. Cicero and Lenin would disagree. The players' union protected the players, and management knowingly rewarded steroid users for pumping up statistics and attendance with pumped up salaries. Indeed, some may have outright encouraged steroid use for underperfomers. The players were also responding to market forces. So were the unions and the management, also. Marx commented in "Capital" that in capitalism it happens that people frequently make moral choices they would prefer not to make and say that they were forced into it by the market. Money, he said, becomes the subject, and we become its objects. How many bosses have cut wages or laid off employees with tears in their eyes, saying the market required it?

To put turn the steroid issue entirely into a moral lesson on individual responsibility not only misses the operation of the market system in baseball, but takes away our ability to fix the problem. As RBR can tell you better than I can, trying to prevent a person from purusing her own self interest with penalties alone is largely a doomed enterprise. Where everyone is responding to market forces, the blame and corrective efforts must also be applied strongly to those who are best able to resist market forces. Put another way, those who are motivated by economic survival and greed (players and their union) are harder to deter than those motivated by greed alone (the management). Those who knowingly tolerated steroid and HGH use should be punished as much as the players who used them. They need to be given an incentive NOT to reward the players for their steroid use.

We saw the same thing with Enron and other corporate scandals. Individuals were blamed, not the system that incentivized their behavior. Sarbanes-Oxley did not do enough to put the onus on the beneficiaries (the CEOs) to obey the law. Instead, individual corporate attorneys and accountants are again asked to risk their careers to challenge accounting practices. Auditors and accountants are punished for looking the other way, although if they had not done so, they would have been replaced by those who really had the economic power to make better choices. Conservative rhetoric about individual responsibility makes it harder to fix problems by putting all of the enforcement at the feet of those with the most perverse incentive structure.

Conservative republicans may say that I am advocating evading invidual moral responsibility, and that this is a religious issue. They see the Christian religion as preaching only about individual sinners repenting. But that is not the only valid interpetation. Jesus railed against the Pharisees in part because they created a religious and political system that made it much harder for ordinary people to make the right choices. His anger was not only at their sinfulness, but the heavy yoke they laid upon the poor. Individual responsibility should not be used to evade corporate responsibility.

I suspect this conservative individual-first rhetoric is cynically designed to prevent real change. Illegal immigration is blamed entirely on illegal immigrants, and "fixes" are addressed to punishing them, not removing the incentives that bring them here (jobs). Republican businessmen agitate against illegal immigration, but resist legislation aimed at employers that might actually work to stop immigration because want an underpaid illegal underclass. Or, as I like to say when angry, conservatism itself with its praise of self-interest is just an elaborate justification for the wealthy to keep their wallets closed.

The other conservative tack is to say "well, we're all to blame. " The fans are responsible for the baseball scandal. People who buy cheap products knowing they are produced by illegal immigrants are to blame. We must resist this rhetoric also. Collective action problems make it impossible for the general public to have an effect on these bad behaviors, even if they do bear some moral culpability for cheering and looking the other way (I myself once argued vainly that steroids were unlikely to be prevalent in baseball because the sport was more about skill than strength). Blaming everyone is a way of blaming nobody.

A regulatory scheme simply cannot be directed solely at those with the greatest moral responsibility; it must be addressed to those whose incentives can be best realigned. Because the wealthiest and most powerful are the most able to resist market forces (since they are motivated by greed rather than surival), this means that the center-left must vote to realign the incentives of the rich and powerful.


Dr. Strangelove said...

Wow. That is probably the most cogent discussion of responsibility and regulatory schemes I have ever read. You make the crucial point that the steroid scandal, like almost all such issues, is not only about individual moral responsibility but about the underlying system that misaligns incentives. That while we punish those who "cheat" we must also examine the system that strongly pushes (if not "forces") people to do bad things. Moreover, you make the comparatively subtle point that the "system" is not a faceless entity but consists of the executives who benefit from and tacitly encourage the misbehavior of their subordinates.

(And I very much appreciate your statement that sanctimoniously blaming everyone is really just a way of blaming no one. I hate that--it's usually just a cliche used to end discussions with a knowing shrug.) I also enjoyed your broader conclusion that (at least in theory) it ought to be easier to realign the incentives of those whose current incentive is merely greed rather than survival--so this is a sensible policy choice. This is a great way to think about policy options, something of which liberals should take note.

