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Originally published July 14, 2012 at 8:11 PM | Page modified July 16, 2012 at 8:55 AM

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Bread, circuses, arenas: Did the recession never happen?

The No. 1 complaint I hear about our city's civic projects and proposals is: Why are we acting as if the recession never happened?

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Doug Glant doesn't have a fact-based argument, and he knows it. It's more like a feeling. But it's one I've been hearing a lot around Seattle lately.

"We're obsessed with bread and circuses," says the head of Pacific Iron and Metal, a scrap plant, in Seattle's Sodo industrial neighborhood.

Glant was talking about the proposed NBA basketball arena, which he opposes (and I support.) But a glance through the news lately — chock full of glass museums, trolleys, giant Ferris wheels, sports stadiums and now a proposal for a nearly half-billion dollar downtown waterfront park with mist cloud gardens and a heated swimming pool on a barge — suggests the man's got a point.

"We're amusing ourselves to death," Glant said, paraphrasing a famous book that argued American society is self-medicating through entertainment.

Glant, 69, is an interesting guy. In fact he was once dubbed the "most interesting man" where he lives, on Mercer Island — a designation he says proves only how uninteresting is Mercer Island.

But he's been a U.S. intelligence officer, a singer, a UW Huskies sideline photographer, a political gadfly and a talk-radio host. Since 1969 he has also run his family's 95-year-old scrap-metal recycling business, from an old plant a few blocks from where Chris Hansen's NBA arena may be built.

He calls me from time to time, and his "bread and circuses" critique I have heard repeated countless times now by others.

Glant says there's no question the arena would boost his Sodo property value. He also acknowledges this is the best financial deal the public has been offered for one of these mega projects in decades.

Yet the idea still rankles him. Bread and circuses was the old Roman term for how civic elites would placate the public not by solving serious problems but by tossing us shiny baubles.

"When I look at what's happening, fiscally, to the cities, the states and the federal government, at a certain point you have to wonder if we're building things for entertainment and fun that we simply can't afford," he said.

That sentiment right there is why Seattle is so stirred up about this. Other than inquiring not-so-politely if I've had my soul purchased by the NBA, the No. 1 complaint I hear about this issue is: Why are we acting as if the recession never happened?

It's a fair point, and it goes beyond one sports arena. I about spit out my $4-dollar latte when I read that just the park portion of the waterfront after the viaduct is gone is slated to cost $420 million. Improvements to the area, which at 9 acres is only one-eighth the size of Seattle Center, are expected to top $1 billion.

Where would we get that kind of money? Maybe more public-private partnerships are inevitable. Do we want that park badly enough to tolerate cooling off in, say, the Howard Schultz Mist Cloud?

Seriously, Glant is right that we don't need any of this. These are all wants, not needs. I'm not supporting the arena because we must have it. But because it will make Seattle more fun, and it's no real pain to the public purse.

Glant sees a larger symbolic pain.

"What is quality of life?" he said. "Does it include a whole bunch of sports teams in fancy buildings? How many are enough? I think that's what people are asking."

Of course it took more than 200 years for the Roman Empire to fall after the satirist Juvenal first accused his fellow citizens of selling out for "bread and circuses." So for now I'm still voting on the side of the fun.

But I can't say these echoes of the Romans don't at least give me some pause. You?

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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