I have never felt so proud to be a Massachusetts resident upon hearing how Curt Schilling snookered Rhode Island.
An overstatement, perhaps. But still, the Commonwealth is coming out a rose on this one. Rhode Island is staring in the face of a possible $75 million (or more) loss to its taxpayers after Schilling’s video game company, 38 Studios LLC, just defaulted on a $1.1 million loan payment due the state. Meanwhile, Massachusetts (the Evergreen Solar state, lest one forget our own transgressions) improbably looks to be a fount of conservative, fiscal rectitude. How did we manage to pull that off?
Schilling (Martha Coakley’s favorite Yankee fan), a pitcher of no small renown who is also a video game fanatic, started up 38 Studios (nee Green Monster Games) in 2006, basing it in Maynard. Even while he was still with the Red Sox, it sometimes seemed as if Schilling’s true passion was less on-the-field than it was on-the-couch. A few years after leaving the game of baseball, Schilling set up a new game in 2010: tug-of-war, one that pit the Bay State against the Ocean State.
Rhode Island pulled first, proffering a $75 million loan guarantee to 38 Studios if it would move operations to the state. In effect, that guarantee was an investment in the company — the state’s credit rating got 38 Studios the money and it was the state’s citizens who were on the hook for any losses.
Schilling then went back to Massachusetts to see what it would offer. He had a pretty compelling case. He was, after all, a near demi-god; the man whose bloody sock broke The Curse. And Massachusetts, desperate to pump up its “creative economy” industries, was eager to become a video gaming hotspot. Plus, there was the potential embarrassment and political fallout of losing out to Rhode Island.
And incredibly, Massachusetts refused to play.
There were talks, but they didn’t come to much. “It was very hard to get to anyone,” Schilling complained at the time. Granted, back then the state was broke and it didn’t have in place a loan program along the lines of Rhode Island’s. Still, if it had wanted to, it could have come up with something. Instead, Housing & Economic Development Secretary Gregory Bialecki said through a spokesperson, “We are not willing to get into a bidding war.”
Kudos to Bialecki and the state for resisting. Rhode Island’s deal was never a good one: $75 million for a pure startup promising 450 jobs (which works out to a hard-to-believe $166,000 for each new hire). Even many in Rhode Island — including current Governor Lincoln Chafee — were opposed. (One has to feel sorry for Chafee, who is now in the unhappy position of trying to fix a mess left by his predecessor — and prime advocate of the loan guarantee — Donald Carcieri.)
Still, the problem with Rhode Island’s loan guarantee to 38 Studios isn’t that it was a bad deal. It’s that the state had no business doing it in the first place.
States love to compete against each other for economic development, using loan guarantees, tax breaks, and other favors to lure companies away. It’s a fool’s game. Absent extraordinary circumstances (such as a failure of capital markets), making such investments in individual businesses is the province of private investors, not government. (The unwillingness of private investors to put money in 38 Studios itself speaks volumes.) Government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers. Indeed, it is uniquely unsuited for the job. Success to investors is measured by profits. Success to government is measured differently — jobs created, taxes collected, social welfare, environmental concerns, and so on. When the two conflict (e.g., if productivity improvements mean shedding jobs), government will be under pressure to make decisions that undermine the long-term profitability of a company.
The best way for states to improve their economies is to make conditions better for all businesses, not just a favored few. Companies need government to create educated employees, good infrastructure, safe communities, level playing fields, fair taxes, and predictable rules. Do those things well, and local economies will grow. Rhode Island would have been better off building new schools than the Kingdoms of Amalur.
This column originally appeared on the Boston Globe's op-ed page on May 19, 2012.