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Public Funds for Private Stadiums: On the Bills’ Future Home

photograph of celebrating crowd during gameday at Bills stadium

Since moving to upstate NY in 2018, I’ve become a pretty keen Buffalo Bills fan. And now $850 million of public money is being invested into a new stadium for them – though the Bills are not the only team to benefit from public funds.

Should we really be using tax dollars for such frivolities as sport? Why should billionaire team owners receive public money? Why should taxpayers fund private sports stadiums when, despite long-held opinion, they do not seem to have the expected economic benefit for the local area?

I think the key response here is to note that money should not be governments’ only concern. No doubt the Bills are a source of “civic pride.” Sports teams play an important role in many communities. Erin Tarver has argued that fandom can be an important part of a person’s identity. It can bind us together in communities, where thousands of people are cheering for one team – united by nothing more than a shared love for their team. Even fans of perpetual losers benefit (perhaps more so: a recent study suggests that fans of unsuccessful teams are more tightly bonded to one another than fans of more successful clubs. Good news for Bills fans.)

These connections are deep and important to many people. Andrew Edgar goes so far as to argue that these teams are akin to sacred objects for many of us. Kyle Fruh, Alfred Archer, and I have used this to argue that this means that when owners abuse the club, they’re doing something wrong: they’re trashing something of important cultural value.

This puts obligations on owners. For one, this lets us say that when the Bills owners were threatening to relocate the team they were doing something more than simply considering moving their business.

Finding a new home for the Bills would not just mean that some folks lost their jobs, it would mean that the focal point of this fan community was being ripped away. Something sacred was being destroyed.

It also seems to me that this places an obligation on local governments (in this case, New York State and Erie County). No doubt the Bills are very important to Buffalo and the surrounding area. To take a personal observation: if you go outside at 1pm on a Sunday in Rochester – an hour or two away from Buffalo – you won’t see many people. Everyone is watching the Bills.

Now, New York State spends over a hundred million dollars on arts funding every year. This is a good thing, but it seems like snobbery if we are to say that these important cultural things deserve state spending but football does not. (We can haggle over the amount it is fair to spend!)

So, if we should spend government money on cultural objects, we can make a reasonable case for spending money on the Bills stadium because the Bills are an important cultural object. Even if there will be no great economic benefit, New York State is right to invest if it helps preserve something culturally important.

Yet that only speaks to the general principle of using public money to fund private enterprise when it comes to sports stadiums – there are plenty of other reasons why we might object to funding the new Bills stadium.

Here is one objection: there are lurking objections about how much money governments should spend on cultural objects. Part of the point of the recent Just Stop Oil protest that doused (the glass in front of) a van Gogh with paint was to highlight our reactions. People seem to care more about art than they do about people being unable to heat their homes or buy food. No doubt there is something to this, but I think most people would agree governments should spend some money on things that help to enhance our lives, even if there are other pressing concerns.

Still, this investment can seem perverse, especially when, as Shalise Manza Young has pointed out, you look at the conditions poor people need to meet in order to get state assistance. Why should the rich owners of the Bills get state money when people starve and Buffalo, like much of upstate New York, has racially-driven poverty problems?

Now, I do not know how the deal is financed, but one solution here would be to make clear that the money is for the Bills, not for their owners. Or, we can see it as a joint-investment between the state and the owners into Western New York, rather than a payment that will just benefit these owners. Otherwise, critics are right when they say New York is “using public money for private business ventures, especially for the benefit of wealthy owners like the Pegulas.

Sustaining important cultural objects is a worthwhile goal for governments, but lining the pockets of modern-day oil barons is not.

Whether this is a matter of the optics of the Bills stadium deal, or whether the deal simply does benefit the wealthy Pegula family without being too concerned with what should matter – the cultural benefit of the Bills – is an important question, and I don’t have the answers!

Beyond that, we need to look at the investment in terms of a public good outside of sports. One criticism is that by building the new stadium next to the current one in the suburb of Orchard Park (which is nearly 95% White and has a 2020 median income of nearly $90,000) rather than Buffalo (which is less than 50% White and has a 2020 median income of just under $40,000), the state is failing to invest in communities that have been under-invested in for far too long and continuing to perpetuate racial injustices.

