Malcolm Gladwell Takes On Golf In A Peculiar Way

Longtime writer and now podcaster Malcolm Gladwell doesn't like golf very much. He chooses a peculiar path to attack the sport in the kickoff to season two of his popular podcast series.

Here is the pod description:

In the middle of Los Angeles — a city with some of the most expensive real estate in the world — there are a half a dozen exclusive golf courses, massive expanses dedicated to the pleasure of a privileged few. How do private country clubs afford the property tax on 300 acres of prime Beverly Hills real estate? RH brings in tax assessors, economists, and philosophers to probe the question of the weird obsession among the wealthy with the game of golf.

Since he picks on my home city and blames the clubs there for tax breaks and what was actually a lack of foresight by city planners to build more parks, I'll let Joel Beall of offer the first and most level-headed counterpoint.

Gladwell takes umbrage with California exemptions that allows golf courses to pay a small percentage rather than a variable tax like other properties. To Gladwell, golf courses are getting a free pass from paying their social dues, bemoaning the money that state and city governments are missing out.

Similar to his objection on golf-infatuated CEOs, Gladwell's outrage is fixated on the wrong entity. For the game is far from alone in receiving peculiar government regulations. Baseball's antitrust exemption is one of the most criticized doctrines in our nation's legal structure, and the stadium deals brokered between professional sports teams and their local governments continue to be a taxpayer burden. This is not to defend these policies, but let's just say golf has plenty of company when it comes to flaws with the tax code.

As always with Gladwell's work, I found his presentation and points thought-provoking. His podcast presentation style is fresh, and his roundabout methodology to backing a point is consistent with his popular books. But I struggle with his zeroing in on long-established private clubs as stealing from the public something their visionary founders created and fostered.

To suggest the public is subsidizing such facilities, while bemoaning their chain-linked fences and refusal to let the public stroll the grounds St Andrews style, ignores the history of Los Angeles, where leaders whiffed on multiple opportunities to create a better park system. (Here is the Olmsted Brothers 1930 assessment of Los Angeles that was ultimately ignored and would have created the kinds of places for non-golfers to recreate.)

The pod also suggests an underlying frustration with golf played by CEO's and President Trump ("crack cocaine for white guys"). While promoting the pod on the CBS Morning Show, Gladwell received one particularly fun bit of pushback from Charlie Rose, a golfer. The interview is worth watching.