Bread and Circuses

One of the big reasons Republicans hate Obamacare (or any program designed to benefit others) is that Democrats typically want to fund it with higher taxes on the richest among us. The wealthy ask, “Why should the government take our money so that someone else can avoid paying their fair share?”

The argument seems to make some sense at first, until you realize that no one benefits from government handouts and subsidies more than rich people. There are a million examples, big and small, in the tax code alone, from reduced capital gains taxes to capped Social Security deductions to generous estate tax treatments. But there are reasonable discussions to be had around these issues that don’t always center on the greediness of the upper crust.

There are plenty of other examples outside the tax code as well. Defense contractors, private prison operators, for-profit “education” operations whose customers get government loans, oil companies who lease public lands for exploration or other operations, and many many others are producing healthy balance sheets for private citizens with the taxpayers’ money providing the income. Again, the picture is somewhat clouded by arguments that these businesses provide something necessary to the taxpayer, and they do it better than the government itself could, so quit with all the whining already.

And, of course, our beloved man-baby has been one of the best of all time. Bankruptcies, bond issues that were worthless, tax breaks, and more have all taken advantage of the taxpayer to line one individual’s pockets.  He’s quoted in this New York Times article about it all as saying,   “Atlantic City was a very good cash cow for me for a long time.”

Of course, there were other suckers hurt by Trump’s “business” in Atlantic City beside the taxpayers: the banks who loaned him money, the morons who invested in TRMP stock, the contractors and their subs who did work for Trump and never got paid, etc. It was more than simply a direct transfer of public money to the man-baby.

If you’re looking for a truly egregious example of ultra-rich people directly lining their pockets with the taxpayers’s  money, with no accountability and no real benefit returning to the people, pro sports has you covered. And the N.F.L. is the worst of the worst.

In 2005, city planner Judith Grant Long  published years of research on the topic,. The abstract says,

Governments pay far more to participate in the development of major league sports facilities than is commonly understood due to the routine omission of public subsidies for land and infrastructure, and the ongoing costs of operations, capital improvements, municipal services, and foregone property taxes. Adjusting for these omissions increases the average public subsidy by $50 million per facility to a total of $177 million, representing a 40% increase over the industry-reported average of $126 million, based on all 99 facilities in use for the “big four” major leagues during 2001. For all 99 facilities, these uncounted public costs total $5 billion.

But that research is now almost 20 years old, and things are a lot worse now. Richard, a good friend of the blog, alerted us to this eye-opening article in the Atlantic, How the NFL Fleeces Taxpayers. It talks about stadium-building and other subsidies to a 30-member group of billionaire owners, and it’s worth your time to give it a read.  Here are some pull quotes to pique your interest:

Twelve teams have turned a profit on stadium subsidies alone—receiving more money than they needed to build their facilities.

Taxpayers fund the stadiums, antitrust law doesn’t apply to broadcast deals, the league enjoys nonprofit status, and Commissioner Roger Goodell makes $30 million a year. It’s time to stop the public giveaways to America’s richest sports league—and to the feudal lords who own its teams. 

Roger Goodell has become the sort of person his father once opposed—an insider who profits from his position while average people pay.

In Virginia, Republican Governor Bob McDonnell, who styles himself as a budget-slashing conservative crusader, took $4 million from taxpayers’ pockets and handed the money to the Washington Redskins, for the team to upgrade a workout facility. Hoping to avoid scrutiny, McDonnell approved the gift while the state legislature was out of session. The Redskins’ owner, Dan Snyder, has a net worth estimated by Forbes at $1 billion. But even billionaires like to receive expensive gifts.

Taxpayers in Hamilton County, Ohio, which includes Cincinnati, were hit with a bill for $26 million in debt service for the stadiums where the NFL’s Bengals and Major League Baseball’s Reds play, plus another $7 million to cover the direct operating costs for the Bengals’ field. Pro-sports subsidies exceeded the $23.6 million that the county cut from health-and-human-services spending in the current two-year budget (and represent a sizable chunk of the $119 million cut from Hamilton County schools). Press materials distributed by the Bengals declare that the team gives back about $1 million annually to Ohio community groups. Sound generous? That’s about 4 percent of the public subsidy the Bengals receive annually from Ohio taxpayers.

It goes on and on. Hospitals close and stadiums open. School districts suffer and football prospers. Those things and lots more will make you hate the N.F.L.

Wikipedia defines “Bread and Circuses” this way:

“…a superficial means of appeasement. In the case of politics, the phrase is used to describe the generation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through diversion; distraction; or the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace.”

This weekend, two circuses are on offer. Friday, the man-baby will be inaugurated as the 45th president of the U.S., and Sunday the two teams who will play in Super Bowl LI two weeks later will be decided.

I was planning on ignoring the inauguration as much as possible, and enjoying the football as much as possible. It’s getting a little harder to keep them separate in my mind.






2 thoughts on “Bread and Circuses”

  1. With Trump ascendant, The Onion is now right: “Our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over.” Letter in NYT today in Blow column.


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