Friday, December 17, 2004

So, the baseball world is aghast at the apparent collapse of the Washington D.C. stadium deal, when the city council amended the deal to require some private financing. Some commenters are disgusted that you can't cut a deal with D.C.'s mayor the same way you would with a CEO. (I'm disgusted that the mayor himself was pretending that he could, and didn't make sure that he had a council majority for whatever deal he reached. But hey, that's just me).

From a libertarian perspective, Jim Henley (in his latest of several posts on the subject) is amused to observe, in a comment thread at liberal D.C. resident Matthew Yglesias's blog, ...

...some fairly determined advocacy by liberals who support the deal. Heaven knows I can't construct a principled liberal objection to stadium subventions myself - it seems to me that if you believe in the welfare state it's hard to oppose corporate welfare, at least in concept. I think this is why almost all of these deals end up going through - a critical mass of a legislature's liberal opponents eventually roll over.

And yet, strangely enough, folks here in the socialist paradise of Massachusetts seem to have managed exactly that. We've had two major sports arenas built here within the past decade: Gillette Stadium, home of the Patriots, and the building formerly known as the FleetCenter, where it is rumored that there used to be professional hockey and basketball. Both buildings were privately financed, with contributions from local government limited to relatively small amounts for transportation infrastructure and the like.

So, what might the mysterious liberal argument against publicly financed stadiums look like? Well, here's what Yglesias himself had to say, before his "liberal" commenters took their whack:

The idea that a poor, but developing city should spend a vast some of money on an entertainment project for the affluent residents of the city's suburbs is simply insane. What DC really needs is to fix its school system, but that would be hard. Easier, however, would be increasing the frequency of Metro cars on the non-Red lines, a step that would also be connected to expanded economic development in a considerably clearer way than a baseball stadium.

To put it more generally: the liberal case against stadium deals, considered as corporate welfare programs, is that they don't work. They don't meet their stated goals. They create few jobs. The people they bring in are transients who leave soon after the game is over -- or, in California baseball stadiums, three innings before that. Almost every serious study of the issue has shown that the minimal economic gains aren't worth the cost. (A sample: a few folks at Johns Hopkins got fed up with hearing about how Camden Yards in Baltimore was an exception, and did the math. It's not.) It's not that it's wrong to spend government money to create new, sustainable private sector jobs. It's that the money is better spent elsewhere -- like on, say, public safety, education and mass transit.

To turn the argument around: most libertarians acknowledge that there's a role for some government -- at least, to provide for the common defense, and to provide a court system that enforces contracts. Those libertarians believe, at least, that it's better for a government to provide those services than not. My argument for mass transit would be exactly the same: New York City tried a private mass transit system. It failed, which is why the government had to take it over. It is now run as a government program, heavily subsidized by taxes. And without it, the city would collapse. It is better for New Yorkers for the government to provide this service than not.


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