Monday, May 06, 2013

Ross Redux

You've got something on your chin there, Ben.
The first rule of standing in a hole is "stop digging". Dolphins owner Stephen Ross clearly doesn't get this.
Or maybe he does, and he keeps digging anyway because he's got the mineral rights. Either way, it's going to get ugly.

The latest bit of Ross-inspired outrage came with the news that local politicians spiked the notion of putting a ballot referendum out there on whether the city - fresh off getting fleeced like a guy with a rasta banana doll on a carnival midway - would pony up $350M to spruce up his stadium so it could get "considered" for future Super Bowls.
Now, considering that the stadium in question hosted the Super Bowl as recently as 2010 with no issues (and no sudden power outages), the notion that it suddenly needs a couple of hundred million in upgrades to do the same again is more than a little dubious. It's a case of the NFL flexing its cartel muscles, giving Ross the ammo to run to daddy - or the public treasury - crying that the cool kids won't come over to his house to play unless he gets the taxpayer-funded equivalent of a Tickle Me Elmo, a PS3, and a pony. In small children this behavior is corrected, in billionaire businessmen it's masked by PR campaigns that attempt to convince people they're doing it for the good of the city.
It is true that the politico who stopped this thing from getting in front of voters (at tremendous public expense) may or may not have done so because he thought squashing it would make him look good for a potential run at statewide office. That's as may be; in South Florida even when the good citizens vote down public funding for a stadium it tends to get built anyway, so anyone decrying this as a failure of democracy clearly hasn't been reading the papers. Also, last time I checked people elected officials to make calls like these so every budget line item didn't end up getting put to a popular vote, but hey, what do I know.
Of course, in the wake of this getting shot down, the Dolphins are on the PR offensive, as are their proxies. Read message boards and they're full of comments like:

  • "This is going to cost jobs" - Actually, study after study shows that ballpark spending generally produces relatively few jobs, which are generally low paying, and that the money would have been better spent elsewhere. 
  • "This is going to cost us a Super Bowl, which is going to cost the area money" - Look at the numbers and cities generally see $30-$90M in additional economic activity from a Super Bowl, which is much less than the NFL promises. That's also a lot less than cities generally spend preparing to host the game. Now, if that money is spent on infrastructure improvements that continue to benefit the city long after the game is gone, maybe it's supportable. If it goes purely into the stadium and the rest of the city doesn't benefit, well, not so much. Spend $350 to make $90, you're a lousy poker player. Spend $350M to make $90M and you're on city council until the next election rolls around.
  • "All the money would be coming from tourists, so who cares anyway" - Those of use who'd be vacationing in Miami, for one. And the local merchants who are seeing more of the money that might be spent on them go poof into Ross' pocket. And if we're going to get really feisty, we can point out the number of times financing packages for stadium renovations have fallen short when based on "tourist taxes" and whatnot, with the shortfall coming out of local tax revenues. 
  • "We might lose the team if they don't get this!" - Let's parse that for a bit. If a team in the biggest professional sports league in America, located in one of the biggest, hottest markets in the country and valued by Forbes at over a billion dollars supposedly can't make it without $350M in public funding to spruce up their cash cow concrete pile, then pack up the NFL now because nobody's making any money. Except, whoops, they're all rolling in cash, as they like to remind the world any time except when they're begging for a public handout.

And make no mistake, the Dolphins are already making Sad Face and saying that their future is "bleak" in South Florida without that money, and that the owner might have to sell, and that God is presumably killing kittens somewhere to punish South Florida for their temerity in refusing the Dolphins their money.
But look around, and you see some interesting things. You see taxpayers making up the shortfall in gambling-derived funds for the Vikings. You see the giant charlie foxtrot that is the new Yankee Stadium deal, complete with parking garage boondoggle. You see the toxic swamp that is the Marlins' stadium deal, which sucks money out of the public pocket from every possible angle. And you see big-time free market advocate Stephen Ross suddenly go faux-Keynesian in demanding $350M of public money for his business, and you think, maybe, this crap's got to stop.
Me, I don't believe the Dolphins will ever move. I don't think they need $350M of taxpayer money to lure a Super Bowl back to south Florida, not when the next few are going to be in places like New York and probably San Francisco in winter. I do think there are going to be bullshit arguments and doomsday predictions from the NFL's pocket press, and I do think that ultimately the public's going to end up paying for at least some of Mr. Ross' office improvements.
But in a time when public spending for the common good has been unceremoniously dumped on the chopping block and the mere thought of a tax hike is enough to give half of DC Grover Norquist-induced vapors, the temerity of calling for increased taxes to go into directly into a private company's coffers is more than a little repulsive.
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