We also need to ask whether it helps to create goods, like more walkable communities? Does it help to improve public transit? Well, no, because it’s going to be built outside of the City of Buffalo and will inevitably come with the sprawl of parking lots that accompany NFL stadiums.

There are even sporting criticisms: this stadium will never host a Superbowl, because it doesn’t have a roof – in Buffalo. Even setting aside Superbowl games, there is always the chance for some terrible weather to really disrupt a game – and that isn’t something the Bills should risk, what with Josh Allen leading what is likely to be a long-term force in the NFL.

And that is to say nothing of the potential corruption involved, nor of the fact money is being taken from Native Americans and isn’t being invested back into Native communities. My sense here is that the money was an effort to make sure that the Bills stayed in Buffalo – or, rather, Orchard Park. It is money that should be spent to keep the Bills around, but it is far from clear to me that this money is truly for the people of Buffalo, and this investment seems to fail to achieve a raft of other worthwhile goals that any such ambitious project should aim at.

States of Exception

photograph of Chechpoint Charlie memorial site today

Now, many weeks into the rolling global coronavirus outbreaks, large-scale community lockdowns, and broad economic shutdowns; through a plethora of views on what the longer-term outcomes of this situation may be, it is clear that we are living through exceptional times.

Globally, as governments scramble with varying degrees of success to get a hold of the crisis, many countries have declared states of emergency.

Emergency decrees involve assuming certain types of exceptional powers by a government for the duration of a national emergency. Certain rights and civil liberties are curtailed and the protection of certain basic rights is suspended in order to ameliorate the threat.

Currently, in response to the global coronavirus pandemic, roughly one third of the world’s 7.5 billion people are in lockdown or under some form of ‘physical distancing’ restriction on free movement and association. In many areas authorities are enforcing curtailments.

We know from infectious disease experts that these measures are essential – the human population has no immunity to this novel coronavirus and a vaccine or effective treatment may be some way off. The only strategy we have is halting its ability to spread by our behavior.

Nevertheless, the question of how states of emergency are instituted and maintained raises important ethical questions in which the relationship of the state to its citizens is at issue.

Emergency decrees are quite obviously a potential problem in places where authoritarian governments and heads of state are already actively seeking means to extend or consolidate power, and for whom emergency decrees represent an opportunity to legitimize extraordinary levels of state coercion and control.

But even in the most “functional democracies” civil libertarians are counseling us to be vigilant. Even where people recognize the necessity of social distancing and accept the curtailments that states of emergency place them under, it is vitally important to remain conversant with the pressures this puts on our political and social order.

The modern democratic state is founded on ethical principles of rights and personal/individual freedoms. It gains legitimacy from democratic participation of citizens, and is based on a concept of the ‘social contract’ in which there is a tacit agreement by individuals to submit to the sovereign or state. The rule of law offers individual protection of rights and freedoms and endeavors to provide public goods like social harmony.

So the modern democratic state is built on the (ethical) notion that individuals have rights and duties in respect of each other. These rights and duties are mediated by the state, so that individuals have rights and duties in respect of the state under the social contract. The social contract is submission to, and protection under, the rule of law.

The primary function of the state should be to strike a balance between the ethical imperatives of freedom and ‘common good, as the rule of law.

Under what is described by Carl Schmitt in legal theory as a ‘state of exception,’ the sovereign possesses the ability to transcend the rule of law for the public good.

What is the ethical character of the state of exception? States of emergency or states of exception put a certain pressure on the social contract and represent an ethically dubious space.

The particular concerns that civil libertarians have around the use of emergency decrees all converge on this question of what sort of ethical zone a state of exception is, as a zone where the contract has to be temporarily renegotiated and a new balance has to be struck between individual freedom and common good.

There is a general concern that such a balance should err on the side of protecting privacy, freedom of expression, and other basic tenets of liberal democracy.

The important political and ethical question at the center of the state of exception is: how does the exception relate to the norm?

If the norm is the rule of law, then is the state of exception to be inscribed within it, and curtailed by it, or does the state of exception itself stand outside the rule of law?

In the first case, the state of exception is ‘built in’ to the state – so that checks and controls are placed upon exceptional state measures.

But if this is the case, then it is hard to see how it remains exceptional rather than becoming the norm, since building the exception into the state itself leads either to an infinite regress (by seeking exceptions to the exception), or cancels out the exception altogether by constitutionally inscribing the exception into the state as the norm.

