Big money socialism

Posted: Jul 20, 2005 12:00 AM

Politicians want to build palaces for rich people. OK, they not palaces -- they're sports stadiums -- but the difference is subtle. In recent years, New York politicians have talked about a football stadium, a basketball arena, and two new baseball stadiums. All four projects would require financial help from the government, for the stadiums, nearby facilities, or both. Why? Why should they get our money?
If the wealthy owners of sports teams want new stadiums, let them build them with their own money. They're not entitled to our money.

 Just as cities take people's homes so rich corporations can do what the politicians call "urban renewal," telling the courts economic development is a "public use," sports tycoons argue their stadiums are in the "public interest." Their politician friends tell voters that a stadium will "bring jobs," be "good for the city," "pay for itself."

 Bunk. Study after study finds stadiums cost far more than they return.

 "Assume it did create a thousand jobs," economist Mark Rosentraub, author of "Major League Losers," told me. Then a $170-million stadium costs $170,000 for every single job. "You could have done better just saying to the people who would have been hired, here's $50,000 -- start a business!"

 Subsidizing stadiums isn't capitalism -- it's big-money socialism. When the government subsidizes a stadium, it takes your money, decides for you what form of entertainment is worth funding, and makes you bear part of the cost of someone else's business.

 Most wealthy team owners would not talk to me about their subsidies. But Jerry Reinsdorf of the White Sox did. He told me the government "had to" fund his stadium. "I couldn't have" raised the money privately, he said. "You have to pay it back."

 Welcome to the real world, Jerry. Students get loans and pay them back. So do homeowners and small business owners. You want a ballpark? Build it with your money.

 "You mean, if somebody walks up to you and hands you money, you shouldn't take it?" asked Reinsdorf. "The fact is, I was offered this stadium by elected officials."


 Reinsdorf got his stadium after James Thompson, then governor of Illinois, leaned on some legislators. When the park was built, the governor threw out the first ball. Thompson and Reinsdorf are friends from law school. Cozy.

 It's Robin Hood in reverse. Politicians take money from taxpayers and give it to people like Reinsdorf and George W. Bush. (Years ago, Bush, along with his fellow owners of the Texas Rangers, got taxpayers to build the team a stadium.)

 I confronted Governor Thompson: Wasn't he just taking money taxpayers were forced to give the government and giving it to a rich friend?

 "It wasn't our tax money," he said. "I mean, the whole baseball field is built on the hotel/motel tax. Chicagoans don't pay hotel/motel tax. Guys from New York like you pay hotel/motel taxes. What a great deal."

 Not for the out-of-towners, it isn't -- and not for the Chicago businesses where they might have spent the money. Thompson's reasoning is as muddled as the fallacy in economist Frederic Bastiat's story of the broken window:

 In a small town, an idiot breaks a shop window. He's called a vandal, until someone points out that a window installer now must be paid to replace the window. The window installer then will have enough money to buy a new suit. A tailor will then be able to buy a new desk. And so on. The whole town apparently gains from the economic activity generated by the broken window. Of course, if this made sense, cities should hire people to run though town, breaking windows.

 But it doesn't make sense. It's a fallacy because the circulating money is seen; what is not seen is what would have been done with the money if the window were still whole. The shopkeeper, instead of paying the window installer, might have expanded his business, or bought a new suit or a new desk. The town is worse off because of a broken window.

 Subsidizing stadiums is equally foolish.