The controversial Milwaukee arena deal finally cleared its final hurdle today, as the common council voted to approve the needed funding from the city. While I remained optimistic throughout the process that a deal would eventually get done, there were times that I worried the city might actually lose the Bucks.
During the debate over funding, many people from around the country weighed in with their thoughts, mostly to criticize the local politicians (and implicitly the voters and supporters of the proposed bills) that pushed to get this deal done. Here’s one example from Slate, which states that Scott Walker is blowing $250 million on the arena.
Before I talk about what’s wrong with this article (and the similar arguments given by many other critics), I’ll say that I partially agree with the sentiment of many of the opponents to this deal and others like it. It is unfortunate that taxpayers are often asked to foot the bill for new stadiums/arenas, which will serve as homes to (usually) profitable multi-billion dollar teams. Ideally, the new Bucks owners would have put up all the money to fund the arena. But that was never an option on the table. With no taxpayer contribution, the Bucks and the NBA would have left Milwaukee. Forever. Anyone who says differently or ignores that fact is an idiot or an asshole.
Sure, it’s less than great that professional sports owners are able to play cities and states off of one another to get the best deal for themselves. But I have no solution to this problem, and I’ve yet to hear a single critic of these deals offer any ideas that would stop this sort of thing from happening. The decision to pass/block the funding bill here in Milwaukee/WI came down to this choice: kick in some taxpayer money, or lose the team to Seattle or Vegas. As a supporter of Milwaukee sports, and the city in general, I supported using tax money to (partially) fund the arena.
Now back to the Slate article. There are a number of dumb things in there, such as connecting the cut in university funding (which I don’t really like) to the arena funding, which doesn’t really make sense. But the primary argument the writer makes is that the deal is bullshit because economic activity and tax revenue will not be increased by building the arena because of a substitution effect: money that fans spend in or around the arena would have been spent on other local activities anyway, so it makes no real difference. This is backed up by a body of academic studies. I think these studies are likely to miss some re-distributive effects that benefit smaller market teams (to the detriment of larger market teams) because of league revenue sharing and asymmetric fan travel (Milwaukee will get more visiting fans that wouldn’t have come otherwise than places like LA & New York), but I can’t say with certainty how much impact that will have. It might be small, or it might be enough to pay the entire bill.
My main point here is that the author of this article (and others like him) is framing the argument in a way that suits his view, while missing the whole point of this deal. Apparently, we’re “blowing” $250 million on this arena because the state won’t get extra tax revenue or the downtown area won’t see extra economic activity (which may or may not be true; see my re-distributive comments above). Anyone who says that is sidestepping the central focus here: WE GET TO KEEP OUR NBA FRANCHISE. Yes, we have to pay for it. Kinda like you have to pay for your iPhone, your TV, your internet, the books you like to read, air conditioning, you know, the stuff that you can live without but you really ENJOY HAVING.
To be fair, some of the blame for this misplaced criticism belongs to the proponents of these kinds of bills, who have first made the argument that using taxpayer money will benefit all residents. This may or may not be true, but it’s mostly done to deflect complaints from taxpayers who aren’t interested in the Bucks (or any other teams involved). To those particular critics who don’t want their tax dollars going to fund a team they don’t care about, I say this: As a taxpayer who is sometimes in the upper income brackets, believe me, I know your pain. And I offer a few words of condolence. For every dollar of your tax money that goes to this arena, I “donate” hundreds of dollars for shit that I’ll never see a single fucking benefit from. Some of these things are still worthy expenditures, some are not. Just remember many of you are still getting back A LOT more from my tax dollars than I (as a wealthy-ish Bucks/Marquette basketball fan) will ever see from yours.
Or hey, maybe I’m wrong and the Slate author is right. Anyone who spends money on shit they really want but can survive without is nothing but a wasteful fucking idiot. (I wonder how many $8 lattes that guy had the day he wrote that piece)