Playing Ball in D.C.


America’s pastime—milking the poor to help the rich—is in great shape. The World Series is fun too.

What an entertaining World Series so far, no matter what Yankee fans say. And of course every broadcast carries the obligatory tag that all rights are owned by the “Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball.” The games take your mind off politics, right?

You wish. The insane election spending spree continues—Political Money Line reports that “electioneering” committees have raised nearly half a billion dollars so far this cycle, with million-dollar contributions pouring in nearly every frightful day this month. That doesn’t even count the regular fundraising by pols and PACs. And one of the newer PACs is controlled by baseball commissioner Bud Selig. The “Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball Political Action Committee” didn’t even exist during the 2000 presidential election. So far this cycle, however, it has distributed more than $340,000 from baseball owners and front-office executives to a host of Congress members.

Arch-conservative Jim Bunning got $10,000, according to Federal Election Commission records. OK, he’s a former pitcher. But so did House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and so did Wisconsin rep Jim Sensenbrenner. Baseball officials even greased Rick Santorum‘s PAC with $2,000.

Turns out that Sensenbrenner was an outspoken opponent of Selig’s proposed contraction of the Minnesota Twins a few years ago.

Selig knows how to clump the shit and move it around—he’s a board member of Oil-Dri, the world’s largest maker of cat litter, as I used to point out in the Voice. Baseball’s execs have spread some money around, and they’ve probably quelled forever all threats from Congress to repeal baseball’s fortunate exemption from antitrust laws now that they’ve placed a team in D.C., the former Montreal Expos. Just another toy for the congressmen to play with, starting next year. Think of them being entertained by lobbyists in the new D.C. stadium’s skyboxes.

Way down below them will be the average D.C. resident. The U.S. leads the world in wealth inequality, and the gap is continually widening. And income inequality in the District of Columbia is wider than in any other major U.S. city, according to an analysis of census data by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute:

The study found that the average income of the top fifth of DC’s households equaled $186,830 in 1999. This was 31 times higher than the average income of the bottom fifth of households—$6,126.

While Atlanta and Miami have income gaps similar to DC’s, income inequality is much less pronounced in most other cities. In the typical city in the analysis—which includes central cities of the nation’s 40 largest metro areas—the income of the top fifth of households is 18 times the income of the bottom fifth.

As the income gap in D.C. continues to widen, the House, which controls life and politics there because D.C. doesn’t have its own Congress member, recently passed a measure to allow assault weapons in the nation’s capital—over the objections of a host of liberal Congress members, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Mayor Anthony Williams, Police Chief Charles Ramsey, the D.C. City Council, and numerous District businesses. Check out watchdog congressman Henry Waxman‘s riff on this. The federal ban on assault weapons expired last month, by the way.

But Congress didn’t need guns to conduct this holdup. D.C.’s new baseball stadium will be yet another egregious case of corporate welfare. In fact, even baseball officials, used to largesse from municipalities all over the country, called the deal to finance the bonds used to pay for the stadium the sweetest sweetheart deal they’d seen:

To pay back the bonds, the District would rely mainly on a tax on the District’s big businesses and new and existing sales taxes within the stadium. Less than 18 percent of the money to pay for the District’s stadium would come from the team—through rent payments—over the first 20 years of the deal, according to projections.

Other cities typically have demanded that teams pay 33 percent or more of construction costs, according to statistics compiled by teams and the Sports Business Journal.

When the boondoggle was announced in late September, Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins was a voice of sanity, but she was drowned out by the har-de-har-har crowd of the ailing capital city’s officials and all the politicians and lobbyists who will be using the stadium’s soon-to-be-smoke-filled luxurious skyboxes. Here’s how Jenkins laid it out:

Washingtonians will have to subsidize $440 million in stadium building projects, which Mayor Anthony A. Williams will have to sell to the D.C. Council as a “good investment” despite a wealth of unbiased and informed research that shows it’s a bad one. A stadium isn’t a good investment, according to Stanford University economist Roger Noll, “it’s a toy.” While the emerald chessboard folks and rotisserie wonks may think new business and concession taxes are a fair price to pay for the whap of the old horsehide, some lower-income residents don’t agree, and neither do 70 percent of Washingtonians polled last summer who objected to public financing, and neither do three incoming members of the D.C. Council.

“Any independent study shows that as an investment, it’s silly,” says Noll, the co-author of Sports, Jobs, and Taxes: The Economic Impact of Sports Teams and Stadiums. “If they’re trying to sell it on grounds of actually contributing to economic growth and employment in D.C., that’s wrong. There’s never been a publicly subsidized stadium anywhere in the United States that had the effect of increasing employment and economic growth in the city in which it was built.”

D.C. officials trumpeted this deal by saying that big businesses in the District will assume the tax burden. Yeah, right. As Jenkins noted:

The promoters of baseball in Washington tell you that taxpayers won’t feel a thing. But you will indeed feel it, and here’s how. The city intends to tax big business to pay for the stadium. Two things will happen. First, businesses will raise their prices, and the effective income of district residents will therefore go down. And two, when a gap opens between prices in the District and prices in Maryland, people will stop buying in the District and shop there instead.

Here is something else you should understand about what you’re getting, and giving: In order to succeed financially, the new team will need loyal fans who are willing to buy good reserved seats and attend games 20 or 30 times a season. These days it costs a family of four about $150 to go to a game. That adds up to about $3,000 a year. Who can afford that? Wealthy people.

“They’re the real beneficiaries of the subsidy,” says Noll. “It’s taxing ordinary people for a stadium attended by upper income people, and then the income generated goes to even higher income people, namely players and owners. Basically, you’re taxing people who make $30,000 a year to generate a toy for people who make $200,000 a year, and income for people who make millions of dollars a year.”

Other numbers to keep in mind are those that you never see juxtaposed in the mainstream media. As I pointed out in early September, the richest 1 percent of American households own 38 percent of all wealth, and fewer than one-tenth of 1 percent of the U.S. population gave 83 percent of all itemized campaign contributions in the 2002 elections.