It’s October–with Major League Baseball and the New York City mayor’s race both in their home stretches.
Baseball fans may quibble about the way teams get to the playoffs. The “wild card” system can advance mediocre teams to postseason play. Even among first-place teams this year, the Yankees won sixteen more games than the Minnesota Twins–but all that got the Bronx Bombers was a measly home-field advantage.
This said, the system works. The playoff teams are generally good, and they play with intensity that draws even casual fans to watch. There are favorites, but MLB playoffs are literally a level playing field. This is good for the fans, the players and the game itself. When a team wins the World Series, there’s little question that it is the best. Even disappointed fans of teams that fall short respect the legitimacy of the winner.
In New York City this year’s general election campaign for mayor also brings baseball to mind–but not in a way that recalls competitive postseason play. It’s more like certain Little League games where one team shows up with all the “big kids.” The outcome of the game is not really in doubt. No one–other than a few parents of the big kids–really enjoys watching. The players seldom play their best. And just about everyone–even, one suspects, the victors–knows it’s a cheap win.
When Mayor Michael Bloomberg spends more than $100 million on his campaign–sixteen times more than his main rival–it’s not just like he’s a big kid. It’s like he’s a big kid playing with a corked bat. And he’s got a “short porch” in right field built especially for him.
In fact, it scares other big kids away from the game. Representative Anthony Weiner–who can play on the sandlots with the best of them–quite reasonably took his ball and went home. New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson stayed in the batters’ box–but constantly ducks under the mayor’s barrage of TV ads.
The city’s Campaign Finance Board has done an outstanding job in leveling the financial playing field. In fact, in September’s Democratic primaries a record number of incumbent City Council members were challenged for re-election. In part this stemmed from voter discontent with City Council’s overturning of term-limit provisions late last year; but it was restrictions on campaign spending that helped prevent these same incumbents from stockpiling an overwhelming financial advantage. However, because Bloomberg opted out from city campaign financing, the board couldn’t prevent a case involving a 16 to 1 spending advantage–no more than someone could foresee how frequently balls fly over the right-field fence of the new Yankee Stadium.
How, then, do we fix this? Let’s turn back to baseball.
Devoted fans of our national pastime can tell you that the way Major League Baseball prevents wealthy teams from buying up all the best players–thus undermining the game’s competitive balance and making the playoffs and World Series foregone conclusions–is by imposing a “luxury tax” on teams’ payrolls. Pay your team’s players–collectively–an amount above a certain threshold, and you pay a tax, proceeds from which are distributed in ways that benefit the sport overall, including subsidizing less wealthy teams.
Imagine if this principle had been applied to New York City’s mayor’s race this year–for amounts spent in excess of, say, $75 million. With the Bloomberg campaign on track to spend more than $100 million of Bloomberg’s own funds, a luxury tax on spending in excess of a limit could have provided the campaign of Bloomberg’s principal opponent, Bill Thompson, with crucial additional funds–more than enough for the challenger to get his message out without being overwhelmed in the tidal wave of Bloomberg’s effectively unlimited campaign spending.
The big kid can play–and can even keep his corked bat–but he has to bring a corked bat for the other team.
The Supreme Court ruled in Buckley v. Valeo that putting limits on spending by wealthy individuals limits free speech, but we haven’t tested the constitutionality of imposing a luxury tax on their spending above a certain limit.
While one can quibble over specifics, the concept would almost certainly increase political competition, the contest of ideas, voter interest and the likelihood that the best candidate and ideas would prevail. And it would be even more likely that the winner, having won on a playing field seen by nearly everyone as level, could rally the whole city behind his course of action.
Baseball’s got its flaws. But in important ways, it recognizes that the game’s about the fans, more than about the players or the teams. The luxury tax, in part, reflects this. As we know, baseball and politics have lots of things in common–here’s to one more.