Holy Economic Development, Batman!

Spoiler Alert! Don't read ahead if you're one of the 13 people in North America who have not yet seen The Dark Knight. So there's a scene toward the end of the new Batman movie (I think it's at about the 4-hour mark) that totally had me geeking out, GOVERNING-style.
by | August 4, 2008

Spoiler Alert! Don't read ahead if you're one of the 13 people in North America who have not yet seen The Dark Knight.

So there's a scene toward the end of the new Batman movie (I think it's at about the 4-hour mark) that totally had me geeking out, GOVERNING-style.

Gotham's in peril, and residents are trying to flee the city in ferries. Two of the boats filled with passengers finally make it out, but the Joker has rigged them to provide a little sick entertainment for himself.

He cuts the ferries' electricity once they're both out in the water, marooning the two boats. Each ferry is filled with explosives that are set to detonate at midnight.

But there's a twist!

The Joker has provided each ferry with a detonation device that will blow up the other ship. If you're the first to push the button, you live, but you've killed all the passengers on the other ferry. If no one on either ferry pushes the detonator by midnight, both ferries will explode. So what do you choose -- save yourself by killing others, or die honorably, without any blood on your hands?

It's an extremely tense scene that had everyone in my theater on the edge of our seats.

But it's probably a safe bet that I was the only one thinking, "Oh my god, this is just like corporate tax incentives!"

In my story for the August issue of GOVERNING, I looked at cities' negotiation processes for wooing businesses -- and why that process always takes place behind closed doors.

Critics who advocate greater transparency for economic development negotiations argue that a city, by offering tax breaks and other incentives, is essentially spending taxpayers' money without public approval or notice.

Greg LeRoy, the executive director of Good Jobs First, which pushes for greater accountability in these types of deals, told me that cities are kept in the dark and played off each other, while the business itself holds all the cards.

LeRoy says it's a classic prisoner's dilemma: Two guys get arrested for a crime, but the police don't have sufficient evidence on either one of them. So the cops interrogate each one separately. Rat out your friend, they say, and you'll walk free while he goes to jail for 20 years.  But if neither one of you squeals, you both go to jail for 10 years. If you each betray the other, you both got to jail for five years. So do you trust your accomplice not to betray you?

It's the same situation for cities competing against one another for the same business, LeRoy says. The cities are prohibited from discussing their negotiations with one another, and the business uses that to its advantage, playing each city off the other in an effort to get more lucrative incentives.

Needless to say, there's a lot of disagreement as to whether that's really what companies do -- and whether the incentives ultimately make any difference in a company's decision to move.

But the whole thing did stick in my mind during The Dark Knight's ferry scene. Obviously no one's blowing up or dying during economic development deals, but it's an interesting parallel.

So, uh, does this mean I can write off my movie ticket as a business expense?

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