So what exactly would you recommend for the baseball steroid scandal, LTG? Would you punish management if their players use steroids?

The Law Talking Guy said...

My thoughts? Punish players, no doubt about that. Asterisk the records and remove them from H of Fame eligibility. Insist they leave the game and bar them from endorsement contracts thereafter. Tax managers for steroid use heavily. Tax them in terms of money and draft prospects. Insist that Bud Selig resign. Publicly "out" all the managers and owners who participated, even if it includes GWBush. Give them a 3-5 year deadline to resign and/or sell the teams. Force the players union to accept strong testing measures. The penalties must be high enough so that there is a real incentive for management to crack down on steroid use.

Dustin said...

What about blood testing? They say that's the best way to test for HGH. Obviously the Players' Union is against it, but is it time to start?

Dr. Strangelove said...

The hypocritical part of this whole "steroids are cheating!" mantra is that these so-called "natural" athletes will proudly ingest hundreds of different "nutritional supplements" (herbal concoctions, protein powders, etc.) in order to give themselves an edge... And yet somehow this is not considered cheating. Seeking an advantage by taking a secret ingredient is not only acceptable but often lauded. People wrongly conflate the steroid problem with the drug problem in this respect.

The only reason steroid use constitutes "cheating" is that they are on a list of substances have been declared off-limits by league rules. In principle, this list exists so athletes are not pressured to take substances that are associated with health problems--but it is my understanding that the health problems are exaggerated. You know, sometimes I wonder if supplement manufacturers aren't the ones behind this anti-steroid mania. There is a whole industry built around selling snake oil to desperate athletes. Imagine how that would be blown to bits if there were legal products that actually worked...

Raised By Republicans said...

Great post. One quibble. I doubt Karl Marx was thinking of professional athletes when he said people are "forced" into immoral choices by the market. We're talking about guys who would be making hundreds of thousands of dollars for years on end regardless of their choice. They take the 'roids for the shot at making millions. Hardly the life options Marx had in mind.

I'll leave the debate about whether Marx's views on capitalism are a useful guide for much of anything for later.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Marx was talking really about capitalists, not workers, in terms of being forced into making decisions that they might otherwise not make.

To be fair, Marx didn't really say "forced into immoral choices" - he wasn't into morality, as you know. That's sort of my gloss for the purposes of this dicussion. His observation was that the exploitation of the proletariat was not the result of bourgeois evil, but of "laws" of the market that made the bourgeois also into pawns.

As hostile as one can be to Marx, it is hard to deny that his work was revolutionary (no pun intended) in terms of economic and social theory. The idea that history as dynamic and teleological rather than static was a major break, and one that still reverberates today.

I also think that Marx's journalistic observations about 19th century capitalism remain relevant even if some of his conclusions he derived from those observations are not.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I recommend testing (blood, urine, the works) anyone who comes back from the off-season having gained more than 10 pounds of muscle. Anyone who has ever lifted weights seriously can tell you that this is an extraordinary result that should do more than just raise eyebrows.

Dead Parrot said...

As Ross Newhan wrote in yesterday's LA Times, nothing will change in MLB until the owners stop rewarding drug cheats. "Of the active players among the 86 cited by Mitchell for involvement with performance-enhancing substances . . . several already have been gifted with more millions from benevolent owners, subscribing to a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy."

Jose Guillen just signed to a three-year, $36-million contract by the Kansas City Royals

Paul Lo Duca was recently signed to a 2008 contract for $5 million by the Washington Nationals

Eric Gagne received a 2008 contract for $10 million from the Milwaukee Brewers

Andy Pettitte has already been re-signed by the New York Yankees for $16 million in 2008

Despite what you learned growing up, cheaters do prosper.

One additional point - a significant amount of fuel for this list latest firestorm of drug use in MLB was supplied by tv money, especially Fox's humongous six year, $2.5 billion contract signed in September, 2000. Baseball was so poorly regarded by tv as recently as 1997 that NBC Sports Don Ohlmeyer said, "If the A&E channel called, I'd take the call." The juicing of baseballs and the steroid epidemic coincides with the huge increase in tv money. No observer should underestimate the effect of huge tv money on owner behavior. None of them wants to jeopardize the golden goose.