Smells like team spirit

Why shouldn't sports get public money if the arts do?

I kind of admire John Allemang’s Thursday think piece for the Globe about public funding for professional sports facilities. It’s very direct. Pleas for subsidies to billionaires usually aren’t. But Allemang lays the merchandise right out there on the street corner:

It may be hard, days after the Super Bowl’s cheesy excesses, to think of professional sports franchises as needy, noble cultural institutions. But that’s a key part of the pitch campaigners for new sports venues across the country use to get at government funds—money originally earmarked for broad-based community projects, not facilities used by for-profit professional teams. [emphasis mine]

The piece starts by asking why pro sports shouldn’t be subsidized with working people’s tax dollars when museums and concert halls are. The most obvious answer, and stop me if you’ve heard this, is that professional sport at the uppermost level is played for profit by people who are already millionaires. Allemang wouldn’t want you to think he doesn’t know this. He throws it right in your teeth, and goes on to make his argument for giving your money to the ultra-rich. It’s kind of funny, really: Allemang’s argument kind of has the “trickle-down” structure often imputed to supply-side economics—sure, we’ll provide a big cash benefit to the wealthy, and when they’re done devouring their share, they’ll puff a cloud of hedonic externalities into the atmosphere of the community.

The real news in this piece is that culture producers feel so defensive and frightened about their own public subsidies that they’re willing to enter into a coalition with pro athletes and team owners. In 2011, it seems, artists are unable to make the strictly moral case for any distinction between high culture and sports, and they sense that the taxpayer has grown insensitive to pleas of poverty from people who were damnfool enough to spend decades mastering the bassoon. Under these circumstances, their brightest hope is to join hands with Jason Spezza and Daryl Katz and say that all must have prizes.

This requires us to ignore the obvious in several respects, but, again, Allemang is very fearless about this.

Take the plans for the new $400-million Quebec amphitheatre, which will be announced Thursday. The building may look and sound like a hockey arena designed to lure back an NHL team to the home of the long-gone Nordiques, but for fundraising purposes, according to Quebec Mayor Régis Labeaume, it’s actually a “multifunctional” entertainment facility…

The building “looks and sounds like a hockey arena” designed to lure the NHL back to Quebec because that is exactly what it is, and what everybody knows it to be. Allemang doesn’t dispute this. He simply goes on to treat the pretended purpose as the real one and write the whole article in a weird sort of oratio obliqua, taking as his axiom what he is supposed to have been demonstrating.

Now, me, I wouldn’t give a nickel in tax to any public entertainment if I had a say in the matter. As Tyler Cowen recently observed, arts funding is, in practice, a regressive subsidy of the hobbies of the affluent, so it fails the socialist’s redistributive-justice test as badly as it does the libertarian’s “laissez faire, laissez passer” one. The usual case in its favour amounts to a caveman’s grunt of “Arts good”. That leaves the door open for those who can grunt “Sports good” with equal conviction and justice.

But I’ll say this for arts subsidies: they do have the potential, for better or worse, to give us more arts. There is no limit to the number of bright youngsters we could turn into bassoonists or abstract expressionist painters or short-documentary-subject directors. But our major professional sports leagues are run as closed cartels, and most of them (though not the CFL!) have reached a common natural size limit of 30-32 teams. Practically speaking, subsidies to the NHL will not increase the total supplied quantity of NHL hockey; if Quebec City is to have a team, someone else will have to lose one. Nor is there any realistic reason to expect these subsidies to flow through to the consumer in the absence of any conceivable shift in supply.

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