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Well, Now What?

August 9, 2007 2:42 AM

The subject of public celebration came up in the comments here today, and I have to admit that it had crossed my mind.

Letters to the editor at the Strib have occasionally mentioned the stadium financing in the same sentence as the bridge collapse. As you can imagine, that's not exactly a favorable angle from which to view things. I think that such reasoning represents the height of misunderstanding about how government works. But then again, perception is reality.

Politics, Briefly

It's not generally the role of this site to talk politics (I'm way more interested in baseball), but when the final analysis is done I suspect that the root cause of this tragedy will be linked squarely to nearly two decades of legislative under-funding of transportation -- mostly due to silly ideological in-fighting. No single person or administration can really be blamed. Admittedly, two recent, well-publicized vetoes might suggest otherwise, but that's not really fair -- none of that money would have prevented the collapse. Even if those bills had been signed, that money would have been far too little and far too late. A massive gas tax increase now only begins to undo the damage which has been done by lengthy neglect.

The whole mess does shine a light on the real reason we pay taxes: we need things, and things cost money! Sometimes the things we have to buy with public money are not very sexy. Hell, most of the things we have to buy collectively are the type of things we wish we didn't have to buy at all (like replacement bridges and stadiums).

Appliance vs. Leisure

Think of it this way: someday you will need a new water heater. You can wait until it rusts through and your basement is flooded, or you can check for rust periodically and buy a new one before there's water on the floor. Both ways work, and you have to choose one or the other. Doing nothing is an option for only so long.

It's kind of hard to tell when your water heater is about to rust through. So you have to take your best guess, and then make the purchase at some rather arbitrary moment (say, bonus time or tax refund time). Unfortunately, all that does is drain away your cash, while leaving you feeling like you've gotten nothing for it. The water is no hotter, it's just still there. That bites.

But the alternative? You have to spend just as much money, but you also have to clean up the mess. What's more, because you didn't plan, you may or may not have the cash on hand. Really bad solution -- I've been there.

Now, a patio costs about the same amount as a new water heater (give or take). If you're perfectly disciplined, you won't build a patio if you think you might need a new water heater. That's the smart thing to do. But the truth is that your washer and dryer and furnace and refrigerator and stove could also give out unexpectedly at any time. You can't really wait until they've all been replaced before springing for that patio, can you?

OK, I'm pushing the analogy, but I hope my point is clear. Transportation and stadiums fall into fundamentally different funding categories. To say that paying for one prevents or precludes paying for the other is utter nonsense. It's possible to pay for both, and it's possible to pay for neither. That's what the legislature is charged with deciding.

No one took money away from MNDOT to build the stadiums. In two separate and wholly unrelated processes, it was decided that MNDOT needed X amount of money and the stadiums needed Y. And to get a sense of the difference in scale, rebuilding that one bridge looks like it might cost more than the Twins stadium, and possibly more than the Twins and Gophers combined. Multiply that by about 20,000 and you have a rough guess at just how under-funded transportation has been -- and it's not because of anything other than ideology. (One cannot help but notice that two or three commuter rail lines would be pretty handy right now.)

Ideology, Schmideology

I've never understood the mentality that says there can never be another tax increase. There are times for tax increases and times for tax cuts. It seems like every politician agrees with exactly half of that statement. How can that be?

I know, there's waste in government and it's essential to be vigilant about rooting it out. But starving the machine does not accomplish that. I know that tax rate hikes must be measured against economic impact, but they are not always bad. Just ask Arne Carlson.

We need what we need. It costs what it costs. Negotiate, get good deals, don't cut corners, find the money and just do it. Don't be frivolous or greedy. Tell us what we're paying for and why. Make it fair across the income scale (those who have seen greater benefit have greater responsibility). We're not as cheap as some cynical politicians think.

But we're not stupid either. We don't want any spending sprees. Right now we need to undo 20 years of bad policy, and it's sort of urgent. We never again want to clean up a flooded basement.

Celebrate a New Ballpark?

OK, back to perceptions.

