Moneyball Slavery

Moneyball is a good movie – it is fun to see an underdog economist start a revolution somewhere. (Though I’d be more inspired if I could see more clearly how the world is better because of this revolution. Are fans happier now? Players? Who?)

Along the way, the movie vividly depicts profit-driven buying and selling of people, over which the people involved have little say. If traded, players must immediately move across the country, with little compensation. On the screen, it sure looks a lot like slavery. But I can’t find a single mention of slavery in any of the Moneyball commentary. It seems viewers don’t even notice the issue — even viewers who don’t know or care much for baseball, and doubt baseball makes the world a better place.

This supports the theory that we see “slavery” as low status by definition – so by definition anyone high status can’t be a slave. You may recall that in May I wrote:

Bryan is probably right – we don’t call conscripts slaves, but do call comfort women slaves, because the first is high status and the second low. … On reflection, the main effect here is probably that many people take “slavery is bad” to be part of the definition of slavery. So therefore by definition anything good cannot be slavery. (more)

Here is some detail on trading of baseball players:

Players eligible for neither free agency nor salary arbitration are very seldom offered contracts for much more than the league minimum salary, as the player has no recourse to try to obtain a better salary elsewhere. For this reason, in the first three major league years of their careers (except for the “Super Two” exception above), it is standard practice for players to accept comparatively low salaries even when their performance is stellar. (more)

Added 10a: It is possible to be sold into slavery, or to sell oneself into slavery, so up front compensation is consistent with slavery. The key is that while you are a slave you have little control over what you do. The “degree” of slavery is set by the size of the penalty if you don’t follow orders. A death penalty makes for a strong slave, while merely being fired from your current job with many similar jobs available makes for a rather weak “slave.” In baseball, the penalty is pretty big — never again working in your chosen profession and life-calling, and having almost no prospect for anything remotely as fun or profitable. For an analogy, imagine that if you don’t do what your boss says, you must to move permanently to a poor country where you don’t know anyone and have no unusually valuable skills.  That is a strong enough commitment that I’d be tempted to call it “slavery.” Even though you still have a choice.

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  • Andy

    This very clearly differs from slavery in that the players can choose to quit and not play baseball in MLB. It’s no different than if your company with 30 offices decides to move you to another one.

    • gwern

      A baseball player who quits is forfeiting a good deal of money (and given how much they have invested in becoming a baseball player, they probably don’t have many other options). A slave who buys his freedom, as is a very common feature of slavery especially in the ancient world, is forfeiting a good deal of money.

      Is the difference between forfeiting future money and present money all that is necessary to distinguish between slave and non-slave?

      • Dan Weber

        Something seems wrong with the construction that “they are paid so well that they don’t want to give up their careers, so they are slaves.”

      • Future money?

        That’s future money most people never see.

        You have no inherent right to money that you have not earned.

        Is everyone else a slave? They don’t even have the option to work in the MLB, they’re stuck with the option “Forfeit that future money.”

  • M

    People who were the property of others in the ancient or medieval Muslim worlds, but high-status, were still referred to as slaves, and are by us today; non-permanent conscripts, however low their status, were and are not.

    • Douglas Knight

      I think overuse of “slave” is basically a translation error. The US had a narrow usage of “slave” but translates wider terms from other languages, probably because of etymology and historical translation choices. If “serf” were from a distant culture, it would be translated as “slave.”

      • r

        I usually see “mamluk” left untranslated, which is probably for status reasons, especially since the Mamluk Sultanate was a thing that existed.

      • joshINHB

        If “serf” were from a distant culture, it would be translated as “slave.”

        No, serfs were not chattel property that could be bought and sold. And they did have recognized if constrained rights.

  • These days, those days

    There is one surprising similarity between baseball players and slaves. They are both “traded” from one boss to another: a decision which is made unilaterally by the bosses, with no official input by the subordinate. What other occupation in a free society could be spoken of in this way?