In the second case, the state of exception is ‘extra-juridical’ in character – according to the argument that it is not desirable to control executive action in emergency with standard judicial accountability mechanisms.

But here, state power begins to exceed state power, so to speak, and not being subject to juridical order it represents a zone wholly external to the rule of law and the protections and rights and responsibilities that the rule of law enshrines. It is therefore difficult to see how the social contract can be said to hold under such a situation.

If the sovereign’s exceptional decree is not subject to constitutional constraint, the power to decide on the state of exception is therefore the power to decide what should count as a state of exception, potentially maximizing the state’s capacity to function outside the rule of law.

The Italian philosopher, Georgio Agamben, has argued that the state of exception is a zone which is not properly ‘internal’ nor ‘external’ to the state, but represents a kind of political, juridical, and ethical gray area where the distinctions between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are blurred, and that it in fact represents a realm of human activity not subject to the rule of law.

While there may not be sufficient evidence for Agamben’s claim that the modern democratic state is in a permanent state of exception, this accompanying claim bears thinking about: The state of exception assumes a fictitious political character in which the vocabulary of war is maintained, to justify recourse to government powers. Agamben believes the state of exception is a fiction sustained through military metaphor.

I do not here claim that the current emergency decrees across the world are fictions, yet it bears noticing that vocabularies of war are certainly sustaining them.

For Agamben, the stakes are high, and the danger is the slow disappearance of meaningful political action, because the attempt to encompass states of exception into the rule of law by legitimizing them represents a recognition of what is outside the law, and prompts sovereign attempts to encompass that very outside within the law. As a legal category, the state of exception therefore extends and completes the law’s empire.

What, then, is the peculiar ethical space of a state of exception, and what does that mean for us?

It is unclear what relation the exception has to normality, and what relation it has to the rule of law. Part of the point is about the possible erosion of civil liberties, but Agamben’s deeper worry about the slow disappearance of meaningful political action suggests that even as we remain committed to the truly monumental global effort to stem the tide of the coronavirus pandemic, we still need to pay attention to the pressures that government control of these measures places on the social contract between the state and its citizens, and to what it means for political discourse.

The Politicization of Disease

photograph of seesaw with 1 paper cutout man balanced against 20

Obviously, keeping coronavirus and politics separate is impossible. There is no doubt that the disease will have (and already has had) a profound impact on this year’s political election. But even outside of this very practical sense, COVID-19 presents a political problem: How can we most usefully marshal our resources to combat a pandemic and best manage the expected (and unexpected) fallout?

The virus’s rapid spread has emptied everything from sports arenas packed with fans looking to see the King to the studio audiences of Late Night royalty. It’s laid waste to grocery stores and made princes of price gougers. It’s changed the shape of education, and altered the nature of employment. That our discussion of coronavirus get political is inevitable. Every day policy decisions are made regarding everything from curfews to quarantines. Even the WHO’s decision regarding if and when to call this recent outbreak a “pandemic” was a matter of political calculation.

But the current crisis has also provided ample opportunity for partisan exaggeration, posturing, and grandstanding. As we speak, Republicans and Democrats are locked in combat over the details of a $2 trillion relief bill with both sides accusing the other of prioritizing politics over public well-being. That criticism–prioritizing politics over the public good–is perhaps the best explanation of our disdain for politicization: when the possibility of political victory eclipses the pursuit of all other values. And the current crisis has already been seized on as an opportunity to gain significant ground in the war of ideology.

Earlier this month, in his Oval Office address, the president labelled our adversary a “foreign virus” which needed to be “defeated.” The intentional and repeated institutional use of phrases like “Chinese Virus” since has been explained as a strategy made of two parts immigration policy, one part trade war leverage, one part world relations retaliation, and perhaps one part misdirection. But regardless of the rationalization, these actions are gravely irresponsible and morally reprehensible, especially in a time when gun sales are skyrocketing and Asian Americans are purchasing firearms in response to increasing threats of violence made against them. Whatever political points there are to win here can’t be weighed against the very real and very present threat to human life.

