My Proposal to Clean Up Baseball in The New York Times

In an effort to clean up the game, it is tempting to suggest the standard solutions that strengthen old rules and increase monitoring and punishments. The problem is that the scofflaws are always one step ahead of the police. We need a deterrence system that uses incentives to limit drug use.

This is from my Op-Ed in today’s New York Times: Let Baseball Players Police Themselves. My proposal is based on analysis that I present in Chapter 9 of The Baseball Economist. I offer two main suggestions that I believe would help reduce performance-enhancing drug use in baseball by getting incentives right.

First, I suggest a system of fines and bonus. This is a Pigouvian tax and subsidy system that taxes players in accordance with the external costs that users impose on non-users—users may feel the personal benefits of a higher salary outweigh the health risks—and then transfers the financial gains to non-users who earn relatively less due to the fact that they chose to remain clean. This has the deterrence effect similar to suspensions; however, the substantial fine revenue gives players who feel they are in a use-or-lose situation an incentive not to use and to identify new cheating methods.

Second, I propose handing over all monitoring and testing to the players. It is the players who suffer the most from steroids. They are in an arms races where steroids make no individual relatively better than any other player—hence, there is no financial gain—yet, users end up suffering health consequences. This resembles a prisoner’s dilemma game.

I feel that one of the reasons that players have been reluctant to submit to a testing program, despite their desire to prevent steroid use, is that the tests contain sensitive information beyond the use of performance-enhancing drugs. For example, owners would like to know what recreational drugs players are taking that might diminish their performances. Owners have an incentive to want players to use performance-enhancing drugs if it makes the players they hire better, and thus brings in more fans. I’m not saying that owners don’t care about other things, but money is certainly important to them. Marvin Miller has gone so far as to accuse owners of providing performance-enhancing drugs to the players in the past.

“In most locker rooms, most clubhouses, amphetamines — red ones, green ones, etc., were lying out there in the open, in a bowl, as if they were jellybeans,” he said. “They were not put there by the players, so of course there was no pressure to test. They were being distributed by ownership. I can’t remember ever having a proposal from the owners, that we’re going to have random testing or testing of any kind.”

I feel that the early drug-testing programs pushed by the owners were more about preventing recreational use than performance-enhancing use. Players, of course, like it when their peers use drugs to dampen performance. For this reason, the players are suspicious to have the owners involved. And the seizing of supposedly-anonymous drug tests by federal authorities in 2004 made players even more suspicious of what could happen to the samples they provide. Thus, I believe giving players full control will allow the players to adopt more rigorous testing procedures. It has the further advantage of assigning responsibility to a single party.

Feel free to add your comments below. I have many family in town this weekend, so I will probably not be able to respond quickly. I will do my best to approve comments held for moderation as soon as I can.

3 Responses “My Proposal to Clean Up Baseball in The New York Times”

  1. Kyle says:

    Great post JC. I’ve long been an advocate of this very idea. It’s always been my opinion that the Players Union dropped the ball on this one. They could and should have taken control of the situation and protected their own players interests when it was clear that ownership wasn’t interested. No 22 year old trying to stick in the majors long enought to get to free agency should have to feel pressured to take PEDs just to make that one payday. The MLBPA members health is the one that is being jeopardized, but they ignored the threat because of the monetary benefits of letting their players jeopardize their health. Every union member that didn’t demand that their union protech their health should realize they were part of the system that lead to the quagmire baseball is in today.

  2. Erich says:

    two thoughts:
    1. While this plan may curtail the demand, can you really stop the innovation that provides drugs beyond detection?

    2. Given that the players are key to your enforcement plan, is not being a snitch worth the fraction of extra bonus money a clean player would receive? On the margin, I’m skeptical that the extra reward relative to pay would work given the macho atmosphere. Also, wouldn’t this just shift the knowledge to trainers and confidants of the users, who do not share in the incentive to report?

  3. Marc Schneider says:

    It seems to me that Miller is a bit disingenous. He apparently knew that players were taking greenies, whether provided by the owners or not, and he didn’t seem terribly concerned about their consequences when he was running the union. It seems to me that, as Kyle suggests, the union could have been proactive on this matter because they knew that, regardless of effect or lack thereof on performance, these substances were not beneficial to players’ health. But they didn’t want to do anything that might depress stats and, thus, salaries, and Miller was as guilty as anyone.