Thoughts on a Baseball Stadium

As I picked up a child at the bus stop, Dan Yorke’s responses to a caller dubious about the PawSox stadium deal articulated what I take to be the best argument for government involvement:

  • Considering us as a community, lacking an in-state baseball stadium will affect the quality of life for some people negatively — maybe a relatively small percentage, but not insignificant.
  • The private organization is putting up a substantial investment and is guaranteeing a revenue stream supposedly sufficient to pay off the government-backed debt.
  • The city government is gaining a physical asset that will be available for other uses than just baseball.
  • The budget effect to taxpayers should be virtually non-existent.

This line of reasoning would be persuasive if, well, if this weren’t Rhode Island.  If we didn’t have an infamously corrupt insider system underlying everything that government does.  If we didn’t have dramatic and recent evidence that people involve government because they want to privatize profits and socialize risk.  If our entire economic development scheme weren’t already premised on using taxpayer money (or credit) to pay off companies to ignore the structural absurdity of our tax-and-regulatory regime.

In a word, we have a trust problem, and that doesn’t go away just because this particular deal involves a sport evoking sepia memories of family time or just because we smile at the image of some guy in a bear suit running around for the amusement of young and old.

We can talk about whether or not the budget hit is negligible, but if the team is coming to taxpayers, it wants something. It wants to offload the investment risk for the comfort of investors; it wants to provide a backstop for the project, generally; and it wants to make taxpayers a “partner” whose investment locks us in as a hedge against unforeseen problems or changes in the business landscape.  If a hurricane knocks out the seating, having the original debt on taxpayers’ balance sheet makes it much more likely that taxpayers will cover the repair.  Or, a la our casinos, if the team has future innovations it would like to try, taxpayers are already in on the gamble.

The complexity of the arrangement — with the city owning the stadium and the state leasing it from the city and the team subleasing it from the state — shows how this deal is fundamentally about locking Rhode Islanders in.  That’s wrong.  It’s wrong if it’s baseball or some cutting-edge venture capitalist scheme, and it’s wrong if the deal comes at a tangible cost or no budget effect at all.

Sure, if Rhode Island can no longer boast a minor league baseball team, it will leave a hole, but the thing about holes in people’s quality of life is that they will tend to be filled.  Just as we don’t need government in order to lift each other up, we don’t need government to keep us entertained.

Requiring a government subsidy (even if only to cover the risk) implicitly means that filling this quality-of-life hole with a baseball stadium is not the most efficient-in-an-economic-sense way to fill this particular hole.  Sure, one could assert that kids will just turn to video games, or something else at which we can sneer, but why wouldn’t they turn, instead, to actually playing sports?  Or maybe if the quality-of-life hole has more to do with getting out and being somewhere with other people, communities will see greater attendance at local country fairs, and that sort of thing.

For all of Dan’s reasonable points, I think he reasons backwards.  Why is it government’s role to maintain a pass time in a country that’s so rich with them?  Why should we treat taxpayers as a solvent for risk?  If it’s such a sure thing, let some billionaire build a stadium on spec and lease it to the team.  We do have billionaires, even in Rhode Island, and we should take a hint from the fact that they apparently won’t fund this project.

If you want to talk a hole in Rhode Islanders’ quality of life, start first with a moribund economy manipulated by a system of insiders who think of themselves as a corporate board or (worse) head of household for the entire state, deciding for us how we should fill the emptiness in our lives.

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