Likewise, while Trump has laid claim to the “wartime president” mantle, he’s been loath to invoke the Defense Production Act relying instead on his famed deal-making skills. In the midst of critical shortages in medical supplies, Trump is betting on market forces to correct course. When challenged Sunday on why he was waiting for corporations to identify and satisfy current needs, the president was adamant that “we’re a country not based on nationalizing our business.” The president’s economic adviser, Peter Navarro, echoed this sentiment stating that, “We’re getting what we need without putting the heavy hand of government down.” When pressed further, Trump dared the press corps to “Call a person over in Venezuela; ask them how did nationalization of their businesses work out. Not too well. The concept of nationalizing our business is not a good concept.”

Nevermind the false comparison between the Defense Production Act and nationalization, the president’s refusal to direct manufacturers is privileging economic rhetoric at the expense of public health. The current emergency situation calls for pooling national supplies, adjusting for mass production of basic goods like gloves, masks, gowns, respirators, and prioritizing distribution according to gravest needs. Without a coordinated approach by the federal government to make deliberate decisions about supplies and allocations, individual states have been left to fend for themselves. As Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker described it, “It’s a wild, wild West out there.”

Given these developments, the president’s announcement Monday that he was already rethinking the social and economic lockdown was not particularly shocking. As Adam Gaffney wrote on The Guardian last week, “Trump has made it clear he sees this pandemic chiefly as a threat to the market and wealthy people’s personal interests (and relatedly, his own political future) – not to the people whose lives it will threaten or claim.” The economic collapse we have yet to fully experience represents a very real threat to Trump’s private business interests and political fortunes. Concern for public health is, at best, a distant third. Dan Diamond of Politico has even claimed that Trump

“did not push to do aggressive additional testing in recent weeks, […] partly because more testing might have led to more cases being discovered of coronavirus outbreak, and the president had made clear: the lower the numbers on coronavirus, the better for the president, the better for his potential reelection this fall.”

Unfortunately, the prioritization of private goods over public health has not stopped there. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick made an appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight on Monday arguing that we should all get back to work in the midst of this pandemic in order to mitigate the coming financial crisis. Senior citizens, Patrick argued, bear an obligation to their grandchildren to risk death in order to preserve Gen Z’s financial solvency. “Let’s get back to work. Let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves, but don’t sacrifice the country.”

Thankfully, the Lieutenant Governor’s suggestion of trading one’s life for another’s financial gain has been met with much scorn and derision. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo maintained that “You cannot put a value on human life,” and Bill Gates weighed in stating that we can’t just carry on and simply “ignore that pile of bodies over in the corner.” Apart from arguments regarding the pricelessness of human life, it’s also important to note that framing the issue as one of personal choice fails to acknowledge the way in which those willing to take these risks undermines others’ ability to choose. One person’s behavior can put others at risk who have taken steps to insulate themselves; the value of personal choice cuts both ways.

While the reception of Patrick’s remarks have largely been heartening, his rallying cry isn’t without its supporters. Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, for example, opened the university’s doors yesterday to welcome back students, and is expecting faculty to report to campus. Last week, The Atlantic offered a new take on an old saying: “Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, in a national emergency, there’s no truly laissez-faire government.” But the US seems forever poised to test the truth of that inference.

Cui Bono? Public Goods and College Education

photograph of campus building at the University of Tennessee

Pete Buttigieg recently caused a stir by arguing students from wealthy families should not benefit from any scheme that makes public college tuition free. This distinguishes his position on free college tuition from that of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom have plans that would extend the benefit of free tuition to all students, regardless of the amount of money their family makes. Buttigieg motivates his view by appealing to an idea of fairness. How is it fair, he asks, that middle and lower-class families pay for the children of rich families to go to school? (Hillary Clinton expressed the same sentiment in 2016.) However, Sanders and Warren also motivate their plans by appealing to fairness. Sanders has argued since his 2016 presidential run that it is essential to each person’s ability to secure their future livelihood should not be hostage to how much money their family makes. With mutually incompatible plans each apparently appealing to the same moral concept, what can we make of the respective arguments?

Buttigieg’s plan is to offer free tuition to both two and four-year public institutions of higher education to those students whose family income is less than $100,000. Buttigieg argues that Sanders’ and Warren’s plans are not properly targeted at those who most need assistance and would moreover be wasteful due to paying for the education of students whose families could afford to pay for it. The sense of what is fair here is something like, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” Wealthy families have the ability both to subsidize other families’ education while also paying for their own education. Less wealthy families need more assistance securing the resources to pay for their education. On Twitter, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez criticized Buttgieg’s plan for misconstruing what sort of good a college education is. She argued “Everyone contributes & everyone enjoys. We don’t ban the rich from public schools, firefighters, or libraries bc [sic] they are public goods.” The sense of what is fair here is something like, “you pays your money you takes your choice.” Everyone who pays into a fund secures the right to draw on that fund for themselves if they decide to do so.

