MACWORLD, the annual Apple Computer Co. trade show, returned to Boston this week. By the time it ends tomorrow night, upwards of 50,000 visitors will have attended the mammoth exhibition -- and $65 million will have been pumped into the local economy.
One more shining example of the private sector at work.
Apple is a private enterprise, of course. The 375 computerware firms exhibiting their products at Macworld are private. The hotels housing all those visitors, the restaurants feeding them, the shops selling them souvenirs, the tour buses hauling them past the Old South Meeting House -- they're private, too.
And so are the convention halls where Macworld is taking place.
The World Trade Center and the Bayside Expo Center, Boston's largest meeting facilities, are both privately owned. Both are successful businesses. Both cover their expenses. Both earn a profit.
In fact, of the 25 largest convention-exhibition centers in the area, all but one are privately operated, and all but one make money. There are mysteries in life, but whether the private sector knows how to run convention halls isn't one of them.
The misfit in the local array of convention facilities is the John B. Hynes Veterans Convention Center. Only the Hynes is owned and operated by the state. Only the Hynes has never made a nickel. A patronage playpen controlled by politicians, the Hynes loses millions of dollars every year -- and every year the taxpayers are forced to bail it out. This is what happens when the government tries to do what governments are no good at doing: running a business.
Which brings us to the megaplex.
If they were rational, Beacon Hill and City Hall and the various big cheeses of the local tourism industry would be figuring out how to get the Hynes out of the state's clutches and into the hands of private managers. And leading the effort would be Gov. William Weld. Just last week, in an address to the Pioneer Institute, Weld laid down "certain basic precepts," the first of which was: "Government should do only what the private sector cannot."
But the governor doesn't want to privatize the Hynes. He wants to duplicate it. One state-managed, hack-infested, money-losing convention hall isn't enough. We've got to have a second one, says the governor, and while we're at it, let's attach a stadium. And let's get Massport, which has made Logan Airport so inviting and user-friendly, to run it. And let's pay for it all with a mess of new state taxes -- oops, make that "fees" -- on everything from car rentals to harbor cruises to hotel rooms.
Good grief! It is hard to imagine a more open-and-shut case for applying Weld's First Precept -- "government should do only what the private sector cannot" -- than the convention biz. Not only is it a field in which private managers excel, it is one in which the state routinely fails. ("Publicly funded convention and sports facilities almost never generate enough revenue to return any of the capital invested. Most . . . do not even cover their operating costs" -- Edwin S. Mills, director of real estate research, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.)
So what gives with this inane South-Boston-vs.-Roxbury debate? The Legislature, the governor, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the hotel honchos, the director of Massport -- all chatter noisily about which neighborhood to put a megaplex in, yet none has ever answered the threshold question: Why, having messed up so thoroughly the last time it built a convention hall, should the state of Massachusetts even think of doing it again?
But that isn't the worst of it.
Every dollar in taxes -- er, fees -- that the government collects for a megaplex is one dollar fewer for taxpayers to spend. One-point-four billion dollars invested in a government project is one-point-four billion dollars not invested in the private sector. If you think the government can allocate capital more effectively than the free market, by all means join the megaplex pom-pom squad.
But nobody thinks that. All the blather about how wonderful a megaplex would be, and all the pressure to build one, derives from the fact that the people it would enrich -- hotel owners, restaurateurs, Bob Kraft -- have close ties to politicians and the media. The people it would hurt -- the ones who would be paying those taxes and fees -- have no clout at all.
If a new convention center makes economic sense, the private sector will construct one. And if the private sector won't construct one, the state shouldn't, either. No legislature is smarter than the marketplace; no bureaucrat can see farther than an entrepreneur. The shrewdest way the state can invest $1.4 billion is to leave it in the hands of the taxpayers who earned it; there, it will work miracles beyond any government's power to imagine.
In a California garage in 1976, two tinkering college dropouts invented the Apple Computer Co. A few dollars less in their pockets then, and 50,000 Macintosh buffs might not be pouring $65 million into Boston's economy now. Nothing creates wealth like a free market. And nothing is more necessary to a free market than a government that knows its limits.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)