Triple Play – Marlins Park, the 13th Amendment and the Future of Capitalism

(What do a Forbes article, a BleacherReport post and an Oscar-nominated movie have in common?  They came together in my mind this week.)

Legislating in a democratic society can be a very messy business, regardless of the level of the legislative body in action or the nobility of the cause before it. If you have seen Steven Spielberg’s compelling depiction of this process in the movie “Lincoln,”  you know exactly what I mean.  Even in support of what is now universally recognized as a fundamentally just cause, the greatest president in our history had to resort to every means available within the law, and perhaps a few arguably outside the law, to accomplish what he believed was right for the country – abolishing slavery.  Others below the President in governmental rank faced the same challenge and were forced to compromise long-held principles or alter previously unequivocal public denouncement of slavery in order gain the votes required to pass the 13th Amendment.

Where would our country be today if President Lincoln and these other government officials had not done all that was necessary to obtain Congressional approval of the amendment before Lincoln was assassinated?  No tolerable answer presents itself.  It is a question that compels us to acknowledge that – at least to a certain extent – Machiavelli was correct when he advocated that “the ends justify the means” in government.

On that 16th century political premise, I turn to a 21st century example of the messy business of legislating at the local level – the financing of the Marlins Park in Miami.  We all know that Miami and Marlins’ owner Jeffrey Loria are easy targets for criticism, most recently skewered by BleacherReport lead writer Zachary Rymer (“Marlins Park Perfect Example of How Not to Build a Publicly Funded Stadium” – January 28).  Frankly, I was surprised when I read his article because I thought Marlins and Loria-bashing was no longer trending, but there are apparently new questions about the structure of bonds issued to finance the park’s construction and, of course, fiscal responsibility is the topic of conversation everywhere in the country as the current congress and president deal with federal debt and budget dilemmas.

I believe I can refute each of the points raised by Mr. Rymer in his article (email me if you really want to know), but for now I will simply say that his analysis fails to address the most important question.  Just as did President Lincoln and the legislators when they considered the 13th Amendment, the commissioners who approved the construction of Marlins Park had to decide the importance of the ends to determine the extent of the means. Did they believe in good faith that the existence of Marlins Park would be good for the Miami community?  Of course it might have been financed more economically, or placed in another location with better parking, or even tied contractually to on-field success by the Marlins. However, if none of these negotiating points was obtainable at the time, was it still in the best interests of the community to accept the available terms in order to get the park built and retain the major league franchise in south Florida ?  That is the question at the heart of the debate.

You can be certain that other communities were quite ready to make the necessary financial arrangements to take the Marlins out of Florida if the Miami officials delayed any further.  My home town, San Antonio, through its county commissioners, faxed in an unsolicited offer to advance $300 million if the team would move here.  Therefore, so long as no laws were broken the Dade County commissioners acted clearly within their capacity and responsibilities as elected officials in making the decision to approve the financing package and retain a civic asset.   The citizens were thereafter free to pass judgment by refusing to re-elect them or, as happened to the Miami mayor, organize a recall election, if they disagreed with the result.  Thankfully, none of them was assassinated.

That is all part of the messy business of legislating that occurs daily in the cities and counties of America concerning all manner of topics.  Most are found on the front pages of newspapers (print or electronic) and deal with tangible public services – new roads, water systems, public schools, law enforcement.  Professional sports teams, however, fall outside most citizens’ definition of tangible public services, even where positive economic impact is well-documented.  It is precisely for this reason that each community must rely on its elected officials to oversee the process, make their decisions in good faith and live with the consequences, the nature of which may not be known for decades.  No one truly knows whether the deferred financial terms of the bonds issued by Dade County will prove to be harmful to the community 15-30 years from now.  What we know is that a majority of the elected officials believed that keeping the Marlins in town was worth that risk.

I can’t help but feel that the current outcry is so great principally because of the incendiary presence of Mr. Loria – exacerbated certainly by the team’s abysmal performance in the park’s first season.  For whatever reason, Jeffrey Loria appears to be the unfortunate face of capitalism before an angry mob of public prosecutors, including even Forbes magazine (“Miami Marlins Have Become Baseball’s Most Expensive Stadium Disaster,” 1/27/13).  Loria’s crime according to Forbes’ writer Michael Ozanian? “During the five years through the 2011 season the Marlins posted a staggering $153 million in aggregate operating income. But then Loria decided to switch to a different sort of welfare: taxpayers.”  I assume Ozanian refers to “net” operating income and that he is offended that Mr. Loria had the audacity to conduct his business so as to make an operating profit and still use his negotiating leverage to obtain a favorable arrangement for his team at the new baseball park.  But isn’t that the kind of operating performance and corporate management acumen usually applauded by Forbes?

For some reason, Mr. Loria engenders criticism no matter what he does with the Marlins, on the field or off.  (See my post: Jeffrey Loria Deserves Some Love,” 11/20/12).  In his BleacherReport post, Mr. Rymer stated that “The Marlins may have a new ballpark, but it’s clear that they’re going to be the same old Marlins as long as Loria is in charge. There’s just no changing some people.”  Well, those “same old Marlins” are not only successful financially they also have won a World Championship in each of the past two decades – one on Mr. Loria’s watch.  I assume the fans in Chicago or Cleveland or about 20 other MLB cities would issue some expensive public bonds in exchange for a World Series banner or two.

So, the hatred simply must come from the sense that Loria unfairly gamed the system.  Personally, I just don’t see it.  He named his price for keeping the team in the community and the community leaders accepted it.  Hasn’t Forbes magazine and many others – as well as perhaps every president since FDR – applauded these types of public/private partnerships that provide communities with products or services they want without nationalizing every industry? You can search the web for “Obama public private partnership” and find numerous recent examples even from an administration known for the expansion of government.

If we are to remain a capitalistic society operating within a democratic form of government we must accept these public/private arrangements that permit private profit in exchange for public benefit.  We must also permit the duly elected public officials to make good faith determinations about such opportunities.  If we continue to vilify capitalists attempting to work within this system we may discover an answer to the question of what the country would look like without the 13th Amendment, and that would not be profitable for anyone.

(JSR) © 2013