Monorail! Did Somebody Say Monorail?!

One day in 1983, the Mendocino Commentary, a small newspaper in Northern California, began receiving strange, playful, and erudite letters to the editor from a reader name Wanda Tinasky. Like many small-town cranks, Wanda weighed in cantankerously on the issues of the day, but she aimed most of her bizarrely eloquent vituperation at obscure local poets. Her excessive rants got her banned from the Commentary, but she eventually resurfaced in the pages of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, an even smaller small-town newspaper with a caustic worldview that more closely echoed Tinasky’s. For several years, in dozens of letters, Wanda shared the details of her life. She was, it seemed, an octogenarian bag lady who dwelt beneath a bridge, someone equally at home discussing the coiffure of Phil Donahue or the theology of the 15th century polymath Nicholas of Cusa. She was, in short, too good to be true, and her real identity was the subject of much local speculation until 1988, when Wanda fell silent.

But then, as is often the case, something happened. Thomas Pynchon, a legendary enigma of the first order, published his fourth novel, Vineland. Set in a fictional Northern California town that reminded some residents of Mendocino, Vineland displayed the vast erudition and entangled paranoia that is the hallmark of Pynchon’s work–and of Tinasky’s correspondence. Brian Anderson, publisher of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, felt sure that this was more than a coincidence, and concluded that the two authors were in fact one. The letters were gathered into a book, The Letters of Wanda Tinasky, and sent off in search of a publisher.

The story is interesting enough, but here’s where it gets real good and, I sincerely hope, relevant to the larger, soon-to-be-made point: Though Pynchon was able to use the threat of legal action to stop Anderson from making any overt links to his (Pynchon’s) name, he wasn’t able to stop the book being published. He adamantly disavowed authorship, and in doing so relinquished any control over the material, leaving Anderson free to make any subtle implications about its authorship he wanted.  But if Pynchon had wanted to kill the book entirely, he could have claimed authorship, and then denied Anderson the rights to reprint the letters–which he didn’t write*. This strategy is mindbendingly paradoxical and downright Pynchonian–to maintain your innocence, you must admit your guilt; To protect you identity, you must pretend to be someone else. Nothing is what it seems like, and every single thing is actually something else entirely.

I mention all this because of all the recent attention given to new stadiums. The Yankees and Mets moved into new digs at the combined cost of $2.5 billion. President Obama has thrown his support behind Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics and The U.S.’s effort to woo the World Cup in 2018. Even the New Enthusiast’s hometown, Portland, OR, is moving briskly down the path of converting PGE Park into a MLS-ready soccer-only facility and building a new home for the minor league Beavers. Every new venture has its opponents, people who would rather not see public money used to subsidize private facilities. Cost overruns, sweetheart deals, and tax loopholes are all par for the course in the world of stadium financing. But these criticisms don’t even begin to describe how perplexing, how preposterous, how conspiratorially convoluted–or, in other words, how downright Pynchonian–most deals really are.

For just one instance, when new owners took control of the Seattle Supersonics, they promptly broke their lease with Seattle’s Key Arena and began the process of relocating the team to Oklahoma City. In an effort to forestall the relocation, the City of Seattle sued the ownership group for $200 million, the amount they claimed the community would be deprived of if the Sonics left town. Ownership’s response? They called on a prominent economist to testify that professional sports teams have no discernible economic impact on their surrounding community. While the Sonics generate activity, he maintained, that activity is likely due to the substitution effect, meaning that if the Sonics left, the fans would just spend their entertainment dollars somewhere else in town. I’m sure the citizens of Oklahoma City were totally psyched to hear that.

Or how about this. In 1996, the San Diego Chargers intimated that they were going to pack their bags when their lease at Jack Murphy Stadium expired. To avoid this unspeakable calamity, the city agreed to spend $76 million dollars renovating the Murph while adding 10,000 seats, plus threw in a guarantee that 60,000 tickets would be sold for each game, and any shortfall would be made up by the city. Here’s where it gets weird: for every ticket sold under the existing agreement, the Chargers owed 10% to the city for rent, and then had to give 40% of the remaining amount to the NFL for revenue sharing. However, the city’s ticket guarantee wasn’t made up by actual ticket sales, just in a lump payment equivalent to the face value of the tickets needed to be sold to meet the 60,000 total. Meaning the city’s payment guarantee wasn’t subject to either the 10% rent deduction or the 40% league revenue sharing scheme. Meaning the Chargers could keep 100% of the payment. Meaning, the Chargers could make more money by not selling tickets than by selling them.

And then there’s the curious goings-on right here in the Rose City. Yesterday’s Oregonian had a howler of an article looking into the recently approved stadium financing deal. In order to pay for the soccerization of PGE and construction of a new minor league baseball stadium, the city is taking on $65 million in debt by issuing what amounts to the municipal equivalent of subprime loans. The payment plan is so risky, Portland’s debt manager isn’t convinced there will be any buyers for the bonds. Thankfully, Merritt Paulson, owner of the newly-MLS-promoted Timbers and the Beavers, and at whose behest this debt is being assumed, has personally guaranteed that he (with help from his old man, US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson) will find willing buyers. As David Logsdon, manager of the city’s spectator facilities said, with a personal guarantee from the Paulson family “it’s less important to the city how we scrub through all the numbers.” Great!

But scrubbing through the numbers would’ve been a little difficult, anyways. The city-commissioned study to evaluate the revenue projections for the Timbers and Beavers contained numerous basic math errors. But that’s okay, too–Logsdon said no one on his staff checked the numbers, and anyway, task force chairman Steve Maser doesn’t recall anyone discussing the numbers in committee since they reflected “what everyone was expecting.” Yeah, why bother looking at a study that’s just going to tell you what you already know? No whiff of bias here, folks! Also, helpful NB to Maser–if a study reflects what you were already thinking, but that study contains critical mistakes…well, maybe it’s worth rethinking what you thought you knew.

As is the usual tactic, Paulson claimed that the new stadiums would yield 600 well-paying new jobs in Portland (critics think the number is more like 160 ok-paying jobs, but whatever, let’s take Paulson on his word–he did make a personal guarantee, after all!). That means, when factoring in $65 million in new debt, Portland is essentially paying over $108,000 for each new job. Yikes! They would almost literally be better off just dropping the money into Pioneer Square from a helicopter.

Stadium deals, from Portland’s relatively small-beans amount to China’s $40 billion+ tab for the ’08 Olympics, are almost always uniformly bad for the host municipality. There are reasons to support your local team, though they aren’t much more tangible than plain ol’ civic pride. But don’t expect a meaningful, positive economic impact to come from the public financing of such a limited private enterprise. If you think otherwise, I’ve got a monorail I’d like to discuss with you.

*Literary sleuth (meaning that he does his sleuthing about literature, not in literature) Don Foster later identified forgotten Beat poet Tom Hawkins as the author behind Tinasky. After abandoning poetry, Hawkins moved to Mendocino County and went progressively off his rocker, wearing disguises and running petty scams with his wife. Shortly after the Tinasky letters stopped, Hawkins murdered his wife, set his house on fire, and drove his car off a cliff. The end.