But what does it mean for something to be a public good? One way of explaining this is via the idea of so-called “neighborhood effects.” This term is used in economics to describe situations in which there is a forced exchange between parties. The typical example is that of an upstream polluter. If an individual or institution dumps materials into the water that make it undrinkable or otherwise inconvenient for people downstream to use those people are forced to accept the sullied water. This is true even if the upstream polluter offers to compensate the downstream people: they are forced between having dirty water and no compensation, or dirty water and compensation. But this is not a real choice. In the case of education (of at least the K -12 type) something similar happens. When a person is educated everyone else in society receives a benefit without bearing any costs. Educated people are better neighbors, workers, and fellow citizens. In this situation the educated person is forced into an exchange: educate themselves at their own cost (of time and resources) and benefit everyone else or don’t educate themselves at their own cost (of future benefit and improved quality of life). But this is not a real choice. Because each individual’s actions automatically affect the quality of the air and water supply of each other person (within a given area) air and water supplies are public goods. Likewise because each person automatically benefits from each other person receiving at least basic education, basic education is a public good.

In the case of neighborhood effects, even libertarian thinkers like Milton Friedman have argued for the acceptability of government administration and intervention. For education this takes the form of the government securing funds to create public schools by way of taxes or fees. This is how public K – 12 education is universally provided to children in the United States. Moreover Buttigieg agrees with this principle for K – 12 education. So why doesn’t he extend this principle to college education? Again, in line with the thinking of people like Friedman, Buttigieg thinks of college education as mostly beneficial to the educated people themselves, rather than society at-large. Because it benefits them personally, he reasons, it is appropriate for them to bear at least part of the cost which they can then repay by way of their increased post-graduation earnings. Moreover Buttigieg argues that a college education is not necessary for everyone, whereas K – 12 education is. To boot the people who choose to go to college, according to Buttigieg, are largely those from wealthier households anyway. He says, “Americans who have a college degree earn more than Americans who don’t. As a progressive, I have a hard time getting my head around the idea of a majority who earn less because they didn’t go to college subsidizing a minority who earn more because they did.” Hence he sees entering college is a form of risk that a person chooses to take, betting that their future earnings will make the risk worthwhile. However, society at-large ought not be forced to subsidize the risks of individuals if those risks will only pay off for the individuals themselves, rather than the whole of society.

What of Ocasio-Cortez’ critique, then? Is she wrong to draw an analogy between public services like firefighting and college education? The answer lies in how her claim that, “everyone contributes and everyone enjoys” is interpreted. In the case of a true public good the benefit everyone enjoys is a sort of generic, blanket benefit. If the mansion and estate grounds of a wealthy family catch fire, the fire could spread to the homes of the other citizens or at the very least pollute the air in the area with smoke. This is a neighborhood effect, which provides a basis for making everyone pay into funds to provide universal firefighting services. As she says, each person benefits from the provision of these services to every other individual. Likewise with K – 12 education: each person benefits from every other person gaining basic literacy, numeracy, and civics knowledge. The question, then, is whether each person benefits from every other person gaining advanced skills in literary analysis, theoretical physics, philosophy, psychology, and host of other disciplines college students can pursue. To understand Buttigieg’s “No” is to see the benefits stemming from college education as specific, non-blanket benefits that accrue primarily to each individual who chooses to partake rather than a generic, blanket benefit.

Because Buttigeig does not view college education as a public good, he does not think it is fair to make everyone pay so that everyone can enjoy it. Ocasio-Cortez explicitly views it as a public good, and so does think it is fair that everyone is able to enjoy it equally. Sanders and Warren also seem to implicitly view college education as a public good, given their policy proposals for free college tuition for all students. Because it is easier to quantify how individuals are benefitted by their own college education, Buttigieg’s plan has a certain appeal. But without completing the harder task of quantifying how an individual’s college education benefits society as a whole, or thinking beyond quantitative evidence, it is not clear that he can stave off criticisms like that of Ocasio-Cortez.