We must ask the question of just how big the Twins' ground-breaking ceremony should be. Should they go ahead with the planned public celebration, or scale it back a bit given the circumstances? My gut tells me that celebrating may be difficult, but this event needs to be held sooner rather than later. Waiting isn't really an option.

Personally, I'm completely comfortable with acknowledging what has happened, and moving forward. It might be appropriate, given the connection of timing and proximity to the Metrodome (that bridge was crossed millions of times by fans going to and from games), to include a memorial to the victims of the collapse on the pedestrian bridge which will be the front door of the new ballpark.

I doubt that such a gesture would change the mind of anyone who has opposed the project from the beginning, but that wouldn't be the point. The point would be to memorialize a significant moment in the life of the team.

I've said before that you can't build history into your new facility. But it's important to bring the stories along. Perhaps that would be appropriate in this case, and announcing it now might ease the transition back to celebration.

We must acknowledge senseless death, and revel that much more in aliveness.

New Bridges

Likewise, it would be appropriate to build something more grand in the sad chasm where that old bridge stood so undistinguished and so briefly. This is a rare moment of opportunity to build something which is more than a freeway bridge, something which memorializes the dead in its scale and vision, and makes a bold statement about the spirit of the witnesses.

Comments


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well said.

For a long time now (thirty years almost), we have lived a political reality that says any tax increase will be met with swift electoral defeat. I'm going to go ahead and drop some political science on you, as to the how and the why.

1. Since about 1960, politics has become increasingly a game of advertising. Candidates are packaged like products, and sold to voters in much the same way as a new car or toothpaste. As such, politics has largley become a business of "what can i do for YOU".

2. This attitude, combined with 30-40 years of building a culture based on the "what can i do for YOU" model has left us with a pretty self-centered electorate.

3. Pouncing on this trend, political candidates began running against taxation, insisting that somehow any request made by your government that you actually help pay for it is akin to asking to remove an appendage.

4. Responding to this, voterss have, in large numbers embraced this notion. Over the past 30 years, every single government expense has been treated as a complete waste of money (except for the military, that's a sacred cow).

5. Many of these same people stood in disbelief when the bridge failed. Many also said "see government can't do anything right". These are same people who have voted time and again to pass the buck to others.

My general point is this. When you elect people in to the government who embrace an ideology that government can't do anything right... you get a government that can't do anything right. When people don't believe in something, they won't fight for it, they won't strive to make it better, they will only seek to prove their preexisting notions.

I'm not an advocate of a giant socialistic monolith government... but I do believe there are things that need to be done in our society, and I believe there are a number of things that we need to come together and build as a society, not just as a collection of individuals.

Posted on August 9, 2007 at 11:01 AM by CJ Highlight this comment 1

Great post.
Regarding the stadium part...is this delay of the ceremony affecting the building schedule at all? When is contruction supposed to start? What are the first steps? (I believe someone said pile-driving??)

Let us know about construction...I know we are all very eager.

Posted on August 9, 2007 at 11:19 AM by Nice Highlight this comment 2

Public financing of sports facilities is indeed socialism. And the worst kind of socialism. This blog post misses the entire point that any basic student of economics learns on the first day: there is no such thing as a free lunch. If you spend $1 on X, that's $1 you can't spend on Y. People are right to point out the misplaced priorities of the state.

The federal government should give you a dime to repair that bridge after you gave $400 million so that a man on the Forbes 400 list could build himself a stadium.

Posted on August 9, 2007 at 11:45 AM by Milton Highlight this comment 3

yes, but even a conservative republican acknowledges that taxes are needed for things such as bridges and roads. even a liberal, social program advocate democrat see's the need for public dollars for bridges and roads. conversely, these opposing sides agree that public money for baseball stadiums is a waste of taxpayer dollars. it's those that fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum who govern best, imo. part of the problem regarding the stadium debate for a decade has been the increasing polarization of minnesota politics. the parties have been dominated by those on the farthest fringes of their belief system. thankfully some of these people can see the bigger picture upon assuming a more powerful office and some consensus can be formed to move beyond the narrow focus. so you get a tim pawlenty signing a bill that allows a local governmental body to raise a tax to pay for something he had just a few scant years before advocated against as a state legislator. the legislature and governor's office work best when consensus builders hold the power positions.

