New York Times article about the Obama administrationâ€™s involvement in Chicagoâ€™s 2016 Olympic bid once again reminds me of how crazy all the Olympic-related lobbying seems. Is there any reason to think these events are actually beneficial? The main sense in which you can imagine a city being made better off by hosting an Olympics is that the hosting duties may cause it to invest in some useful infrastructure that pays off. But if thatâ€™s the case the infrastructure investments would have paid off even if there had been no Olympics. The name of the game is to identify useful infrastructure opportunities and build whatâ€™s worth building. If anything, pegging the investments to a one-off multination sporting event seems likely to cloud thinking about what is and isnâ€™t truly needed.
Sure, in an ideal world leaders would evaluate infrastructure needs and build the things that are worth building, but as Matt well knows, we don’t live in an ideal world. The Olympics can help to align the interests of fractious local governments and increase public acceptance of tax increases. And it can fix the time problem of infrastructure investment. Infrastructure benefits begin appearing years down the road and last for decades beyond that, while many of the costs — the political headaches, the need to put together financing, the disruption of construction, and so on — are relatively immediate. Winning the Olympics ties an immediate benefit to the immediate costs — we’re facing all these headaches, but it’s worth it because we won the Olympics. The games give a short-sighted electorate a reason to invest for the long-run.