If you want to sell a sports subsidy plan, state it in terms of cups of coffee

There was yet another Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel column arguing for public funding for a Bucks arena on Friday, and I wouldn’t even take notice, but columnist James E. Causey brought back the dreaded coffee analogy:

The annual cost to regional taxpayers for Miller Park is about $10, or the cost of two venti Caramel Macchiatos at the local Starbucks.

Even if the figure was $25 a year, it still would be a bargain.

Pricing stadium costs in cups of coffee has a long tradition, most notably back in 2005 when it was the Minnesota Twins seeking public subsidies, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Jim Souhan wrote approvingly, “Twins owner Carl Pohlad will pay $125 million. You’ll pay less than you leave in the tip jar at Dunn Bros.” (That’s a coffee place, FYI.) The problem — other than that the annual cost of Miller Park is repeated over 30 years, so really every man, woman, and child in the Milwaukee area (Causey divides by total population, not just adult taxpayers) is out $300 — is that you can do this trick with just about any public expense you can think of and make it sound reasonable:

Anyway, the point isn’t that big expenditures spread over enough people average out to a small amount — though no doubt writers like Causey are counting on readers’ innumeracy to obscure that realization. (He also buries deep in his article the news that a Bucks arena would cost more like $25 per person per year, or five Macchiatos.) The point should be what else could you be doing with that money. For the estimated $250 million cost of a new arena, Milwaukee could open another 19 libraries, or provide financial aid to an additional 18,000 college students, or, if you prefer, cut the average Milwaukee homeowner’s property taxes by $284 a year.

Not that any of these are necessarily the best uses of $250 million. But you’re talking about how to spend public money, you need to be comparing apples to apples, not to Macchiatos.

9 comments on “If you want to sell a sports subsidy plan, state it in terms of cups of coffee

  1. The Iraq war would be a little over 3 of the 12 servings of England-quality Curry ordered by this guy at the World Cup.

  2. “The war in Iraq will end up costing each American only about $2,000 apiece … okay, that one’s harder to make look good with coffee”

    Not really.

    For the cost of only a coffee a month we brought peace stability and freedom to the middle east!

    You just have to elide the fact that the benefits are sketchy at best and the costs are per person and for a period of 30 years.

  3. @Juvenal,
    I know it’s a fox news link… but it’s the first one that popped up when I typed Iraq into google. Do we get to divide over 30 years if the freedom doesn’t last that long ?

    The leaders of an Al Qaeda splinter group that has seized vast portions of northern and western Iraq have declared the establishment of an Islamic state and demanded allegiance from other Muslim groups.

  4. Not to lead the discussion off topic (any more than it already is), but I’d suggest it would be more appropriate to calculate what the war cost Iraqis, not America.

  5. Maybe slightly more on topic, neither caffeine nor arenas are healthy for many people and are not the government’s business.

  6. Causey’s point seems to be, since it’s as cheap as a few cups of coffee, you shouldn’t have any choice whether to spend the money on a stadium. Well, why should we have any choice about spending it on coffee either? Let’s have mandatory coffee expenditures – after all, Starbucks generates “economic impact” too.

  7. I wanna hear the backstory – Why is Mr Causey so eager to take $millions out of the pockets of hard-working Starbucks employees? A barista musta done him very wrong.

  8. Amongst my favourite “creative expenditure justifications” (not the expenditure itself necessarily, just the justification…):

    Steve Ross, then president of Warner communications, staring down a grandmother at a shareholders meeting when she asked how much his insane spending on the NY Cosmos was costing her:

    “Two cents a share”.

    I’m told everyone leapt to their feet and unleashed rapturous applause – this despite the fact that $0.02/share was somewhere north of $5m of the shareholders money, and that was in 1977 dollars.

    And the Apollo program… which NASA liked to tell people cost less money than American housewives spent on cosmetics in the 1960s. The greater point, I guess, is that Americans actually had a choice re: their cosmetics spending.

    This type of justification is nothing new, nor is using an incorrect financial comparison to do so.

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