    This similarity would probably be more often noticed if baseball players weren’t a suitably high-status occupation. Or, more likely, people would be uncomfortable speaking of a moderate-status employee being “traded” from one employer to another like chattel, and so the phraseology and practice of “trading” someone between employers would fail to take root in an egalitarian culture. But since baseball players are high-status, they can receive this kind of treatment without becoming low-status.

    • joshINHB

      The baseball players are not compelled to labor on the threat of violence. They can not be bought or sold. They are not slaves.

      This idiotic meme needs to die because it cheapens the true horror of slavery.

  • Justin Ross

    It is common for some players to negotiate specific “trade clauses” into their contract. It can be the case that the player has veto power over trades, or must receive a bonus if traded. You can probably see why a player might forgo these clauses in exchange for higher compensation, ergo, I think the slavery analogy does not apply.

  • Albert Ling

    I find it a poor comparison… the most important marker of slavery in my mind is the fact that there is “no way back” from a contract. A player can always forgo his salary and quit the job.

    that said, I don’t see why people shouldn’t be able to sign contracts that agree to slavery. Contracts should be very long so there are no mistakes, but rational individuals can do as they will.

    But i don’t think sons of slaves should be property of the owner, that is a sure way of creating a permanent underclass and very senseless

    • Albert Ling

      i just realized there are several jobs today that workers temporarily at least cannot quit their jobs, astronauts on long missions come to mind.

  • g

    It seems bizarre to me — and not, I think, merely because I assume that anything good can’t rightly be called “slavery” — to use the word “slavery” to describe a situation where *in order to keep your very highly paid job* you are occasionally required to move across the country.

    If I’ve correctly interpreted the tables I found on the web (I know next to nothing about baseball myself), most MLB teams have a median salary of about $1M; the lowest median salary is $450k. Maybe players in the first few years of their major-league careers are paid somewhat less (can anyone tell me how much less?) but if they have the prospect of (let’s say) a $500k salary in a few years’ time, that seems like a reasonably price to pay.

    So. They can leave any time they want to; the only price they pay is having to find another job. They are extremely well compensated for what they have to do. No one is claiming to own them. They can do (about as much as anyone else) what they like when they aren’t on the job. No one else gets the right to abuse them with impunity. They are not regarded as inferior or subhuman. They have all the same rights as everyone else (property ownership, voting, marriage, etc.).

    I think the fact that Robin hasn’t seen anyone else calling this slavery is sufficiently explained by the fact that it has almost nothing in common with slavery.

    (For what it’s worth, I *would* call conscription slavery, or at least something very like it and with most of the same moral problems.)

    Robin, are you operating with a specific definition of slavery? If so, what is it and why do you prefer that definition? To make MLB players out to be slaves, it seems like you have to use some definition like “Someone is a slave if another person’s financial transactions can impose substantial obligations on them”, but that seems to have so little in common with the way the word “slavery” is usually used that I suspect I’m missing something.

    • Khoth

      I suspect it’s part of some “slavery isn’t always bad” thing for his future em dystopia.

    • Dan Weber

      I’m not as big into baseball as I was, but I think the minimum salary is something like $200,000 these days.

      For six months a year, a player basically travels all over the country; and will be in his “home city” half that time. Oh, and spending a month in Florida in the spring. If my family doesn’t want to move, I’ll maintain a small apartment in my new home city.

      If this is a hardship, sign me up.

      The bigger issue that players tend to burn out quick, and have a culture that doesn’t save up money for a very long post-retirement.

  • JF Sullivan

    Re: Who’s Happier in the Post-Moneyball Revolution

    I’d say fans and the sport in general and not because of the product on the field. The market inefficiencies that sabermetrics pointed out were quickly resolved by other teams doing this (most notably, the Red Sox hiring Bill James) resulting in a return to the Pre-Moneyball equilibrium of the rich teams leveraging their payroll to buy players and some good middling teams doing well through better forecasting of young players and prospects (the Cleveland Indians who should be a lot worse in the last decade considering how horribly they’ve drafted, still cultivated two Cy Young winners and other young talent through comically lopsided trades).

