Our national disgrace

Posted: Oct 03, 2004 12:00 AM

Our national pastime has become a national indecency.

Granted, there are things worse than a public indecency: tragedies, atrocities, high crimes. But still, public indecencies irritate and disappoint ? especially when they are cheered.

In Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony A. Williams announced his plans to build a 41,000-seat, city-financed baseball stadium at a price tag of $440 million to entice the Montreal Expos to make the nation's capitol their home. And the people cheer.

Well, that's what the newspapers printed, anyway. No one I knew broke out in jubilation. But I'm sure a lot of people are very glad to hear that professional baseball will be back to Washington, after over thirty year in hiatus. Under other circumstances, I'd be cheering now, too.

But, with the current deal, any gain for District sports fans will be offset by the further erosion of a sense of decency in public policy.

Today we hardly bat an eye when a large enterprise like a sports stadium is started not by business people, but by politicians. Or when one of the poorest-run cities in the nation distracts itself from improving its badly provided essential services to engage in what has become a rich-man's luxury. Or when we see captains of industry reduced from creators of wealth to welfare addicts.

The Game Plan

It's not a done deal. Williams and his cronies still have to face a somewhat skeptical D.C. city council. Yet no one seems confident that the purchasing of city council support, by one nefarious manner or another, can be prevented.

As usual, the proponents are carefully preparing the finances to make it look like "somebody else pays." The $440 million cost of the stadium would come from selling bonds. But bonds actually have to be paid back ? in this case, from annual lease charges of $5.5 million to the baseball team's owners, taxes on in-stadium goods, and taxes on the gross receipts of area businesses that make more than $3 million per year.

The lease payments are a sweetheart deal for the baseball team, even far sweeter than the deals other politicians are awarding to other teams on the baseball dole. And surely, the team could pay for its own stadium from the barrels of dough raked in on concessions, not just a small percentage of tax heaped on top.

Yet, the most ridiculous notion is that taxes on Washington's most successful businesses will mean that the average citizen gets free baseball and a free stadium. Why don't we get these big businesses to wipe out world poverty while they're at it?

Businesses, both large and small, have an interesting way of dealing with increased costs of doing business, of which taxes are one. They raise their prices. Who do politicians think provides the $3 million or more these businesses now pull in annually? Or, they reduce costs ? and likely employment. Finally, businesses can move or choose not to locate in any city that thinks it smart to rob successful businesses to pay ransom to other wealthy moguls.

To mask the stench of this rich-man's deal ? of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich ? the mayor offers a whiff of the sweet flower of philanthropy. Through his great public wizardry, he has negotiated a subsidy so that poor children can attend these now high-priced baseball events.

But a certain stench remains.

Politicians Lob a Spit Ball

In the end, the argument is that this kind of subsidy creates jobs and profits and thus "pays for itself."

Of course, it doesn't. The so-called economics used to justify these subsidies to major league sports are worth less than the literary value of infield chatter. A simple truth remains: When it is economical to invest in a stadium, private enterprise will do so. When it is not, then it shouldn't be done.

So why has building sports stadiums become local and state government business? First, because politicians like to grab credit. They know many of us love sports. So, why not play the hero for bringing major league teams to town, or for keeping them there? And this heroism doesn't cost the politicians a thing, since they play off of the taxpayer's dime.

Predictably, once communities began to throw money at the multi-billionaire moguls who run pro sports outfits, the moguls realized that they didn't have to pay for everything any longer. Why spend your own money, or ? most importantly, risk your money ? when the communities you aim to serve will do it for you? Once subsidy is expected, the moguls can pit community against community, to see which one throws the biggest bone.

That's what happened this time. Major League Baseball, America's most beloved cartel, had bought up the failed franchise for the Montreal Expos, and has been shopping for a new home for the team. A number of communities vied to throw money to get the team. In nearby Loudon County, Virginia, politicians had even offered not only a stadium but also a brand new town to put around it.

It is really no different than the competition communities engage in to entice and pamper other big businesses. Local politicians often give all sorts of benefits away, hoping to obtain other benefits in return: mostly, jobs they can claim credit for, and more tax revenue they can spend. But the giveaways give away too much; the "special deals" in taxes and subsidies turn capitalism into a crony system of special interests and graft. As I've argued in my Common Sense e-letter, such schemes amount to the abandonment of a rule of law and any sense of fair play. Americans have embraced the principles of the banana republic, with top bananas running the republic.

It's not merely indecent. It's unjust.

Batters Up

And along with the corruption of our local governments and the rip-off of taxpayers, comes the corruption of baseball. It is not the fans' game anymore, but an orgy of big business and big politics.

The lesson to draw from this should be as simple as catching a pop fly: Baseball doesn't need government help.

But it does need our help to kick the government habit. Opposition to sports subsidies could and should become the next great citizens' movement. If you want to restore dignity to America's pastimes, start by taking them off the dole.

When that happens, I think we'll all have reason to cheer.