Cleveland sin tax smackdown: Nobody wins

It’s all over but the shouting mutely because your Skype mic isn’t on, and the upshot of the Great Cleveland City Club Stadium Sin Tax Debate is that … people disagree, I guess?

  • That’s how WKYC-TV summed things up, certainly, recapping the panel discussion featuring Cleveland city council president Kevin Kelley, Cleveland Cavaliers president Len Komoroski, Coalition Against the Sin Tax organizer Peter Pattakos, and yours truly as “a two-on-two verbal showdown” — or as it’s better known, a debate.
  • Cleveland.com’s “five takeaways” from the event were that the Cavs exec and council president were “polished,” that they didn’t answer questions directly, that the anti-sin-tax organizer and myself were “populist,” and “Are there alternatives to the sin tax?” and “What would Cleveland look like without Gateway?” which are actually questions, not takeaways.
  • WCPN radio was the only outlet to note that almost all the audience members in the room were pro-sin tax (helping to explain the one-sided Q&A at the end), while counterposing a quote from Kelley touting the economic impact of sports facilities with a quote from me saying they mostly just move money around from one part of town to another.

If I had to pick one takeaway of my own, it would be: Cable-news-style panel discussions suck. The topic may be well thought-out, the moderator may try to probe for deeper truths (yesterday’s City Club moderator did press Komoroski on what the Cavs would do if the tax extension was defeated, something he ducked entirely, leading to that “didn’t answer questions” takeaway above), but still everyone knows that there are no penalties for unresponsive answers, so everyone just recites their own talking points without really responding to each other. It makes for a decent quote harvest, but doesn’t really enlighten anybody much at all, beyond leaving everyone with the warm squishy feeling that we’re all big enough people to sit together in a room (or appear via holographic projection) and agree to disagree, regardless of things like “evidence” and “facts,” and isn’t that what democracy is all about?

I would far rather have spent an hour having an actual journalist or three interrogate me and my panelmates on why we believe what we believe, possibly even referring to their own independent research on the matter. Instead, we get a situation where there’s no reason not to claim that the War of 1812 started in 1945 — especially when you know that the other guy is likely doing it, too.


10 comments on “Cleveland sin tax smackdown: Nobody wins

  1. The ideastream.org link is also trivializing the tax by leaving out the other measures of alcohol…

    The sin tax costs a penny per glass of wine, a penny and a half per bottle of beer, and nearly a nickel per pack of cigarettes.

    From the cleveland.com article in yesterday’s post..
    32 cents per gallon of mixed beverages, 24 cents per gallon of cider and $3 per gallon of hard liquor.

    When I have a spare hour and the linked mp3 file appears, I’ll be listening to the podcast…
    http://www.cityclub.org/mediacenter/cityclubpodcast/PodcastListing/tabid/194/Default.aspx

  2. 111 This issue is the absurdity of absurdities. Let me get this straight: the
    purpose of the Sin Tax is to gouge those who purchase alcohol and cigarettes
    not because anyone is trying to discourage consumption but rather so the
    County can use that money to pay for sports stadiums that do not produce
    anything but a fleeting moment witnessing the passing of a football, the
    dribbling of a basketball and the throwing of a baseball so that such a minute
    tidbit of diversion can be enjoyed by all. The stupidity of this proposition is
    enough to make your head spin even though the spin doctors advocating
    passage of this nonsense are already doing a pretty good job of hypnotizing
    the voters to actually consider supporting it. At least the Robber Barons
    of the previous centuries provided something tangible such as oil, steel,
    railroads etcetera. These team owners do not even provide one tangible thing
    that could ever be considered with the term “value added.” Almost everyone
    discusses this “enterprise” as though it is the same thing as industry {which
    it is not}. The price of admission is essentially a voluntary tax paid by those
    who can afford it to pay those who don’t need it. If this isn’t a transfer of
    wealth I don’t know what is.

    The real outrage here is the fact that taxes on alcohol and cigarettes will
    not be used to aid in the reduction of addiction {hence the reference to “sin”}
    but rather to stuff the pockets of all three teams who could easily afford to
    pay for the repairs themselves. The vote was rammed through the last time
    {under somewhat suspicious circumstances} and hear we go again. But this
    time…not so fast!!! We the voters of Cuyahoga County are going to fight the
    proponents on this one and we don’t care if the teams up and go somewhere
    else {please see my views on entertainment below} because quite frankly there
    are simply more important things than sports and the unearned money that
    comes with it. Those in public office who are too stupid and lazy to find other
    ways to grow a major American city need to resign and leave their self-seeking
    political ambitions on the scrapheap of history. Don’t ever let it be said that
    this was time when the tide ran out on Cuyahoga County but rather was the
    time when the voters rose up to welcome the rising tide of change and rebuked
    this pathetic paradigm our previous elected leaders embraced.
    Let the battle be joined.

    And now to the real underlying issue at hand:

    One of the most disturbing facts about our capitalist nation is the
    misappropriation of funds directed to the salaries of entertainers.
    Everyone should agree that the value an athlete, movie star, talk-show host,
    team-owner, etcetera brings to the average citizen is very small. Granted,
    they do offer a minuscule of diversion from our daily trials and
    tribulations as did the jesters in the king’s court during the middle ages.
    But to allow these entertainers to horde such great amounts of wealth at the
    expense of more benevolent societal programs is unacceptable.
    They do not provide a product or a service so why are they rewarded as such?

