The United States is known for its right-of-centre politics and love of free market economics. In some quarters the notion abounds that success and wealth is a combination of God’s favour and personal effort and that there’s no requirement to share this with anyone. Certainly not the pathetic scroungers at the bottom of the pile who are either too lazy or unskilled to have success. Taking money from the rich to support these feckless layabouts in the form of taxation and welfare will only encourage them to be even worse. It will reward their failure. Tough love is what they need, the cut-throat world of natural selection will force the best out of them.
In the UK, while those sentiments are certainly present, there has generally been a more understanding and lefty view of social welfare and the benefits system. Taxes are higher than in the US and we have the National Health Service which ensures medical care for all. But strangely, when one examines the philosophical structures of the countries’ two national sports, the situation is reversed.
Despite the joyful exuberance of the Olympic summer, the wintery tribalism of football is already lurking, ready to pounce as soon as the nights begin to draw in. Its American namesake kicked off its new season today and is followed by millions across the nation – including in the conservative heartland states of the South.
Although known as ‘America’s Game’, the National Football League’s success has been built on the model of a socialist state. It has a salary cap which limits each team’s spending, a revenue-sharing system – effectively a tax – which transfers money from the high-earning franchises to the small market teams and most interestingly of all, the NFL Draft.
The Draft is the lifeblood of the NFL. Unlike British football where each club has an academy system to develop young players, in America that job is left to the universities. The Draft is the three-day jamboree in which each team takes it in turns to select the best of the upcoming graduates from the college ranks. Like a huge American Football version of the Hogwarts Sorting Hat. But in contrast to the Randian economics of the Tea Party movement it’s not the best team that is rewarded with the first pick in the draft, but the worst.
The first shall be last and the last shall be first.
The most pathetic and miserable outfit is awarded the top pick. Next is the second most feeble until right at the end, after all the other 31 teams have snapped up the best of the talent, it’s the turn of the previous year’s Superbowl champions.
What this rather socialist approach does is create parity. Which leads to hope. Fans of teams in the doldrums know that the silver lining of a few poor seasons will be a crop of the good young players which could transform their team into winners again. This is how the New Orleans Saints could pick second in the 2006 Draft and yet win the Superbowl in 2009. And the players don’t get any say in the matter. Unlike in the UK where the best players can choose to join already established powerhouses like Manchester United, in the US the equivalent superstars have to join the teams most in need of their services.
And the salary cap ensures that Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones can’t simply buy his way to success like Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich. Before last season there had been four winners of the English Premier League since 1992, including the one-win wonders, Blackburn Rovers. Over the same period there has been 13 different winners of the Superbowl.
What interests me is that the NFL authorities seem to have realised that equality is the best environment for the game to flourish. Yet this approach to society seems to be shunned by many on the political Right.
The book The Spirit Level, by epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett shows, using evidence from 30 years of research, that more unequal societies have a much higher likelihood of social ills. From increased mental health problems and teenage pregnancies to crime rates, obesity and lower life expectancy. Even in rich and developed countries these problems persist where inequality is high. As a Guardian review of the book summarises, we do better when we’re equal.
One way society, and the NFL, redistributes wealth and reduces inequality is through taxation. By taking from the rich to provide services and build infrastructure which is used by all, including the poor, society’s wealth is rebalanced. This is why it is such a scandal when we see the rich dodging tax and using crafty accounting to minimise their tax obligations. And it’s why Mitt Romney has struggled to shake off criticism of the miserly sum he pays in taxes on his multi-million dollar fortune.
In this article, Nobel Laureate economics professor Joseph Stiglitz underlines the link between taxation and inequality. He concludes: “Tax avoidance on Romney’s scale undermines belief in the system’s fundamental fairness, and thus weakens the bonds that hold a society together.”
The redistributive power of taxation is as important for society as it is for the National Football League.
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