Atlantic Unbound

NPR Commentary -- February 13, 1995
by James Fallows

Congress, Gridlock . . . and the Baseball Strike?

I've never bought the reverent, Ken Burns-like view of baseball as America's Soul. But the baseball strike has shown something about America's Mind, which is that some of our leaders are losing theirs.

When President Clinton suggested last week that Congress should force the two greedy sides to arbitration, Republican leaders acted shocked by this outbreak of liberal big-government thinking. Bob Dole in the Senate and Newt Gingrich in the House said it was crucial to keep Uncle Sam from "micromanaging" private disputes and instead that the market should do the job.

In reacting this way, they revealed that conservatives have not merely replaced liberals in control of Congress, they've also adopted what used to be the liberals' worst trait. They've become pointy-headed ideologues out of touch with common sense.

Every economist knows that competitive markets product good results, but economists also know that sometimes markets don't work. For example, controlling pollution. I can't afford to clean up my factory unless I know that you'll do the same at yours - so none of us will do it unless government sets rules. Markets also fail when there are monopolies, which brings us to baseball.

Nothing about the baseball dispute resembles a normal competitve market. The chairmen of the Big Three auto makers, Ford, Chrysler, and GM, could be thrown in jail if they consulted among themselves about what to pay their unionized workers. Bud Selig and his fellow owners do so without fear, protected by a 70-year old ruling from the then-80-year-old Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said that baseball was not an interstate business and therefore was not subject to anti-trust laws. There are no hard-working Korean competitors for American baseball, bidding for customers with a more efficient league. The people who are proportionately hurt worst by this stoppage - the tens of thousands of vendors and other small fry - have no voice whatever in resolving the strike. Nor apparently does the public, despite its long view that that baseball has some national role beyond that shown on balance sheets.

When markets don't work, governments have always stepped in to break logjams and represent a public interest that's being ignored. One way to do that for baseball would be, as some officials have suggested, to order the season to begin but to hold all revenues in an escrow account, to be divided up eventually on whatever terms the sides can work out. Is this, or some similar plan, the most important thing the Congress could be doing right now? Obviously not. But unlike some other legislation it would do more good than harm, and it would be a victory for common sense.

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Copyright © 1995, by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.