Petrified Wealth

When Europe was still a Christian continent, every city wanted a glorious cathedral. So the local church would sell some indulgences; the aldermen would hike the tax rates, and the citizens would commence a construction process that required decades and sometimes centuries of capital and labor. At the end of these public works projects, we had the priceless houses of God we know and love today.

Why did the townspeople acquiesce to this sacrifice when the money and labor could have developed industry or helped the poor instead? Certainly some investment in these areas was much needed, and there was a church on every street corner anyway. Christ’s comment that “the poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me” (Matt 26:11) comes to mind: albeit Jesus was gone well before the Dark Ages, the prospect of giving him glory in such a concrete way must have been appealing. The cathedrals are works of art which inspire one to holiness. It strikes me, though, that when it came time to decide who was paying for these things, the bishops would employ trickle-down economics. While the wealth appeared “petrified,” or locked inside the bricks and mortar where no one could utilize it, the indirect benefits of the cathedral would outweigh its enormous costs, they’d say. Churches were and still are the landmarks of many cities, so having an impressive one could raise the self-esteem and thus the productiveness of the townspeople while also attracting new talent to the area.

We’re still building cathedrals today. Now, though, they aren’t meant to honor the King of the Universe or to awe us into a life of love and mercy. Rather, they honor entertainment and athletic prowess. I’m referring to publicly funded sports stadia. Just about every professional club receives help from the public these days. Here, I’ll look up the first three stadia that come to my mind:

-Nationals Stadium: the Montreal Expos moved to Washington so they could find people to build a nice stadium for them. In order to pay for the new home of the Washington Nationals baseball team, the District of Columbia (annual budget: $7.6 billion) will sell $600 million in bonds.
-Wembley Stadium: Cost $1.6 billion to build. About $320 million of this was public funding.
-Lucas Oil Stadium: the Indianapolis Colts threatened to leave the Hoosier capital unless the city chipped in for a new stadium. (This is the most unnerving part; at least the Catholic Church didn’t threaten to leave unless it got what it wanted from the city.) Indianapolis will cover $455 million of the $675 million project.

How can a government, which will put you in jail if you don’t pay it enough money, justify giving some of those coerced payments to private sporting organizations? It’s trickle-down econ again: “If the team leaves, our citizens will be morose, and employers will not want to come to such a minor-league place.” In the Middle Ages, we didn’t have economists to question the logic of the bishops, but we have them today, and they say professional sports do not cause development. The construction will create jobs, as all public works projects do, but when it’s complete, it won’t be a thrumming financial hub or a widget factory; it’ll be a place where thousands of people watch a bunch of guys throwing a ball around. It’ll be great fun, but it won’t create any prosperity. It’s petrified wealth. Six hundred billion is a lot to invest in something that isn’t proven to spur growth.

I love sports and beautiful buildings. I just think the teams should build them themselves. If that means the teams leave town, whatever: we can catch them on TV anyway, and if enough cities stand firm, the game will be over. (In Spain, clubs sell shares of the team to the fans to fund construction.) Paying for their own office space is the least the wealthy owners could do considering all the little people who don’t care about sports but who are obliged to pay for such buildings anyway. At least most women enjoy going to cathedrals.

Explore posts in the same categories: Politics, Sports

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