    So the reason why the fans were the winners was that sabermetrics has opened up a growth area in MLB analysis so sites like Grantland can create a 24/7 community of fans churning mounds of data both in parallel to games and even in the offseason. This then in turn makes the MLB’s product more desirable as the fans have grown their consumption levels: it creates the year round excitement that only the NFL (with the draft) previously had (now with the winter meetings and the hotstove) as well as a feature in baseball that isn’t easily replicated in other sports (baseball is more easily modeled than basketball or football and efforts to build VORP or WAR equivalents in those sports haven’t been nearly as effective. The promise of front offices exploiting such things, say the Houston Rockets, has dimmed significantly over the last few years and unless there’s a major breakthrough, the statistics rich features of baseball will continue to be unique).

    • gwern

      But, if baseball were simply an efficient market where the wealthiest team ‘buys’ its victories, doesn’t that make fans unhappy? Who wants to go watch the Yankees win a game like they have the last 100 times because they have such a huge budget? The randomization is a key part of sports (and gambling…).

      So if anything, I would expect the elimination of inefficiencies to make wins/losses more predictable, and hence, the game less interesting to fans.

  • Pingback: Major League Baseball Players Aren’t Slaves « squarelyrooted

  • Anonymous

    Before free agency existed, a prominent baseball player sued his league (originally) under the 13th amendment, asserting that being traded was equivalent to slavery:

    • JJJ

      What surprises me is that players are still locked to the team that brought them through the minor leagues for about the first 5-6 years of their career. Being locked to a team for your entire career is slavery but being locked to them for only 5-6 years is not? That doesn’t make any sense.

      For the details: You need 6 years of service time to become a free agent. Usually for the first 3 years of service time you’re paid the major league minimum which is about $400,000. The average salary in MLB(all players) is about 3 million dollars. For years 4-6 you go to arbitration. The player and the team pick a number for your salary and then the arbiter picks the “best” number. Typically players get 40%/60%/80% of their free agent value in years 4/5/6. Finally once you get free agency after year 6 you can go on the open market and let teams bid for you. Now you’ll get paid big time!

      Developing players is so valuable to clubs because the players are cost controlled and guaranteed to be with the club for 6 years. For example, Tim Lincecum of the SF Giants won an award for being the best overall pitcher in the national league in 2008 but in 2009 his salary was $650,000. I believe the club could have paid him something close to the minimum of $400,000 but to be nice gave him a raise. He would probably be worth about $20 million(or more!) on the free agent market that year. These cost controlled players may be beneficial to MLB as a business since it makes investment in new players much more valuable. This investment may help to get the best athletes of the United States and the World to become baseball players rather than football or basketball players.

      Tom Tango, famous sabermetrician, on his blog refers to the players with 1-3 years of service time that are earning the major league minimum as slaves.

    • FiftySeven

      I think he specifically described himself as a “well-paid slave.” Very in line with Hanson’s observations about status and slavery.

  • Sister Y

    According to an Eleventh Circuit opinion from 2004, prostitutes in Atlanta have many characteristics of being enslaved, but may move from pimp to pimp at will to some degree, such that one wonders if lateral mobility, forced or otherwise, is relevant to the slavery question at all:

    Despite the pimps [sic] best efforts to subjugate their prostitutes, the rules allowed a prostitute to move from one pimp to another by “choosing.” This was accomplished by the prostitute making her intentions known to the new pimp, and then presenting the new pimp with money, a practice known as “breaking bread.” The new pimp would then “serve” the former pimp by notifying him that the prostitute had entered his fold. The former pimp was bound to honor the prostitute’s decision to choose her new pimp. A prostitute who frequently moved from pimp to pimp was known as a “Choosey Susie.” And, a prostitute might “bounce” from pimp to pimp by moving among different pimps without paying for the privilege of choosing.

    Choosing another pimp was not without risk for the prostitute. A prostitute
    could be punished for merely looking at another pimp; this was considered “reckless eyeballing.” Owner pimps apparently were afraid that if their prostitutes were sufficiently impressed with another pimp’s vehicle, clothes, and manner, she might choose a new pimp.

