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Bill Wambsganss completing his unassisted trip...

Bill Wambsganss completing his unassisted triple play in Game 5 of the 1920 World Series (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

{Originally published in the Colorado Springs Gazette as “Not one taxpayer dime for downtown stadium” on June 6, 2013}

Not one taxpayer dime for a stadium downtown. Not one dime!

I love baseball, always have. Heck, I pulled off an unassisted triple play in little league (very little league, it would never have happened with baserunners of even middle school intelligence). I like minor-league ball even more. Every seat is a good seat, the players are modest and approachable, generous with fans, always hustling. It’s a great entertainment value, a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

So why don’t I support taxpayer funds for baseball stadia? If you find that surprising, that’s a sad commentary on modern America. Are there so few of us left on the planet who can enjoy an activity without demanding a government subsidy for it?

Yes, sports stadia are subsidized all over America. I get that. But that doesn’t make it right. It’s not like politics is a rational process where benevolent, altruistic geniuses get together, rationally consider the costs and benefits, and then do the right thing. That kind of government exists only in high school civics class. There, and the delusional fantasies of liberal academia.

In fact, public money gets spent on sports facilities precisely because politics is emotional and irrational. The benefits are concentrated, the costs are diffuse. And every sports fan wants to believe. Oh how they believe. The backers of subsidies know this full well, and exploit it to the fullest.

The standard argument for subsidizing a stadium is that baseball, or any sort of sporting event, is a public good with positive externalities: “Spillover” effects somehow unique to sports that can only be captured through public subsidy. But the whole point of a stadium is to include people who benefit from what goes on inside and exclude those who don’t. That’s the opposite of a public good.

For any stadium project, some shill for the powers that be is going to trot out a study showing all the magical wealth that will be “created”: Jobs, businesses, second order economic effects. The best evidence I’ve seen shows that these studies routinely overestimate the benefits. But by the time the thing is built nobody cares any more.

More importantly is what the studies will never show, because of the questions they never ask. What about the “opportunity cost”? Every dollar to be spent on a stadium is right now, at this very moment, being spent or saved for some other economic use by consumers. We can’t know what those uses are or will be, but that doesn’t mean they’re fictional. How will the diversion of wealth from those uses impact the economy?

There are fairness issues too. The primary beneficiaries of stadium subsidies are not fans, or even players, but team owners, some of the wealthiest members of society. Defenders of markets should oppose socialism in all its forms, but socialism for the rich is particularly contemptible. If building a stadium is such an obvious money-maker, why won’t people who are skilled at making money put up their own capital? If they’re going to reap the benefits, shouldn’t they be taking the risks and not the taxpayers?

If there are private investors who want to front the money for a downtown stadium, we should welcome them with open arms, as we should any investment project. If they are worried about the regulatory environment they’d have to operate in, we ought to listen and see if their views have merit. Anything we do that discourages private investment here ought to be itself discouraged.

But that should be the extent of public involvement. Colorado Springs should absolutely establish itself as a pro-business community, where entrepreneurs are free to take risks and reap the rewards of their success. (This ought to include marijuana sales, but I’ll save that for another column).

But we also should be a pro-responsibility city, where private investment is kept separate from public money. You reap the rewards if you win; you take your lumps if you lose. Just like baseball.