Sometimes we want something so badly we’ll tell ourselves just about anything in order to get it. Psychologists and philosophers call thought patterns like this “rationalizing”—justifying actions or beliefs with questionable explanations. Rationalizing leads to poor public policymaking.
Pundits and boosters of a downtown Major League Soccer (MLS) stadium appear to be doing some serious rationalizing. Consider this: one potential ownership group, SC STL, wants taxpayers to cough up $80 million to help pay for a stadium. Another ownership group, City Foundry, has offered to cover the $80 million in public assistance if they can have some stake in team ownership. But soccer boosters are worried that discord between these two ownership groups might hurt Saint Louis’s chances of landing an MLS team. As a result, commenters have begun criticizing City Foundry, a group that’s willing to bear the massive burden SC STL wants to place on the public. MLS has publicly aligned itself with SC STL and plans to ask taxpayers to help pay for a stadium, thus providing soccer boosters a (very expensive) “bird in the hand.” But is this $80-million bird so precious that we should dismiss a proposal that could result in a stadium built without taxpayer money? Are we certain that City Foundry’s involvement would cause MLS to take its soccer ball and go home? City Foundry only made its proposal less than a week ago—isn’t their offer worth a serious look when $80 million is at stake?
Here are some facts that aren’t easy to rationalize away: Stadiums are not a good investment vehicle for public dollars. They don’t yield economic returns for local communities. They don’t help cities financially. At best, stadiums simply shift existing spending patterns, often at the cost of huge public expenditures. At worst, publicly-funded stadiums drain resources away from basic city services, and sometimes even bankrupt cities. The benefits of having a professional sports team are not economic; they are social or civic. Yet, some people badly want an MLS team, and see SC STL as the best way of getting one, so they’re willing to throw principles of good policy to the wind.
Choosing to fund a sports stadium with public dollars when private capital is available isn’t just bad public policy; it is taxing the public for the benefit of a wealthy few.