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.


Smells like team spirit

  1. Though to be fair, musicians at the highest level are millionaires who play for profit. And hey, guess who else is the beneficiary of these arenas?

    • This response is only correct if one defines "musicians at the highest level" as "musicians who are the most successful at mass-marketing their product"; other definitions are possible. Let us not conflate the two.

      • For one, since the purpose of art is to inspire, as a first order approximation the more people you reach, the more successful you are.

        For two, are you meaning to say that you have an issue with taxpayer money going to subsidize professional sports teams but at the same time are somehow swayed by the the "multi-use facility" that similarly subsidizes big name musicians?

    • You could certainly make the argument that the few Canadian musicians who would be playing a hockey arena (I doubt there are more than two dozen any given year, tops) are probably less deserving of direct subsidy (although they would still benefit from Canadian Content regulations).

    • Did FACLC just make an argument in favour of the federal government subsidizing Justin Bieber?

  2. In 2011, it seems, artists are unable to make the strictly moral case for any distinction between high culture and sports

    Well, of course not. The arts world has been spending the last hundred years busily obliterating any distinction between high culture and urinals, between a symphony and four and a half minutes of not performing music. After you've done that, what comprehensible distinction can be drawn between ballet and pro hockey?

    • Faced with a declaration that those who disagreed with me were incapable of making an argument, not one of the people who busily voted me back down to 0 (indicating their disagreement) actually tried to articulate an argument. Quod erat demonstrandum.

  3. taking as his axiom what he is supposed to have been demonstrating

    That phrase more or less describes what used to be called the logical error of "begging the question," until that phrase was so thoroughly and commonly misinterpreted and misused to mean "begging for the question" that we have lost the original use. So from now on we must follow Colby's example and say "taking as his axiom what he is supposed to have been demonstrating."

    But enough curmudgeonry. I live in Edmonton and will be very upset when some of my tax money goes to paying for a new playpen for the Oilers, for all the reasons Colby gives or implies.

    • And all this time I thought Vulcan, Alberta, was southeast of Calgary!!

    • It's a bit wordy. Could we shorten it to "axiomising the demonstration"?

  4. Good piece, Colby

  5. Of course, isn't this whole argument also an exercise in misdirection? After all, the more time we spend debating whether or not NHL hockey is equally deserving of subsidies as ballet and opera are, the more likely we are to forget that the funds we've been discussing most recently aren't (hypothetically and potentially) being re-directed from opera houses and concert theatres to an NHL arena, but from repairs to roads and water treatment plants to an NHL arena.

    It feels to me that the whole premise here is to argue that the NHL is as deserving of subsidies as project X, and then simply hope that no one notices if the money for a Quebec arena is actually diverted from funds earmarked for project Y.

    • That maybe one of the best thought out responses on the subject. Quebec has ageing infrastructure that does need replacing.
      I guess roads, clean water and essential services just aren't as "sexy" a topic as sports and the arts.

        • What the constitution says and what actually happens are two different things. It irrelevant to cite here as the federal government has plenty to do with what they're listing – federal dollars fund road repairs and the arts, not to mention healthcare and a number of other things that fall under provincial jurisdiction. Maybe we should rewrite the constitution to reflect the actual reality of how we fund things in this country to clear up the confusion.

          • In fact, it's not like the constitution even says a level of gov't CAN'T spend money in another area.

            YOu just can't reach a certain type about it. You can point it out again and again, but they'll just bring it up again like they've made some sort of point.

        • Oh, I have no problem with the argument that Quebec shouldn't get arena funding simply because the feds shouldn't be funding arenas. I just think that if the question is "Should money from an already existing program that funds infrastructure like roads and sewage treatment be diverted to also allow the funding of NHL hockey arenas" that those in the "Yes" camp shouldn't use "Yes, because operas get federal funding sometimes" as an argument in favour of their position, unless said opera funding was also diverted from the federal infrastructure fund.

          I'd also point out that if the federal government suddenly stopped funding everything that it's currently funding but that it probably doesn't have jurisdiction over, the whole country would likely collapse within about 48 hours. (LOL)

          • I'd also point out that if the federal government suddenly stopped funding everything that it's currently funding but that it probably doesn't have jurisdiction over, the whole country would likely collapse within about 48 hours.

            That would cause some difficulties, no doubt!!

            But I would be very happy if any federal government would announce a plan to slowly wean the provinces off of federal dollars given to the provinces to help them pay for their responsibilities. The plan could be announced "today", to start 1 year from now, with transfers decreasing at a rate of 10% of initial values per year.

            The feds could still run an equalization program if they wished.

          • If the Feds went back to a strict and fair equalization program, rather than the current method of directly contributing to provincial and municipal infrastructure, they'd lose the ability to place giant "Canada's Action Plan" signs on every street corner. No Federal party of any stripe would agree to reducing their visibility in such pork projects.

          • Unless, of course, enough of us indicated that that is what we want…..

          • People who like hospitals east of montreal disagree iwth you!

  6. I won't complain about government funding for professional sports–that is, if the level of funding is the same as it is for the arts.

    • Neither will I — that is, if the level of public taxpayer-confiscated funding is NIL.

  7. Eeew. Is THAT what team spirit smells like?