Tuesday, amidst buzzing TV news helicopters, breathless interruptions of regularly scheduled programming and a Twitter tsunami, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre returned to the Twin Cities as the team’s starter. Vikings fans are clearly excited, but is the whole Brett Favre experience good for Minnesota?
Well, yes and no.
The Brett Favre drama unquestionably serves Brett Favre. He’s a terrific quarterback, combining athletic talent, intelligence and a great capacity for making correct judgments under pressure. Most of us regularly demonstrate sound judgment but most of us don’t face blindingly fast, awesomely intimidating defensive linemen while engaging our decision-making processes. That’s why Brett Favre collects a $13 million paycheck for the season and the rest of us make something less.
Witnessing the Favre return, I was struck by the parallel with musician Chuck Berry.
Berry is a seminal, iconic figure in post-World War II American popular culture. As a composer, singer and guitar player, he created and performed a remarkable body of song. From “Maybelline” and “Johnny Be Goode” to “No Particular Place to Go,” Berry helped create a distinctly rock and roll sound from rhythm and blues’ roots. Berry is also bitter that so many people made so much money from his intellectual property without compensating him.
As music styles evolved, Berry’s records stopped selling. He turned to the oldies circuit, performing with promoter-provided backing bands. As Bruce Springsteen recounted in the documentary film, “Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll,” Springsteen and his band jumped at the chance to accompany Berry. Just before show time, Berry arrived at the venue and pocketed his fee before continuing to the stage.
With Springsteen and band watching in amazement, Berry set down his case, pulled out his guitar, plugged into the amplifier and stepped to the microphone. As the curtain rose, Springsteen asks, “Mr. Berry. Um, what are we going to play?” Berry briefly turned to the band and said, “Boys, we’re going to play some Chuck Berry songs.” Then he launched into a song, expecting the band to catch on.
The Vikings/Favre situation is different and more complex, but I can’t escape the feeling that on Wednesday morning, with the Favre-less training camp complete, Favre turned to his teammates and said, “Boys, we’re going to play some Brett Favre football.”
This is a great deal for Brett Favre but I’m not so sure about the rest of us. Normally, Brett Favre provides entertainment but rarely merits a larger public policy discussion. However, two factors change that mix. The Minnesota Vikings’ Metrodome lease expires next year and the Wilf family ownership group expects Minnesotans to substantially subsidize a new football stadium. Apart from his quarterbacking skills, Favre’s drama contributes to a pro-public subsidy narrative. That, in turn, begs the larger question, what is, exactly, Minnesota’s economic development strategy?
In the broadest sense, Minnesota effectively creates productive infrastructure. Our strong educational tradition prepares a skilled, adaptable workforce. Our high rate of health insured population increases worker productivity and community stability. Our roads, rail, air and water transportation investments facilitate efficient market goods movement. We’ve been quite willing, over the years, to invest public resources in Minnesota’s capacity.
The resulting economic development strategy expanded Minnesota’s economy. Minnesota may be a middle-sized state but we have a disproportionately high per capita percentage of Fortune 500 companies headquartered here. Colorado has nearly the same population as Minnesota but has only eight Fortune 500 companies to Minnesota’s 21. It’s no mistake that Minnesota’s infrastructure investments created Minnesota’s prosperity.
Conservative public policymakers don’t see it that way. Their insistence on smaller government restricts infrastructure investments, allowing Minnesota’s wealthiest residents to grab greater short-term financial rewards while avoiding community reinvestment’s costs. Conservative policy concentrates public investment’s rewards into fewer hands. It is, in effect, Chuck Berry reaping his past’s diminishing returns while delivering a half-assed performance.
Absent new or recapitalized infrastructure, Minnesota’s potential for future prosperity is significantly compromised. Budgetary belt-tightening is only a short-term solution; its long-term application undermines community stability and success. Eventually, the tightened belt strangles.
This is likely Favre’s final year in a remarkable football career. He’s hoping to squeeze out one more great season in much the same way that Chuck is still playing “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Both are driven, talented men struggling to hold on to a world that is moving forward without them. Their true lesson, at least in public policy terms, isn’t found in their hits but in their circumstances. Both of their careers benefited from robust infrastructural investments.
Favre and Berry may possess drive and creative spark but absent a public infrastructure, they would live very different lives. Minnesota does best when it creates strong communities, trusting that individuals will benefit rather than selectively rewarding a few individuals at the larger communities’ cost. That’s the lesson we should learn from this summer’s Brett Favre return drama.