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:
- That Chicago lawyer who was convicted of massive tax fraud on behalf of his wealthy clients cost federal taxpayers only $5.10 apiece — that’s less than a Teavana® Shaken Iced Blackberry Mojito Tea Lemonade!
- The $3 billion a year the U.S. government spends annually on corn subsidies for agribusiness amounts to less than $10 per person — that’s only a little more than you pay for a single bucket of popcorn at a movie theater!
- 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.
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.