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Congressman offers unskeptical endorsement of Zimbalist's dubious AY study

In Congress last year, Andrew Zimbalist's dubious study of Atlantic Yards for Forest City Ratner got a mindless endorsement from the ranking minority member of the Subcommittee on Domestic Policy of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform of the House of Representatives, even though an expert witness warned that accepting studies that were not peer-reviewed was akin to federal drug regulators embracing reports created by the drug companies themselves.

It was during the 3/29/07 hearing called "Build It and They Will Come: Do Tax Payer-Financed Sports Stadiums, Convention Centers and Hotels Deliver as Promised for America's Cities?"

Subcommittee Chair Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) had elicited critical testimony from several observers. At one point, asked by Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL) whether there was room for public-private partnerships in sports facility construction, Frank Rashid of the Tiger Stadium Fan Club responded (see p. 61 of this transcript):
I think each project has to be looked at very carefully and really independently analyzed, and that is the problem. Right now, there is no independent analysis. I think if there were, we would see considerably fewer publicly funded stadiums and a lot more money from the private sector in those projects.

There is a whole set of powerful interests that can control the debate. What really needs to happen and where I think federal enforcement would be valuable is in establishing requirements that there be real solid and verifiable analysis for each project, and that is not done.


The value of peer review

During that same hearing (p. 68), Brad Humphreys, an economist and professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign pointed out how the public can be hoodwinked:
I also want to point out for people who are trying to decide on these subsidies, that there are two types of evidence that we have about what the economic impact of professional sports facilities are. One are these promotional studies or economic impact studies that are generated by proponents of these subsidies, and they typically find huge economic benefits. This other type of evidence that we have is scholarly, peer-reviewed academic research, the kind that I do.

Often in the court of public opinion, these two types of evidence are treated equally, and I would argue that is a very bad public policy... One of the previous panelists said that we need to have independent oversight... That is what peer-reviewed academic research is....

We don't make policy about drugs and things like that just based on what pharmaceutical companies say. We have research that is peer-reviewed, that tells us about those things. We should have the same sort of standards when we are considering whether or not there is economic benefit to be gained from professional sports.


Fluffing Zimbalist

Still, later in the hearing, some non-peer-reviewed research, albeit with an academic gloss, was promoted by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the ranking minority member. He declared (see p. 123):
Mr. Chairman, I would also like to put into the record an economist's study from the Robert A. Woods professor of economics at Smith College in Massachusetts. It is from May 1, 2004, and it specifically deals with Atlantic Yards, estimating that the total of $2.93 billion over 30 years or a net present value of $1.08 billion would be the advantage for that operation. Although it may not be the one that is going to carry the day, it certainly seems that independent bodies such as university economist very much believe that there can be a net economic benefit, and I ask that be placed in the record.

Except that Zimbalist was a consultant "retained" by the developer, not an "independent body," his study was deeply flawed, and it was never peer-reviewed (nor the subject of journalistic scrutiny).

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