Emmer: Public golf, teeing off on your nickel (column)
September 21, 2017
Editor's note: Find a cited version of this column at http://www.vaildaily.com.
Yippee ki-yi-yay! Times are good again. Jobs are plentiful. Stocks are high. Real estate is bubbling. Economists tell our government to borrow and spend more in bad times and then pay off debt during prosperity. It makes the good times less reckless and the bad times less dangerous.
Government gets it half right. It borrows all the time.
So the United States has run up federal, state and local government debt, Social Security and similar obligations to $750,000 per household (economist Laurence Kotlikoff estimated the total amount at $205 trillion; to be conservative, I've cut Kotlikoff's estimate in half). Compare that to median U.S. household income of $56,000 a year. Groan.
Given the current flight path of public debt, it looks almost inevitable that the economy will splash and sink sometime before today's kindergartners send their own kids off to school. It will take better government than we have had for generations to shoot a winning round.
Some public spending is critically important. Near the very top is police work. It can be overdone. It can be underdone. But it must be done. That is not true of all spending.
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The differences are obvious in this sample of spending: roads, dog pounds, bus systems, planning and zoning, open space, recycling, fire, rescue and ambulance, libraries, gyms, ice rinks, swimming pools, ball parks, courts, fairs, festivals and fireworks, trails, water and sewer, weed control, kindergarten through 12th-grade education, subsidized housing, trash service and landfills.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the whole bundle of government spending adds up to $47,000 per household per year. The Congressional Budget Office plots a debt trajectory impossibly aimed for Mars. Something big will change.
In government as elsewhere, much spending is driven more by emotion than reason. I, for instance, like libraries. That emotion may trip me up when attempting to assess libraries rationally — so, too, for other people and other programs.
For an often-ignored framework of thinking about programs and laws, let me caddy you around municipal golf courses. The towns of Breckenridge, Vail, Gypsum and Aspen all own them.
Hole 1: On the tee is an eternal question: Is golf a worthy use of government's power to whack citizens on the head? Or, another way, paraphrasing PJ O'Rourke, "Should government be allowed to put your mother in jail for not paying taxes for golf?" For most people, this is an easy hole-in-one. No.
Hole 2: What is the public purpose of subsidizing golf? Is it to supply leisure? If so, then perhaps the towns should subsidize Netflix, rafting guides and trips to Las Vegas.
Hole 3: Maybe the purpose of subsidized golf is to reduce health care costs, but probably not. If so, then carts would be banned. It might be more cost effective to chip away at local hospitals, instead.
Hole 4: Perhaps the goal is to bestow wide, green views on nearby homeowners? People further away might claim discrimination. Score that reason a six on a par 3.
Hole 5: The goal might be to attract new businesses and residents. Is that what residents want? If so, then towns should show them some numbers about how much growth a golf course buys.
Hole 6: More likely, there is no clear purpose or measurable goals for governments to own golf courses. In work where people's money matters, that forfeits the game.
Hole 7: Specialists write the towns' financial reports for specialists. If an average high school graduate cannot quickly see the forest and its most important trees, then there is darkness where there should be light.
Aspen and Breckenridge's reporting is clearer than Vail and Gypsum's. The first two report golf cleanly; the latter two mix golf numbers with other business. Seems to me that some penalty strokes should apply.
Hole 8: Public golf courses are economic sand traps. Based on financial reports, my rough estimates are that Vail and Aspen's golf course losses amount to the low thousands of dollars per household, per year. Breckenridge and Gypsum's losses run in the low hundreds.
None of the towns report how much money is lost to the community by using land for which others would bid higher. None address the core question: Are the benefits greater than costs? Expect to hear some throat clearing, but nothing else.
Hole 9: Municipal golf courses suffer from a democratic deficit, too. When did residents last vote on them? Perhaps never? When will they vote next? Never, too?
The fewer opportunities residents have to vote on specific issues, the less legitimacy the system possesses. Local governments have untapped potential to strengthen their democratic street cred, which the feds and states do not. The local units could be much, much closer to real people than they are.
Every day takes us further from the last recession and closer to the next. Meanwhile, the public sector sees no reason to improve its swing.
So hole after hole, it tees up your money and slices it into the woods.
New game, anyone?
Vince Emmer is a Gypsum financial analyst who runs Citizens Due Diligence in his off hours. Share your story or give feedback to him at email@example.com.
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