23 January 2014

The Slow March of the White Hippopotami

There has been a long debate about which of the twelve World Cup stadiums are going to be White Elephants. The leading pachyderms have been Manaus, Cuiabá, Natal and Brasília. While it is true that these wayward children of post-Keynsian corporate welfare will have no practical use as sporting venues after the World Cup, the global band of elephant hunters has yet to turn their sights on the other eight elephants. In reality, ALL of the World Cup stadiums are White Elephants. Let me explain.

The public financing of stadiums that remain in the public domain theoretically bring public benefit. This is what taxes are for. Ignoring for a moment the privatization of social services, we pay taxes for health care, security, sewage, trash collection, education, public transportation and the maintenance of public spaces because they bring public benefit. It doesn´t matter if these make money because as taxpayers we are willing to pay for them.

Ignoring for a longer moment the obscene tax burden in Brazil and the recondite machinations of massively irresponsible people like Rio´s State Secretary of Transportation (who was last seen laughing at the site of yet another train derailment in Rio), the public financing of stadiums for the 2014 World Cup, should theoretically bring public benefit. Yet other than being a condition of hosting the World Cup, during which time the stadiums will legally belong to FIFA (except if anything goes wrong), what public benefits are privatized stadiums going to bring?

All of the stadiums have been financed with public money to some degree or other. Three have had private sector investment because they are the property of teams: Porto Alegre (Internacional), Curitiba (Atlético Paranaense) and São Paulo (Corinthians). ALL of the others have had 100% public financing and ALL of them are going to be run as for-profit venues by private companies or consortiums. This jack-in-the-box hocus pocus has a name: Public Private Partnership, or PPP. What´s the problem with this?

PPP takes the stadium out of the public domain, shifting the logics of the building from one of public benefit to private profit. The only logic driving the operation of the stadiums for the World Cup is profit. When that is all you have as a guiding principal, ticket prices rise, costs get cut, perhaps safety is compromised, and the taxpayer, if he or she wants to enter into this formerly public space, now has to pay, and dearly, for this “right”.

Take the case of the Maracanã, an elephant so white it could run for political office in Utah. The stadium was built, maintained, used, modified, enjoyed, adapted, hacked and deformed with public money. Now it has been violently ripped from public hands and handed over to some fat cat construction bosses, marketing fakirs and the benighted princes of Rio´s football teams who are keen to extort the public at every turn. The public paid in money, blood, and gas induced tears for the Maracanã, now they pay again and again and again to have access to it. This is the new White Elephant scenario in Brazil where eight cities destroyed pre-existing stadiums to build new ones on the same spot.

The economic logics used to justify PPPs are never adequate. For instance, we will never know how much the Maracanã cost to maintain during its 63 years in the public domain because Rio´s State Secretary of Sport and Leisure and SUDERJ are as transparent and accessible as a lunar eclipse. There is no information available, not even through Freedom of Information Requests. We may know how much the new stadium costs to maintain and operate, but only because those numbers will justify increased entry fees.

The use logics are equally wrong. The notion that these Elephants are now multi-use arenas ignores the history and functioning of the stadiums before. These “obsolete” stadiums were used for exam taking, cadet training, religious gatherings, or had public restaurants, meeting spaces or served as public athletic facilities. They were also relatively affordable places to see football matches. Under PPP, multi-use means “shopping mall”, where the only chance that the public has to use the facilities that they paid for is by opening a wallet wider than a hippopotamus.

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