Posted on August 9, 2007 at 11:50 AM by Tim Highlight this comment 4

CJ -- Great points. It suggests that an appropriate way to evaluate a candidate for public office is not, "What can this person do for me?" but rather, "What can this person do for US?"

Nice -- As far as I know, delaying the ground-breaking has had no impact on the construction schedule. Pile driving has been scheduled to begin at the end of August, but a formal ceremony would not necessarily have to precede it.

Milton -- I'm painfully aware of the basic principles of economics. They derive from human nature and cannot be denied. In fact, the whole point of my post was that, as you said, "there is no such thing as a free lunch." But building a stadium was never weighed AGAINST maintaining bridges. It was never either-or. If it had been (as it probably should have been) the answer would have been clear. But there's another unfortunate law of human nature: some people eat a lot more dessert than main courses.

Tim -- Thanks for mentioning this. The extremes have a stranglehold on government right now, and it has done a lot of damage. This tends to be cyclical, and we're due for some moderation before too long -- I hope.

Posted on August 9, 2007 at 1:11 PM by Rick 5

milton, you miss the point. those funds are not from the same pot of money. if we had spent state funds for this... that would be one thing, but we didnt.

personally, i think there is room for stadiums, right there in the mix. i'm not saying it's what we should spent all of our money on, and we dont it's not even close... but i am saying that it has its place, and i stand fervently behind doing it as a community.

Posted on August 9, 2007 at 1:22 PM by cj Highlight this comment 6

In this end, almost all government money is fungible in that it can be moved around.

And it's fungible for taxpayers. You could have passed a gas tax for Hennepin County instead of a sales tax.

Finally, why can't an owner build his own sports stadium? If you say, then he'll leave...that must mean that the marketplace is saying that your city shouldn't have a baseball team, and couldn't without corporate welfare.

Having the government give a $400 million subsidy to Wal-Mart would be better for the Minneapolis economy than a baseball stadium.

I find it absolutely sick that a government would tax its own citizens $400 million (without a referendum against a clear will of the people) in order to build a stadium for a man worth more than the GDP of Mongolia.

Posted on August 9, 2007 at 8:02 PM by Milton Highlight this comment 7

Agreed!

Governments role is to build bridges, not stadiums. Everything else is just BS designed to obscure that fact.

Posted on August 10, 2007 at 07:58 AM by DD Highlight this comment 8

Milton, actually I've read that providing subsidies to corporations doesn't have much economic impact on the area. I'll try and find an article if I get a chance.

Other than that, I didn't see $400 million being funneled into bridge repair in the years leading up to the bridge collapse. So let's not pretend that this stadium took money away from bridge repairs, education, etc.

Posted on August 10, 2007 at 08:39 AM by IowaWigman Highlight this comment 9

Rick: In terms of the construction schedule, if you look at the web cam you will see that they have driving piles for a few weeks.

Posted on August 10, 2007 at 3:55 PM by Chris Highlight this comment 10

"Governments role is to build bridges, not stadiums. Everything else is just BS designed to obscure that fact."

Like bridges to nowhere? If we had things your way, we'd ignore the arts, public beautification, etc. Only the essentials? Who determines essential? I suspect I'd have no interest in the Twin Cities you propose.

Posted on August 14, 2007 at 11:05 AM by Nate Highlight this comment 11

You don't have to agree with every decision your government makes. But the black and white mindset needs to go.

Posted on August 14, 2007 at 11:07 AM by Nate Highlight this comment 12

public beautification? confusing a stadium as a "quality of life" issue is the exact form of obfuscation I was referring to. Thanks for the real life example.

Posted on August 15, 2007 at 10:44 AM by DD Highlight this comment 13

Obfuscation is exactly my point. It all IS much more complicated than you seem willing to acknowledge. And if you can't accept that single fact, than you're not worth wasting another breath.

Posted on August 17, 2007 at 4:34 PM by Nate Highlight this comment 14

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