In the movie “Field of Dreams,” Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella — no relation to Stephan — hears a mysterious voice in his cornfield telling him, “If you build it, he will come.” The “it” was a baseball field, which Kinsella built, despite the apparent financial insanity of converting productive farmland into an empty diamond. Of course it wasn’t empty for long. The ghosts of the 1919 Chicago White Sox — banned from baseball for match-fixing — appear, reunite Kinsella with his dead father (the “he” in “he will come”), and at the end of the film a line of cars, with paying believers, come to visit the field and no doubt save the Kinsellas from bankruptcy.
Today in Quebec City, local political oligarchs are staging their own real-life remake of “Field of Dreams.” In this version, they’re building a hockey arena instead of a baseball diamond; they’re leveraging hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars instead of a farmhouse; they’re hoping to revive a long-departed hockey team, which wasn’t banned so much as “moved to Denver”; and the only voice that matters is saying even if you build it, he probably won’t come.
Quebec Premier Jean Charest and Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume are the proverbial farmers in this story. They’ve committed to spend $400 million — including $125 million in new debt over the next 20 years — to build a new “ampitheatre” for the express purpose of luring a National Hockey League team back to Quebec. This despite the following warning from NHL chief executive Gary Bettman:
I don’t want anybody getting excited…in the conversations that I’ve had with a variety of people, including the Mayor and the Premier, we have said we’re not planning on expanding. We’re not planning on relocation. So we cannot promise [Quebec] a franchise….[W]e don’t want people building a building on our account, expecting that there’s going to be a franchise, because we’re not in the position to promise one right now.
That doesn’t sound promising, yet Quebec leaders are undeterred. They’re so intent on building their amphitheater, they publicly broke their own laws to get the project going. Mayor Lebaume and his government awarded a no-bid contract to Quebecor — the province’s largest media conglomerate — to manage the future arena, and no doubt own the hypothetical team that would play there. Quebecor has neither any experience running a hockey team, nor of course any assurance from the NHL that it would even be approved for ownership, but again, let’s not get in the way of Quebec politicians and their blind faith.
The Quebecor contract violates provincial laws that require a public bidding process before awarding any contract. As is usually the case when the state violates its own decrees, the wheels are now in motion to exempt the state from its own misconduct. Surprisingly, it was not Premier Charest’s Liberal government, but the opposition Parti Quebecois — the advocates of secession from Canada — that introduced legislation in the provincial assembly to retroactively immunize Lebaume and the city. The PQ’s bill simply declares the Quebecor contract is “deemed not to contravene” the law that it clearly contravenes.
This was apparently too much for four PQ legislators, who abruptly quit the party rather then obey the leadership’s demand to support the bill. Premier Charest also went running for the hills and decided to shelve further consideration of the measure until the fall. But this is likely not the last we’ll hear of this.
Perhaps this is an inevitable effect of the widening global economic collapse. Local governments are so desperate for the illusion of growth that they’re doubling down on the most ridiculous and speculative projects imaginable. It takes a deeply deluded mind to commit yourself to 20 years of new debt over a project that is unlikely to ever accomplish its stated objective — attracting a NHL team back to Quebec City. If anything, this endeavor will prove self-defeating for the Quebecois. By producing a new arena “on spec,” the NHL now has additional leverage to extract new concessions from other cities who don’t want the shame of seeing their own team relocate to Quebec City. Much like the National Football League has done with the franchise-less Los Angeles for almost two decades, Quebec City is now the proverbial Sword of Damocles hanging over the head of every city government with a money-losing NHL team (and there are a lot of them, trust me).
Events like this are also an important reminder that for all the focus on “big picture” economic debates, such as the future of the Federal Reserve, much of the economic damage inflicted by the proponents of statism occur at a more local and intimate level. Sub-national and municipal politicians don’t need prompting from federal powers to engage in reckless, artificial boom spending. Left to their own devices they come up with plenty of crazy schemes. And as the Quebec situation demonstrates, there are few “legal” remedies to prevent such abuses — as the people who make the laws are also charged with following them, an inherent conflict-of-interest that no amount of elections can remedy. Ultimately, all politicians are slave to the mythical voices in their head that say, “If you build it…well, just build it for the sake of building it.”