On Wrigley Field and Governments vs. Corporations
Jonathan has an interesting conversation going below on the subject of the loss of privilege that occurs when governments end monopolies. The initial conversation was actually started by Roger in the threads of another post, and centered on a fictional lemonade stand. Jonathan’s centered on the very real taxi industry in the city of Ottawa, which despite being in Canada apparently has roads and cars and stuff.
In Jonathan’s example, the Ottawa government controls the number of licensed taxis that can legally operate at any given time. Because of this, the value of an operational and legal taxicab can be high. Many operators bought into the system well after the restrictions were set in place; therefore, should reform occur those business people would suffer a financial loss largely outside of their control. In Jonathan’s post and the threads, words like “fair,” “suffering,” “harm” and “innocent” are used.
It’s funny, but Mark and I were having a very similar discussion Friday afternoon at the Chicago Cubs game. Similar, but not exactly the same: Ours centered on the actions of private businesses rather than governments. I decided to bring it up because I think it illustrates well how immeasurably the totems of tribe color the way we look at these things.
There are several apartment buildings that surround Wrigley Field, and many of them have bleachers on the roof. (A few of them can be seen in the picture above.) Mark was explaining to me that the owners of the apartment buildings sell tickets to those seats at a very high price tag – much higher, in fact, than what we had paid to see the game inside Wrigley. The Cubs get some percentage of those sales or profits. (I think Mark said 20% of sales, but I can’t remember.) This creates a very lucrative revenue stream for the property owners. In addition the third, fourth and fifth story apartments on the Wrigley-facing side of the buildings – whose balconies are like luxury boxes just outside your very own living room – surely go for an obscene amount. Thanks to their proximity to Wrigley Field, these apartment buildings sell in the eight figures.
Of course, the Cub’s real customers aren’t the dozen or so landlords who own buildings across the street from Wrigley, they’re the 42,000 men, women and children who pay to sit in the stands, seats and luxury boxes inside Wrigley. In order to stay relevant with those customers, the Cubs are looking to install real, modern scoreboards like every other major league stadium. This is bad news for those apartment building owners, because these scoreboards will necessarily obstruct the view from those apartment buildings. Those roof top bleachers will suddenly become useless, and those plumb apartments will suddenly be worth a lot less to prospective tenants. The value of those properties will go down considerably overnight, and those that have purchased them somewhat recently will take a massive loss on their investment.
When this happens – and it will happen – what words will we use to describe those wealthy property investors? “Innocent?” “Suffering?” Will we lament at what is and isn’t “fair,” or worry the “harm” done – not just to those investors but to society in general? Will we wax rhapsodic over the natures of man, tyranny and evil?
Most likely, we will recognize what has occurred for what it is: a risk taken by investors that didn’t pan out. Four years ago paying eight figures for one of those buildings seemed like a really smart idea; now things have changed, and getting someone to pay eight figures looks unreasonable. It doesn’t make those property owners idiots or terrible business people; it simply means an investment they hoped would be a net gain will be a net loss. That’s just the way it goes. If the Cubs had won a World Series three out of the past four years, those same owners might have been able to sell those buildings for nine figures. We seem to accept that any part of a business venture that is vaguely connected to anything other than government to have inherent risk, while at the same time mistakenly believing that anything to do with government is somehow risk free. We file the Cubs cratering a real estate investment under “Sh*t Happens;” we file Ottawa tanking a taxi investment under “Something Must Be Done!”
What I find interesting is this:
Most people I come across fall into one of two camps: They either see the decisions corporations (like the Cubs) make that negatively impact a small part of the community (like the property owners) as a good and natural thing, or they see it as something inherently evil and nefarious. But replace the word “corporation” with “government, ” and everything becomes mirrored. Those that complained that the Evil Corporation was hurting good, upstanding people will rally around a government body doing the same. Those that thought the financial needs of a few corporate shareholders were a justifiable enough reason to bring heavy financial losses to a few will think the Devil has come to town if those same losses are inflicted for the good of the entire city.
Corporations and governments are just people, of course, but they’re also so much more than that. They’re totems that we use to assign either salvation or damnation.
Our heavy reliance on those two words in these conversations has as much to do with fealty than anything else.