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The NFL and the Government Trough

2013 September 23
by Skip Sauer

Fall is the time for young men to battle on the gridiron, and for pigskins to fly through the air. It’s a tremendous athletic spectacle. But there’s another porcine angle to this feast of sport: the image of NFL owners as a bunch of hogs, lined up at the public feeding trough and gobbling up tax exemptions, stadium subsidies, and special legal treatment. These activities are well chronicled in Gregg Easterbrook’s piece in the October issue of The Altantic.

Easterbrook presents a several facts that are new to me, among riffs on familiar topics like stadium subsidies. It’s a good compendium of the ways in which public funds are lavished on the NFL, and other leagues as well. The story is written in a voice which asks “how can this stupid stuff — much of it involving transfers from regular citizens to billionaire owners — continue to go on?” The simplistic but correct answer is that it will continue to take place until political conditions change in a way which makes these transfers sufficiently unpopular. The recent stadium subsidy scorecard suggests that day may yet be a long way off.

One Response
  1. September 23, 2013

    I’ve addressed this political dynamic on my blog several times.

    The relatively small interest groups that benefit from such urban boondoggles have a vested interest in preventing citizens from ever examining these threshold issues. The primary economic benefit of such public projects is highly concentrated in a few interest groups, such as representatives of minority communities who tout the political accomplishment of shiny toy rail lines while ignoring their constituents need for more effective mass transit; environmental groups striving for political influence; engineering and construction-related firms that profit from the huge expenditure of public funds; and real-estate developers who profit from the value enhancement provided to their property from the public expenditures.

    As Peter Gordon has wryly-noted: “It adds up to a winning coalition.”

    Unfortunately, once such coalitions are successful in establishing a governmental policy subsidizing such urban boondoggles, it is virtually impossible to end the public subsidy of the boondoggle and re-deploy the resources for more beneficial projects.

    How do these interest groups get away with this? The costs of such boondoggles are widely dispersed among the local population of an area such as Houston, so the many who stand to lose will lose only a little while the few who stand to gain will gain a lot. As a result, these small interest groups recognize that it is usually not worth the relatively small cost per taxpayer for most citizens to spend any substantial amount of time or money lobbying or simply taking the time to vote against such boondoggles.

    But would citizens react differently if their leaders advised them that their lack of action in the face of an urban boondoggle might prevent the funding of much more beneficial projects?

    No one knows for sure. But I’d sure like to see local political leaders engage in some truth-in-advertising before the financing of such boondoggles is placed before the voters.

    We all might just be surprised.

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