When it comes to wasteful COVID-19 spending, it might seem like there aren't many things the federal government hasn't done.
But just you wait.
Broadway mega-hit Hamilton will receive at least $30 million and possibly as much as $50 million in federal bailout funds, The New York Times reported Wednesday, despite its status as one of the most successful and profitable musicals in American history. The funds are being delivered through the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program, a $15 billion portion of the $900 billion COVID relief bill passed by Congress last December. Each production affected by the pandemic is allowed to apply for up to $10 million from the program, but Hamilton will get several times that total because the Broadway production and each of four touring shows are separately eligible, according to the Times.
Indeed, it must be nice to have Washington on your side.
Jeffrey Seller, Hamilton's lead producer, tells the Times that none of the bailout money is going to the show's producers or investors and that it won't be paid out in royalties to artists like Lin-Manuel Miranda. Instead, the money will be used to "remount those shuttered productions" and pay off bills that accumulated during the show's pandemic-induced hiatus.
Don't buy this argument. Money is fungible and every dollar that taxpayers contribute to "remount those shuttered productions" is a dollar that the show's investors and producers won't have to spend or borrow to do the same. Let's be very clear about this: Hamilton was absolutely going to return to the stage whether the federal government kicked in $50 million or nothing at all.
Worse, every dollar spent bailing out mega-hit Broadway shows is a dollar that can't be spent to help get smaller productions and theaters that don't have access to private credit and investments on the scale that Hamilton surely does. If there is any role for the government to play in helping entertainment businesses get back on their feet after the financial impact of the pandemic, that's where the focus should be. How many community theaters could be saved with that same $50 million being showered on Hamilton?
That's the problem with almost all government bail-out schemes. You gotta be in the room where it happens—metaphorically, at least. Successful businesses will always have an advantage over those who lack the lobbyists, name recognition, or culture cachet required to cash in.
On the other hand, the federal government's firehose of COVID relief spending—$5.9 trillion and counting—means it is easier than ever to get bailed out. So far, the government has responded to the pandemic by sending money to people who earn six-figure paychecks, paying fully vaccinated people not to work even though there are millions of available jobs, bailing out state governments that are running huge surpluses, and using the pandemic as cover for a massive bailout of union-run pension funds, among other things.
Like with Hamilton, there doesn't seem to be any consideration of when or how much government aid is necessary. We've pumped so much money into the system—nearly all of it borrowed and added to the country's long-term debt problems—and it has to go somewhere.
Did a bunch of fake celebrities whose only claim to fame is being former contestants on The Bachelor need the federal government to dump as much as $20,000 apiece into their bank accounts? Nope, but they got the cash anyway, according to data gathered by ProPublica and reported in a variety of media outlets.
The likelihood that those funds are critical to preserving the American economy from the scourge of COVID-19 is less than the chance of someone finding true love on a trashy reality television show—or the odds that the curtain would come down on Hamilton without millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded aid.