    Other rules governed a prostitute’s conduct. She was required to surrender all of the money from her dates; if she did not, she would be guilty of “cuffing.” She was also required to unquestioningly obey her pimp and treat him with respect; if she did not, she was “out of pocket.” At the whim of her pimp, a prostitute was obligated to have sexual intercourse with him, another pimp, or even another prostitute.

    The pimps sometimes brutally enforced these rules. Prostitutes endured
    beatings with belts, baseball bats, or “pimp sticks” (two coat hangers wrapped together). The pimps also punished their prostitutes by kicking them, punching them, forcing them to lay naked on the floor and then have sex with another prostitute while others watched, or “trunking” them by locking them in the trunk of a car to teach them a lesson.

    …A prostitute charged $30 to $80 for each trick, and was required to turn over all of this money to her pimp. Some pimps gave their prostitutes a “quota” to earn over $1,000 a night

    • Silas Barta

      Are we reading the same excerpt, Sister_Y? That doesn’t sound like anything close to being able to switch pimps “at will”. Generally, the term means that you won’t be beaten or have your earnings seized for doing so.

      • Sister Y

        Beatings and having earnings seized are conditions of the prostitutes’ ordinary existence, not special consequences that apply only when they exercise their limited right to change owners. The fact that these prostitutes have some (limited, as I note) ability to change owners does not seem to render them non-slaves, nor does the fact that baseball players’ owners sell them at will seem to render them slaves.

      • Silas Barta

        They receive additional beatings and seizers for changing pimps, indicating that the abuse is specifically for switching rather than a normal part of the job, so it does show up as a cost of switching, a cost normally sufficient to deem it “not at will change of boss”.

        Furthermore, if any prostitute trying to quit entirely is indeed hunted down and beaten more severely, that would further refute your characterization of that group of workers as a counterexample to “no choice implies slavery”.

        Is there any particular reason you want it to be true that one can be a slave while still having free choice of work?

      • Sister Y

        What I’m saying is that being unable to choose one’s employer/owner is neither necessary (Atlanta prostitutes) nor sufficient (baseball players) for slavery. Nothing to do with choosing one’s work.

        It seems that, despite the costs, the Atlanta prostitutes can and do change owners (else why the concept of a Choosey Susie, seriously?). This does not seem to change the fact that their existence seems in line with our concept of slavery.

        Whatever happens to women to get them to enter prostitution, in many cases they aren’t physically imprisoned or under threat of violence at all times if they wish to leave. Nonetheless, it’s hard to see it as a perfectly free choice to stay. To the extent that I “want it to be true” that one can be a slave despite having some measure of choice, it is because I think it’s an accurate description of the world – we’re enslaved by our biological needs and our brain adaptations, not (exclusively) by other people (who may only be exploiting our biological needs/brain adaptations).

  • Lord

    While we do speak of wage slaves, foregoing a large income to not comply with the requirements of a profession is usually not considered slavery, which is something bad rather than good. Should CEOs be considered slaves since the likelihood of a transition to another firm is remote? It trivializes the notion of slavery which is having few options. Players may have few options if they want to continue in their line of work, but they are flush with options from the money they have already made. They have the option to not work at all, a greater option than most of humanity.

  • Andy McKenzie

    Robin, it seems to me that you use the word “slavery” much differently from other people. To most people, the key component of being a slave is not that you are “bought and sold”, but rather that you are unable to opt in and out of the arrangment.

    The more appropriate buzzword you may be looking for is that the players are “exploited.” And many have indeed made *these* arguments about (subsets of) MLB players, see for example here.

    Thus, this is a semantic argument and does little but (credibly) signal your ability to hold disfavorable opinions when you find them more persuasive.

    • Jayson Virissimo

      To most people, the key component of being a slave is not that you are “bought and sold”, but rather that you are unable to opt in and out of the arrangment.

      “Selling yourself into slavery” (opting-in) and “buying your freedom” (opting-out) seems to have been a standard practice within the institution of slavery for thousands of years across numerous nations, so there seems to be something wrong with defining slavery as the inability to do so.

