Friday, September 7, 2012

Repetitive Debt Concussion Syndrome

In an effort to maintain some semblance of an exercise regimen, I try to run several times a week along the San Tomas Aquino Creek trail that starts a few blocks from my home and ends 5 miles or so later at the swamps and marshes of the Baylands. The trail is used at nearly every hour of the day by bicyclists and joggers, by families on weekends and by office workers at lunchtime, by parents pushing strollers and by high school cross-country teams. The creek alongside the trail is filled with tall grasses and ground squirrels, families of brown ducks, and a number of long-necked, white-plumed birds. But elements of the densely suburban and industrial landscape through which the trail winds also define the scenery: you pass beneath a series of busy roadways, including the six lanes of the 101 Freeway and the elevated tracks along which commuter trains periodically shriek; and an inverted shopping cart, backpack, or errant piece of discarded furniture sometimes shows up in the creek among the birds and grasses. All in all, though, the STAC trail is a pretty fabulous public works project: it promotes healthy living and exercise, family and neighborhood engagement, and is accessible to everyone at no cost.

About halfway down, the trail passes alongside what may well be its absolute antithesis: the construction site of the new 49ers stadium.
Views along this portion of the trail are currently taken up by massive tower cranes, a parking lot filled with portable construction company offices, and security guards designed to keep those on the trail from entering the site. Unlike the trail, the stadium is a massive private works project, designed to enrich the NFL, the 49ers organization, and perhaps a handful of local business leaders. The vast majority of people using the trail will never be able to afford the tickets required to gain entrance to its grounds (a startling licensing fee of between $2000-$12,000 applies to the purchase of a season ticket--even before the price of the tickets itself), even though most of those people were initially persuaded by the 49ers media campaign to vote for the stadium.

Such outrageous fees are supposed to begin to recoup the extraordinary costs of this project. Indeed, to build it, the City of Santa Clara had to take out a mind-numbing $850 million in loans from a trio of Wall Street investment banks whose names by this point should resonate more like those of mobster casino operators than confidence-inspiring institutions. After all, it was only last year that Jefferson County, Alabama declared bankruptcy after its disastrously failed effort to pay for construction of a massive sewer system project by taking out loans from Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, and other Wall Street investment banks. If you have even minimally been keeping track of news from the financial sector over the past five years, you'd tend to think that any city that willingly agreed to go into debt at the hands of Goldman Sachs, U.S. Bank, and Bank of America must have experienced some kind of sustained head trauma. It's as if America is suffering from a financial version of the repetitive concussion syndrome that's affected so many football players: with each new loan, the brain smashes against the side of the skull, accumulating long-term effects of decreased cognitive functioning that in the end will make us liable to make yet more bad decisions and rack up yet more debt.
The cloud of actual sustained head trauma has been hanging over the NFL for some time, but this year it's darker than ever. CTE and other forms of degenerative brain disease--with symptoms of memory loss, aggression and irritability, mood disorders, paranoia, even hyperreligiosity--have been conclusively shown to afflict football players at rates far above that of the general population, leading numerous former players to suicide, and accounting for at least some of the reckless behavior that has led to the premature deaths of other players. Several writers have predicted the beginning of the end of football and other long-time fans have publicly sworn off of the game, withdrawing their support from a sport which profits at the expense of too many of its young players. The NFL’s recent decision to donate $30 million to CTE research is, at this point, a bit like Philip Morris making a big contribution to lung cancer research.

No one has yet suggested that making really bad investment decisions is one symptom of the repeated head blows sustained by most footballers, although the case of the 35 NFL players who recently lost upwards of a collective $43 million in a misguided Alabama bingo casino plan might suggest otherwise. Encouraged by their agent, Drew Rosenhaus, players (including, most prominently and vocally, Terrell Owens) invested in the scheme devised by Jeff Rubin, a guy almost destined to emerge as a giant financial rip-off artist. In the trio of characters currently holding starring roles in this drama, it’s frankly hard to decide which monstrous ego is more irritating and repulsive than the next. But if this is a mini-version of the 49ers stadium saga (and it is), Santa Clara is unfortunately Terrell Owens, with whom the city might be said to share symptoms not of CTE but RDCS--Repetitive Debt Concussion Syndrome, prone to afflict anyone who trusts investment advisers (Jeff Rubin, say, or Goldman Sachs, or Bain Capital) who operate within the greed-and-debt financial culture that currently dominates our economy.

Both the NFL season and the political election kicked off this week with televised spectacles held in big arenas and stadiums. Whether or not you watch football, and whether or not you support the stadium project, you should vote--a privilege which doesn't yet require a ticket or charge any licensing fees. But when you vote, consider the differences between public works and private works; in an election season in which every candidate seems to be the "business" candidate, consider the extent to which a business candidate can also be a peoples candidate. This is at least as important at the local elections where you'll elect new members of your City Council as it is in the national presidential election. The economists writing for Grantland who calculated the theoretical financial fallout after the end of football predicted that its disappearance might end up benefiting other sports like tennis or track, whose athletes don't sustain a series of life-threatening head traumas. Get out your bike or your running shoes: I'll see you on the trail.

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