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Can Olympics costs be ethically justified?

I am not a consequentialist, and so I am generally not prone to applying utility-maximization tests to every policy. Yet even I found my greatest-good-for-the-great-number buttons pressed by the news this week that the British government will invest £41million in opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics. This comes on top of £40m the organizers had already budgeted for the ceremonies – and over £1 billion the government expects to spend on security costs.

My initial impulse, for this post, was to play the contrarian and devise an argument to justify the additional £41m ceremony expenditure. I can see two almost-plausible arguments here. The first is a directly consequentialist sort: an extravagant, televised Olympics will attract future tourists to London, bringing revenue to the government and job-creation to its citizens. But this relies on a flimsy empirical assumption. Perhaps a fancy ceremony can create buzz for a city not yet widely visited (Barcelona seems to have done well in this sense, and perhaps Beijing will ultimately benefit from its 2008 extravaganza). But could this plausibly be true of London? There is much debate over whether the Olympics in their entirety will be a net economic gain for the UK. Setting that aside, the idea that an extra £41m on the ceremonies (amid a total Olympic budget close to £10billion) will make much positive difference seems exceedingly implausible. (There’s a helpful discussion of general Olympic funding issues here. )

A second almost-plausible argument has something to do with national pride. Like people everywhere, many British people find personal value in their connection to the nation, and to its public stature. Almost no one expects the London Olympics opening to rival that of Beijing, but surely it matters to many that the ceremony not be a threadbare embarrassment. Perhaps, then, the additional funds are justified. To the extent that national pride contributes to individual identities, and to the extent that this contribution is conducive to individual wellbeing, then even an additional £41m may be money well spent.

Perhaps. But the form of this argument invites comparisons. Are there other ways £41m could contribute to the welbeing of Britons? Perhaps by mitigating spending cuts? By undergirding social service programs? The pro argument here must be that the ceremony expenditure provides either a unique or an especially welfare-multiplying value for money. Is it the case that the national pride stirred by well-executed ceremonies would contribute substantially more to individual wellbeing than some other use of the funds? That seems unclear, at best.

Public expenditure debate has a tendency to trigger utility-calculating impulses, even in non-consequentialists like me. I happen to think that such impulses must often be constrained by certain non-consequentialist principles (call them deontological if you like). But it’s not clear to me that there is any such principle relevant to this case. Therefore, at a time when public sector pensions are being unwound and social services are being cut, it appears difficult to provide an ethical justification for such a large expense on such an ultimately unimportant thing. But perhaps I have missed something here. A question for readers: do you see any grounds, consequentialist or otherwise, to ethically justify the additional £41m of Olympic ceremony public spending?

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3 Comment on this post

  1. It's really difficult to evaluate the benefits of successfully hosting an event like the Olympics. Here in NZ we just hosted the Rugby World Cup, and the good vibe about it was palpable (not only because we won, but that certainly helped a bit). Boosters always like to claim there will be huge economic benefits to these sorts of things, but they're almost always wrong in dollar terms. But unquestionably these sorts of things do purchase welfare improvements, and my guess has always been that we probably underestimate the diffuse benefits of this sort of expenditure vs the more concentrated (and captured) benefits of, eg, welfare spending.

    I've always seen the Olympics, the Apollo missions, the LHC, symphony orchestras, RSC, etc as basically being important parts of humanity's dreamtime or creative spiritual expression or something like that. I think they provide sorts of spiritual public goods in a lot of ways, speaking to different audiences, maybe, but with important aspects of giving people some sort of hope or some sort of encounter with the sublime.*

    Personally I don't think modern liberal democracies spend enough on this stuff. Notwithstanding Gil Scott-Heron's excellent meditation on the opportunity cost of the Apollo missions,** they clearly had huge positive externalities for a very large number of people (I'm one – my career choice to be a physicist followed directly from my fascination as a child with space exploration). In general we do a poor job of adequately reflecting non-market values in cost-benefit analysis, as is evidenced by loads of feminst scholarship on domestic labour, environmental scholarship on the value of natural environments, etc. I think the same thing is almost certainly going on with things like the Olympics, space exploration, the value of the RSC, etc so I wouldn't expect cost-benefit analysis to do a great job on this stuff.

    So my guess is "yes we underinvest in this stuff" but at the same time "41Mquid is a big number for a ceremony" but then I'm aware that I'm not really "Hey let's put on a show!"-Judy Garland kind of guy, so maybe I'm not someone well-positioned to perform this evaluation. [Felt the same about the Royal Wedding, but am aware that my mother-in-law thought it money very well spent.] That's the other thing – I think we're all tuned to different frequencies here, which is less obviously the case with things like domestic labour and protection of natural environments. That particularity or subjectivity is likely to be an additional layer on top of the non-market valuation problem.

    *The fantastic documentary In the Shadow of the Moon shows that, in addition to its scientific value, the Apollo missions were very expensive ways of guaranteeing a couple of dozen people something a lot like religious experiences. The language the astronauts draw on when they describe their experiences is basically from the realm of the sublime, when it is not the language of engineering. It makes for fascinating viewing.

  2. Could we maybe see the expenditure not as an investment for future returns in tourism and such, but rather as a short-term investment to boost a particular sector of the economy? I'm assuming that the 41M is going to be spent on artists, athletes, equipment, etc. All of this money would be a useful economic boost to those musicians and textile workers, behind the scene technical workers, etc. at a particularly trying economic time.

    Think of it another way, had the government instead taken the 41M and invested it in road repair or the like, construction workers would get a short-term economic boost, that would overall help the general economic good of all. Instead of investing it in construction workers, the UK is investing in artists. Now the tangible and practical good that comes from an artistic spectacle isn't quite the same as improved roadways, but arguably it isn't any less important.

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