    Our society is also subjected to the “profound wisdom” of these people
    because it equates wealth with influence. Perhaps a solution to this
    problem and a alternative to defeated school levies, crumbling
    infrastructures, as well as all the programs established to help feed,
    clothe and shelter those who cannot help themselves would be to tax this
    undeserved wealth. Entertainers could keep 1% of the gross earnings reaped
    from their endeavor and 99% could be deposited into the public coffers.

    The old ideas of the redistribution of wealth have failed, and it is time to
    adapt to modern-day preferences. People put their money into entertainment
    above everything else; isn’t it time to tap that wealth? Does anyone think
    this will reduce the quality of entertainment? It seems to me that when
    entertainers received less income, the quality was much higher.

  3. I think we should blame Frank Luntz for the present state of affairs… he may not have invented the non-answer answer, but he has certainly perfected it.

    Then again, blaming him is more or less the same as blaming athletes and entertainers for taking the money that is on offer. Maybe they shouldn’t earn what they earn… but they do because demand for the game/movie/song etc is there.

    When public demand drops to the point that no owner can pay these kinds of wages, the game will adjust. So long as we fans (or taxpayers) accept the “new cost” of watching these guys play, we have to pay (in the case of taxpayers, even if they don’t watch).

    Joe, I agree it is wrong, but until the stands are empty and their host cities have declared bankruptcy to extract themselves from their stadium commitments (as several are doing to extract themselves from their pension and benefit commitments to their own employees), I don’t see a solution.

  4. “Almost everyone discusses this ‘enterprise’ as though it is the same thing as industry…”

    I have noticed that the concept of economics that informs most of our public conversation amounts, essentially, to this: there is a magic thing called “the economy” that we ought to “boost,” which we can accomplish by transferring more money to something that whoever is talking wants to subsidize.

    I suppose that this concept survives because it is simple, satisfying, and allows the media to avoid “taking sides” in the way that real economic models and evidence do not.

  5. “Everyone should agree that the value an athlete, movie star, talk-show host, team-owner, etcetera brings to the average citizen is very small.”

    The $billions that those “average citizens” spend on entertainment would tend to disprove your assertion. If you really think the economy would be improved by imposing a 99% tax on “entertainment”…”Well, bless your heart”, as my southern cousins might say.

  6. I’m probably wasting my time, but are you familiar with the “superstar effect,” Keith?

    Average citizens spend billions on entertainment, collectively. Individually we spend much, much smaller amounts. As a result of mass media, however, those small amounts tend to go to the same individuals or events.

    If you’re a free market fundamentalist, then obviously this is simply “natural and just” and there is indeed no point in attempting further communication. Otherwise, though, it’s difficult to say how the highest paid athletes and other entertainers have genuinely “earned” such outsized sums through personal merit. They are simply benefiting from a quirk of the market structures that happen to exist at this moment; their fortunes are basically the very epitome of “you didn’t build that.”

    As most of them would probably do what they do anyway–or else be replaced by similar talents currently just outside the spotlight’s edge–this seems like an ideal case for very high marginal tax rates.

    That said, personally I see no reason to single out the entertainment industry. Disparities in marginal utility, combined with an economy in which success is generally much more arbitrary than most people prefer to believe, seem like reason enough to restore the high marginal income taxes of mid-century on an overall basis.

  7. They finally posted the MP3 file for the discussion. I’m still laughing that Komorosky? referred to admissions tax being regressive. Perhaps… but I don’t think anything stops the team owners from charging a facility fee on tickets at a set % or a graduated scale depending on the seat and using that money for the upgrades to the facility they still have… 15 years of lease left at.

  8. Thank you for participating in the discussion Neil. As a resident of Cuyahoga County I understand that it’s our obligation to maintain the buildings. The extension of the sin tax is the easiest way for politicians and civic “leaders” to keep the cash coming in to do it. Pure and simple.

    I don’t think new scoreboards are part of that maintenance agreement though (especially since the teams will benefit from the higher revenue resulting from them) and take offense that the teams want to saddle the taxpayers for their cost.

    Yes the owners are concerned that fans will stay home and watch from their HD screens resulting in lower ticket and concession sales. To combat that effect, they say they need better and better technology at the ballpark to rival the home experience. Doesn’t mean we have to pay for it! Meanwhile they’re getting huge amounts of new revenue from new television agreements. I say put some of that revenue into new scoreboards yourselves and we’ll pick up the tab to fix the air conditioning.

  9. Thanks, Solar Robert — that’s an important point, and one I wished I’d raised at the forum. Unfortunately, it’s hard for me to argue what should and shouldn’t be allowable expenses under the lease when I still haven’t seen the actual lease. Anyone know where I can find it?

  10. The actual lease is probably held in the bank deposit box of Gateway Development Corp. If it were with the government, it would be subject to public disclosure but no such worries.

    If you ask nice, you can get an annual report from Gateway.
    http://www.gatewaysportscomplex.org/reports.html

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