  • Dave

    The Children of Israel sold themselves into slavery to Pharaoh so they could eat.There was a famine. People who become professional baseball players have “eaten and slept” baseball since childhood. How are they to market their skills other than to sell themselves to professional baseball?
    It is the only way to get paid for playing childhood games.

    There is a pyramidal structure to baseball beginning in grade school. People who can’t play well are progressively weeded out. First Little League, then higher and higher levels. Those who do not make it to the next level are not paid,nor are those who do. They must be slaves. But pros?

    The pros get paid. So if they are paid,how can they be slaves?Do slaves have contracts, agents and legal recourse?Who beats them if they don’t show up at a game? How has the concept of voluntary exchange been violated? True there are limited employers and noncompetitive clauses but the same thing occurs in other industries.They can always go to Japan if good enough. The analogy begins to break down rather quickly.

    • Ari T

      “The pros get paid. So if they are paid,how can they be slaves?”
      Have you not read Robin’s posts on Em’s and economics. With enough labor, you would basically have subsistence level wages. Maybe you wouldn’t call that slavery, but it isn’t that far. This is a good way to understand the abstract concept of slavery does not have to involve non-voluntary contracts. Even voluntary institutions can great de facto slavery given right conditions. This is a good thing to keep in mind when you talk about what morality, especially of that of freedom.

  • Gabriel Rossman

    The Hollywood studio system was unraveled in part by the application of California laws against slavery (specifically, debt peonage) to studio contracts in DeHavilland v Warner Brothers

  • Paul

    “Slavery” requires more than “my employer tells me what to do and I feel he is unreasonable”.

    Previous posters use the following req’s:
    1) Slaves cannot negotiate contracts.
    2) Slaves are not paid, cannot buy/own anything.

    I do not find Ari T’s response to (2) convincing…the productivity gains from EM’s surely translate to more goods at lower prices, empowering even subsistence-wager-choice? Is ‘slavery’ == ‘has a job’?

    Without a definition the discussion is meaningless.

  • mtc

    Though I’d be more inspired if I could see more clearly how the world is better because of this revolution. Are fans happier now? Players? Who

    Economists? Seems like this movie might be good for a little upward status bump, no?

    I guess with anything that’s basically zero-sum like sports, innovations especially when they are widely adapted aren’t going to do much for global welfare (and the argument with Moneyball is that it basically makes the game more boring even though you have to abide by it to win now).

    But maybe now with a movie that looks to be a hit a large portion of the public will be introduced to the idea that using rigorous statistical models rather than relying on untested traditional wisdom (the intuition of scouts) is a good thing (or even heroic, based on the previews). That seems like a positive outcome.

  • Sean C.

    It was touched on above, but bears repeating. Only the major leagues are compensated way above the norm. Most professional baseball players are in the minor leagues, where they only earn moderate salary, and many work regular jobs during the off season. Maybe only 1 in 10 taste the big show, and some smaller number hit the free agency jackpot. (

    But they still gave up all that freedom. I don’t know why anyone does it.

    To quote Bull Durham: “Well, my triple-A contract gets bought out so I can hold some flavor-of-the-month’s dick in the bus leagues, is that it? Well, fuck this fucking game! I fucking quit! …. Who do we play tomorrow?”

    • Lord

      But if they are in the minors with low compensation, their alternatives aren’t great either, or even better than being in them, which would not make them slaves

  • Michael Wengler

    Robin, if you were not quite as successful as an academic as you are, would the having tenure make you a slave?

    I think when the “owner” cannot beat you, kill you, imprison you, rape you, or have you forcibly returned to him when you run away, that you get too far away from the idea of slavery to retain value in the term. Perhaps we are all slaves to the contracts we have entered, I will have to give 1/2 my income to my wife even if we divorce. I lose piles of options and RSUs if I leave my job.

    But if we use the word slavery for these things, then I think we need a new word to distinguish arrangements where I can be killed, imprisoned, raped, beaten, and forcibly returned to my owner. Because that is a pretty spectacularly different state of affairs than being an MLB baseball player.

