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The lesson of Field of Schemes: political reform needed

This is the eighth and final part of a multi-part interview (conducted May 28) with Neil deMause, the Brooklyn-based co-author of the book Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit, and writer of the companion web site. He testified at a 3/29/07 Congressional hearing that questioned taxpayer financing of stadiums, convention centers, and hotels.

Q. What’s the lesson of the book? Do you have general reform advice--what should cities, states, or the federal government do?

A. It’s easy if you’re the city or the state or the federal government: you stop giving money… It’s within federal government’s power to stop tax-exempt bonds from being used for stadiums right now. You just pass a law telling the IRS don’t do that anymore. The federal government could shut down subsidies for sports stadiums and for other ridiculous deals, luring companies from one state to another.

There’s this thing I mentioned in the book. [Rep.] David Minge’s proposal, why don’t you just pass an excise tax on corporate subsidies, so if Ratner gets, say, a billion in subsidies for this project, then he has to pay federal taxes on this project, that would suddenly make it a lot less lucrative. Congress could do that in a second. They are not.

Cities could say No, it’s not worth it to us, that it would be nice to have a basketball team in Brooklyn, but not that nice. All this is within the power--it’s not that hard to do. The problem is, what do we as private citizens do when the government is not making decisions based on the public interest but making decisions based on the private interest.

What's the book about?

A. I tell people Field of Schemes is not a book about sports, it’s not really a book about stadiums, it’s about the failure of democracy in this country, about how governments, at every level, are more there to serve the interests of people with money than their constituents.

For a while, when people would say, What should be done? my glib answer was: Campaign finance reform. I still think it’s a good answer.

Who's in charge?

A. If Bruce Ratner didn’t have the ear of all these people--again, if he can’t give them money, he can certainly hire their friends as lobbyists. You have to in some way find a way to shift power from people who can spend money to buy it to popular will, which is what it’s supposed to be about.

This writer for Crain’s Detroit, who wrote this piece about all the great things that Comerica Park has done for Detroit. I wrote him an email saying You’re accepting a lot of numbers at face value that are ridiculous.

At one point, he said, Well, people are voting for these deals, so if people think it’s a good thing, why are you complaining about it? and I said, Well, these are referendums where opposition is being outspent 100 to 1, if the opposition comes anywhere near having the same resources they always win.

His answer was, Isn’t that just the market at work? I said, Call me old-fashioned, I don’t think our democracy is about people being able to buy votes.

What does Brooklyn want?

A. That’s the problem. Right now our democracy is about people being able to buy votes. It is not a question about what does Brooklyn want, or what does New York City want, which would be interesting questions. There are people who don’t care about subsidies, the problems of the arena, they don’t care about eminent domain, they really care about getting more affordable housing.

That’s a legitimate reason to support the project. But you’ve never had a public forum debating what do people want. It’s about what does Ratner want.

And it’s a huge problem, that our media isn’t responsive to what the public wants, our elected officials aren’t responsive to what the public wants. I think there are a lot of little pieces that could be done, but I think political reform is as necessary as fighting project to project. You have to do both.