Thursday, 12 February 2009

NOT PJ: Carisbroke

Bernard Darnton went to Dunedin in search of pink elephants and found a white one …

What is it with politicians and stadiums? Even those rare politicians who are only slightly profligate, when presented with an artist’s impression of a stadium they develop all the self control of a half-Irish half-Frenchman with six hours to live who’s discovered a liquor cabinet in a brothel.

Speaking of alcoholic and sexual dissolution, I went back to Dunedin earlier this week. I stepped off the airbridge and into thirty-three degree heat. I lived in Dunedin for sixteen years and I don’t think it ever got to thirty-three, even if you added all the temperatures together.

The next day it was back to the usual summertime drizzle and eleven. I don’t remember deliberately spending much time outside when I lived there so I understand why those considering a new stadium to replace Carisbrook would like a roof on the thing.

The problem is that stadiums with roofs are scandalously expensive. Dunedin’s comes in at around $200 million (that’s $400 million including cock-ups), which in a city of 100,000 means a chunky rates hike. Per capita, it’s twice the cost of Auckland’s rightly-rejected billion-dollar bedpan. The $200 million price tag assumes everything goes well, meaning the weather has to be perfect when construction starts in June. Perhaps a roofed building site should go in first.

Boosters for these boondoggles always talk about what great investments these projects are. What they don’t explain is why they have to steal the money to “invest” from reluctant ratepayers rather than raise it from private businesses who’d like to roll around in the supposedly inevitable profits.

The Carisbrook Stadium Trust talks about how the new stadium will kick-start investment in North Dunedin “in exactly the same way the Telstra Dome has in a once forgotten docklands area of Melbourne.” They don’t mention that the Telstra Dome is bankrupt.

The Trust’s website drips with cargo-cult logic: “[The stadium] will present an economically robust city to attract new businesses.” They’re just not quite barefaced enough to say, “Build it and they will come.”

How do self-stroking politicians get away with promoting these staggeringly expensive vainglorious projects?

Simply, the numbers are too big. People don’t understand the word “billion.” It sounds like “million,” which means “quite a lot,” and “billion” also means “quite a lot” – maybe a bit more. But the difference is vast. A million dollars is what you’d get earning the average wage for twenty years. A billion dollars is what you’d get if you won Lotto every week for twenty years.

With a million dollars you could buy a nice house, a decent car, and a world trip. A billion dollars would get you a Scottish castle on a hundred acres of land, a seven-bedroom fifteen-bathroom Hollywood mansion furnished by Saddam Hussein’s decorator, a Formula 1 racing car, James Bond’s Aston Martin, a Russian oligarch’s superyacht with matching helicopter and submarine, a return trip to the International Space Station, a case of French champagne every night for the next hundred years, your own weight in caviar, a divorce from Heather Mills, and a Tutankhamen-style 110-kilogram solid gold sarcophagus for that subtle finishing touch.

Politicians know they can bandy around big numbers because nobody really gets how big they are. I mean Texan-elephant-with-a-dodgy-thyroid big; Gilbert-Grape’s-mother-getting-impregnated-by-Mr-Creosote big. They also know that big numbers can be made into small numbers if you divide by the population and the number of days in the year: “The stadium’s cheaper than a can of Speight’s!” (And in the small print: per person per day for the rest of your life.) If someone demands that you buy them a beer every day for the rest of your life, you know the correct response.

When politicians suggest these grandiose schemes, I always think of Sapurmurat Niyazov, the recently dead president of Turkmenistan. He wrote his own sequel to the Koran, renamed months of the year after himself, and erected an enormous gold statue of himself in the centre of Ashgabat, the country’s capital. The statue slowly rotated during the day so that the sun always shone on his face. And it cost less than a new rugby stadium.

* * Read Bernard Darnton’s NOT PJ column every Thursday here at NOT PC * *


  1. Hi Bernard! I love a good laugh-out-loud and you never disappoint me! Niyazov has just become my new hero! Magic. :)

    It sounds like the most helpful thing he ever did -- as far as his fellow citizens were concerned, anyway -- was stop breathing!

    Quantifying one billion .. you're spot on; the figure rolls off the tongue too easily. Best example of the diff between million & billion I ever heard went like this ...

    "If I gave you $1 million and told you to spend it at the rate of $1000 per day, it would take you nearly three years.

    But if I gave you $1 billion and told you to do the same, it would take you nearly 3000 years."

    That widened eyes all around the room!


  2. I used to ask my physics students to work out how long a million seconds is and then how long a billion seconds is.

    A million seconds is about 12 days. A billion seconds is about 30 years.

  3. Same thing in the big countries, except it becomes hundreds of billions insteads of billions.

  4. The "Stop the Stadium" folks have a nice collection of links to research on their website. Read especially Cowen on subsidies to stadiums and events and Coates. These kinds of subsidies never make any kind of economic sense at all. The cost benefit studies pushing them are invariably dodgy by any reasonable standard of assessment (use of multipliers, time discounting anomalies, etc). Cowen lays out the theoretical issues very nicely.

  5. Brilliant! I'm just trying to figure out, now, how to compress the paragraph comparing a million to a billion enough to use it as an email signature quote. I especially like the Heather Mills bit :-D

  6. heisenbug, I've stolen your idea and stolen all these million/billion comparisons.

    Thank you everyone, a million-billion times from my heart.

    (I had to run the sums to be sure we were American billion and not British.)


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