Guest Opinion:

Wasting Taxes On Sports Is A Favorite U.S. Pastime

By Marianne M. Jennings
May 31, 2001

It's a multimillion-dollar behemoth just beyond my back yard that lies fallow 334 days each year. Only during the merry month of March is there activity. It represents America's national menage a trois: taxpayers, sports and government subsidies. It is the Chicago Cubs' spring-training stadium, built during one of those sports franchise tantrums when club owners seeking returns on someone else's investment threaten to take their toys to St. Petersburg, Fla., or Peoria, Ariz., or any winter paradise with gullible rubes ready to ante up.

Jesse Ventura's rise to power is not such a puzzle if you know your Minnesota Twins history. Taxes built an indoor stadium about 20 years ago when the Twins whined about the weather. Then - global warming! The Twins now stamp their spikes, demanding an outdoor stadium's ambiance.

Stadiums are aggravating monuments not just to sports infatuation but economic ignorance. We taxpayers foot $100 million for the thrill of seeing guys with mullets pitch and chew. Their haircuts and Copenhagen purchases are about the extent of the ripple effects, too. A 2000 study in the Journal of Economic Perspectives found virtually no evidence of economic development from publicly subsidized sports facilities. You don't need an economist to tell you that an investment in a multimillion-dollar facility that will see 12 football games per year is not going to be a cash cow.

Taxpayers have coughed up two-thirds of the $21.7 billion, give or take a few hundred million in change, that has been spent on 95 stadiums and arenas since 1990. The return to taxpayers for their investment by conscription will never happen. The very structure of these deals, particularly in baseball, makes it impossible for an ROI. While a new stadium has its complementary sales revenue (think $7 hot dogs), that revenue is a ballplayer's field of cash because salaries are tied to those marginal increases. Dear taxpayer, when Alex Rodriguez lands a $252 million contract to play in a stadium that never sees beyond red, don't whine. These mega-contracts are your tax dollars at work.

Over the next decade, professional baseball owners have pledged $3.7 billion in salaries. They can afford it with no facilities overhead. Taxpayers are rent-free landlords, lenders who forego a piece of the action, minimal though it may be both on and off the field. Rodriguez struck out three times at bat on opening day for the Rangers.

Yet voters keep subsidizing, losing money and heeding team threats. The love affair with taxes grows steamier. Even as I write, sea to shining sea is awash in fear because Congress might reduce the marginal tax rate in the 39 percent bracket to 36 percent over the next six years. Oh, what times are these when we propose a risky scheme of lopping off $1,000 from a tax bill of $100,000. Is there no decency?

But like all affairs, this one defies logic. The government doesn't create new revenues; it spends. Mistaken that taxes are magic dust to be inhaled, hallucinating voters see government as the ultimate do-gooder, our goodly godparent who provides home-run entertainment.

This past week, I visited Vancouver the day after the party in power there was ousted by, oddly, the Liberals, who promised tax cuts. Canadian angst over the thought of cutting taxes was palpable. Featured on television that night was my hotel clerk fretting over the tax cut, after disclosing her $11,000 (Canadian) annual earnings, because she didn't want government to suffer. In her young life she had known nothing other than the Canadian government as hero and provider. She could not wean herself from government despite meager wages. Tax cuts threaten her "good life."

The government cannot deliver the good life. It can't even deliver mail as a monopolist and make a profit. Lemmings continue to believe government can spur economic development by paying for stadiums running one-twelfth of the year. So strong is the addiction to taxes and government that we voted here to spring for a new Cardinals' stadium because Bidwell and his bandits threatened to leave.

The addiction grows. One man, interviewed on CNBC, said that he would rather not have a tax cut because he wants his taxes to help the needy. Ah, mandatory noblesse oblige. This fiscally misguided soul can, along with Warren Buffett and Bill Gates Sr., who oppose elimination of the death tax, give all of his money to the government. I'll take the tax cut and give the money to charities that will be more effective, efficient and certainly more compassionate. Government is not our caregiver, provider or sponsor of all sporting events. One expects this dependency among Canadians - they are a socialist democracy. I thought we were different, but an empty stadium near my house says otherwise.

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