Dicks in Our Stockings

Robin Hood '96: hiring the poor to steal for the rich.

IN THE SPIRIT of the season, I feel it my duty to plead for clemency on behalf of the Dicks of Roseville. The Dicks--dentist Gerald Dick, his wife Judy, and two adult children, James Dick and Stacy Zehren--stand accused of hiring of a personal shoplifter to boost goods from area retail stores. According to police reports, the booty seized from their home included 62 designer sweaters, suits, and dresses and assorted pieces of crystal worth about $45,000. Gregory Thomas, who allegedly played the role of their unfaithful servant, told police he had lifted about a quarter of a million dollars' worth of goods for them in recent years. Then he went and got himself busted, proving again what a beleaguered gentry has long known: One really cannot get good help these days.

The national media have exhibited some interest in the Dick story, seeing in their situation a morality tale about greed in the season of giving. It's an awfully harsh judgment in view of the way media typically treat people of their station. It would be more in keeping with the times to suggest that what the Dicks did was to create employment in exchange for a public subsidy--this one in the form of higher retail prices to make up for the cost of stolen merchandise. What could be more American than that? To their additional credit, they seem to have created employment at a lower per capita cost than Northwest Airlines. And they apparently stood by their work force through a period of years, at a time when so many employers are turning to temp labor.

And all this prattling about greed. Be serious now. Is it not a cardinal rule of the global age to fatten the bottom line while minimizing overhead, regardless of the social costs? There's no beating shoplifters on that count. Is swiping a few Armani suits a greater moral outrage than laying off a bunch of 50-year-old men and women, or raiding a pension plan, or hiring lobbyists to secure special tax loopholes for your company? The Dicks, if they are found guilty--and we should remember they are convicted of nothing, yet--are guilty of no more than seizing the ethos of the times and running with it. That is: Grab what you can and socialize any costs that might spring up. Let the suckers pay the tab. That was the guiding insight behind junk bonds and the S&L crash. It is the philosophy of Al Checchi and Gary Wilson, who made a fortune leveraging Northwest Airlines when they bought it and exacted a ransom from the taxpayers of Minnesota when the going got tough. And it is just the sort of accommodation that the Minnesota Twins are now seeking.

WHY ARE YOU guys against the stadium? an acquaintance wanted to know the other day. Don't you like baseball anymore? We're not, and we do. Personally, I would like nothing better than to walk to an outdoor park on a balmy evening and watch baseball under the stars. I just don't think the public--which continues to oppose tax funds for the Twins, no doubt partly in testament to its lingering resentment over the Northwest bailout--ought to have to pay for it. Odd, isn't it? On the one hand, we are all supposed to ante up (how much? $100 million? $200 million?) for the greater good, even though no one is claiming it's a sound business deal for the public. On the contrary, studies show that sports facilities are one of the worst investments of public funds where job creation and the growth of the regional economy are concerned. And what of Carl Pohlad, who stands to gain the most by far? Well, we are asked to understand that he is a businessman, and--regretfully, to be sure--will have to do as economics dictate.

Let's understand what it is we're being asked to finance. The Twins need a new ballpark to make more money so that they can remain competitive in this market. And how does the new generation of ballparks enhance revenue? One might think it's by putting more fans in the seats. That's only part of it, and not the most important part. In fact, some of the new parks hold fewer people than the facilities they replaced. One reason the parks make so much money for teams is that they are considerably upscaled, from the luxury boxes down to the food and souvenir concessions. Revenues are enhanced because it costs more to go there; thus a new ballpark is in part an exercise in target-marketing to a more exclusive demographic. True, this does not take into account those fans who usually root for the home team via the radio in their garages--but those are precisely the people who are saying they don't want to pay for a new ballpark.

Private financing for such a venture could be arranged, of course. The San Francisco Giants ownership group is in the process of building its own ballpark now. For setting this incorrigible precedent, they are said to be despised by the rest of baseball's owners. The fact is that sports franchises, understandably, want to keep laying siege to public treasuries. Private investors are a tougher nut; they expect a return on investment. Why pay for the Armani suit when it's there for the taking?

 
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