Saturday, February 12, 2011

What 'conservatives' think government is good for

It's a clear symptom of our collective focus on material consumption that the big news of the week revolved around a possible retail grocery opening and what we're willing to do to get it. The Courier covered this in three news stories (here, here and here), an editorial and Tim's Friday column.

Both opinion pieces were fully supportive of having the City empty its capital improvement fund -- the account from which we normally expect to pay for roads, water infrastructure, public building additions and remodeling, like that -- to buy a piece of land that it will then lease to a developer who will in turn lease it to the funky/trendy Trader Joe's grocery chain.

Many of the city folk who've moved here over the past fifteen years have clamored for TJ's, and periodic rumors of it placing a store here have raised anticipation levels eclipsing the Second Coming.

Council and the editors seem to agree that attracting the chain will only add to the City's tax base, and using the capital fund indicates they think it's necessary infrastructure. Let's say I'm skeptical of both ideas.

They also assert that this is a perfectly ordinary use of public funds, that cities do it all the time. As evidence Tim cites spending for infrastructure improvements and sales-tax relief offered in several large retail deals.

For starters, those deals did not in any way bet the expended funds on the success of the retailer. This one does, and it's a key difference. If TJ's doesn't make its targets it will pull up stakes with little warning and move to greener pastures, as we saw as recently as three years ago in the Phoenix environs, where it closed three stores and left empty mall pads -- during boom times for retail, I might add. In that event the developer is left holding the bag on the lease, likely to lead to a bankruptcy of its no doubt carefully firewalled operation, dumping the improved but empty property on the City to remarket.

Other commenters have brought up the obvious question: if this is such a good deal, there ought to be several banks happy to step up to lend the necessary dosh. It's called a mortgage. Nowhere in the coverage have I seen any justification for usurping the customary role of capitalism in this, or, worse, for taking on that role where private capital won't.

In the not-unlikely event of a default, the City moves from the banker's role into that of the developer and landlord. And I'm fairly sure most readers are familiar with just how easy it is to rent out retail space in Prescott right now.

Council members seem enamored of the idea of "making money" on public investment, promising a big return over something up to thirteen years or so. I guess this is unintended fallout from spouting the idea of "running government like a business," and it has to require a certain amount of mental contortion for people who complained bitterly about the automaker bailout to support this.

I'm not against seeing cash return on investment per se, but that should never be the core purpose of applying public funds. Profit derives from risk, and that's the opposite of what we should be doing with public resources.

Another important aspect is our already crowded retail-food market, which has been shedding players in the recession. How is it fair to use public money to give advantage to a new competitor for businesses that have had to find their own capital and paid their taxes (including into that capital fund) in many cases for decades? Does Council imagine that it will have no effect on existing business, that you and I will all keep buying just as much from everyone else and simply eat more? No, there will be fewer sales elsewhere, and likely slim-to-no net increase in jobs, which is the key driver of economic health.

People who identify across the political spectrum get this, it's not a left-right issue. In the sparkling eyes of its boosters we see the the real force driving 'conservative' politics in this country, and that's greed. If a certain core group of Republicans can find a way to apply your tax dollars to help a corporation make money, they're all over it. That is their idea of the best function of government.