  • Andr

    Some people commenting don’t seem to recognize that all forms of wage labour are slavery i.e. wage slavery. We’re forced to work in order to obtain what, for hundreds of thousands of years, was free: Food, Shelter, Security. Wake up, you are all slaves.

    • g

      Andr, they were never free; if you wanted them you always had to work and/or fight for them. The only thing that’s changed is that now you can work for money and buy food/shelter/security with money, rather than working to find your own food, build your own shelter, and defend yourself from predators. If you want to escape “slavery” by returning to a foraging state of nature, I’m sure you can find some suitably remote part of the world where you can do that. Have fun.

      • Andr

        Interesting points, Greg. But i think you may have been reading your own assumptions and beliefs into my statement.
        I never suggested a return to a forager way of life (though even this would present a misapprehension of the facts, since thousands of people worldwide still preserve this way of life, so it wouldn’t be a “return” in any sense) nor did I imply that people living in traditional communities don’t have to work to obtain the things they need to survive.
        Of course they have to work, but they don’t have to perform arbitrary repetitive tasks to produce garbage that doesn’t benefit anyone for a fictional authority to fill an account with numbers with imaginary meaning just to get a hunk of pork and a few pounds of potatoes.
        I would have no problem with working in a production-based market to earn money to buy the things I need if we lived in a utopian capitalist(or socialist) fantasy world where our work is met with proportionate pay and we, as competent, educated members of our culture had a real say in the market arrangement.
        Unfortunately that’s not the world we live in. Normal everyday people in every “modern” nation are compelled to work long hours in debilitating jobs in order to increase the market-share of nearly invisible economic giants whose only goal is to grow material wealth at the expense of all other types of wealth, regardless of harm done to people, society, or the places we live.
        I don’t like that there is no such thing as clean fresh water left on earth.
        Even if escaping to some remote corner of the planet to live-off-the-land in some noble savage paradigm were feasible, it wouldn’t be something that appealed to me. It would necessitate abandoning all of my other brothers here in civilization who aren’t even aware that there are other ways to make a living.

    • Anonymous

      Well, if you happen to have money, and live in a somewhat free society like the US, you’re not forced to do any of these things. If you don’t have money, you can at least choose your employer, or become homeless or die. You’re not directly enslaved either, even though it’s close to it.

      I think the far more dangerously non-consensual parts start when people can’t even choose to die painlessly, e.g. because they are commited against their will, or they are children and under physical restrictions by their parents, or they are prison inmates or paralyzed or elderly or their suicide methods fail even after good preparation. I think these are far more dangerous, because they can very easily shift life from “somewhat acceptable” to “fate worse than death”.

      • Andr

        Well put, but note also that many cultures, when faced with the option to willingly opt in to the wage-slavery system or die to defend their way of life, have chosen the latter.

      • Anonymous

        Well, I don’t think I ever claimed employment is better than death. Temporarily maybe. God knows I’m not going to do it for decades.

    • Andr

      Also: I should have said “Wake up, We are all slaves.”

      • Anonymous2

        (NOTE: I normally use Anonymous, but I want to distinguish myself from the poster using the same name in this argument)

        Andre seems to make a distinction between ‘meaningful’ and ‘non-meaningful’ work. There is an argument that we are almost all wage slaves (possibly even the CEOS themselves, given that they work for companies doing meaningless work, but presumably excluding those that do meaningful work), but there is also the argument that most people in history have never been free, including those in tribes, because they had to work for a living and because the option of moving tribes was constrained by psycological taboos.

      • daedalus2u

        I would define “meaningful work” as actions with positive Pareto efficiency.

      • Andr

        I think a distinction between meaningful and meaningless work can be made, and indeed probably should be made–I was trying to draw a draw attention to exploitative work as opposed to other kinds.

      • daedalus2u

        I would define “exploitive work” as actions with negative Pareto efficiency. The person who is exploited is the person who is made worse off.

  • Dave

    There is one thing worse than being a slave to a professional baseball team. Being released.
    I bought a Chevy from a car salesman who was a rather young former major leaguer. When you think of how much these guys put into their careers from such an early age; It may or may not be unjust but it can be sad.