I don’t know what is more irritating to me, as a taxpayer, to observe and make me cringe when it comes to the so-called “Stem Cell Research Initiative” voters, in their inimitable wisdom, passed in 2004 here in California.
Part of it is the actual law itself – but also, the way both the press and so-called “leaders” of local governments have chosen to overlook serious problems with this law.
Instead, they’ve chosen instead to shower an institute funded with $3 billion dollars of credit card spending with yet more “free” (aka “taxpayer funded” goodies). All for a scientific institute that is to be headed up by…a real estate developer with no experience in science, let alone stem cells.
Let’s start by taking a look at the law itself. Now, throughout the campaign, voters heard endless, heart-tugging emotional stories of those afflicted with terrible diseases. The initiative’s backers skillfully manipulated people, who want to do things to help others, to vote for this new law. People against the law were dismissed as ultra-right religious extremists (even though opposition came from people of diverse political views).
Like so many other initiatives, any real examination of the ramifications of the law were never fully examined. Then the thing passed. And suddenly, after the dust settled, we started to see a wave of “mea culpas” from the press like this one in the December San Francisco Chronticle, and another in the Bay Guardian.
Among the little details: the initiative is using borrowed money, $3 billion worth, and part of that has to go to paying of the debt created by the borrowing right away. So first thing we’re seeing these guys spend money on isn’t life-saving research – it’s bond debt. Out of $300 million in borrowed money in the first few years, as much as $200 million could go to…debt service. To paraphrase the Chronicle – this is like using part of a home loan to make the house payments. Now there’s a responsible way to manage money!
If the institute wants to stop spending money on stem cell research, they can. And if they want to spend it on wild parties, they can. And if you want to call your elected officials to bitch and demand a stop to such shenanigans…you can’t. They wrote the law so it’s almost impossible to enforce the same kind of oversight we demand on every other state program.
Best of all, the guy who wrote this thing, with all its faults, and vague promises of how the taxpayers will make their money back, just happens to be the guy in charge of the institute now and responds to queries about how he’ll run things with the words “trust me.”
That inspires a lot of confidence. Especially since he’s the one that wrote so many poison pills in the law that keep anyone from stopping him from using the state credit card any way he wants. No wonder he was the Governor’s choice for the job – we all know how much Gov. Doofinator loves spending on the taxpayer’s credit cards!
Now, I am sure the reporters here are congratulating themselves on a job well done for ‘exposing’ the innards of this law. But I have to wonder -where was all this investigative journalism before the people voted on it and why did so many people including celebrities, politicos, and pundits, sign on to this thing without reading the fine print?
It gives me little satisfaction to say “I told you so!” in this instance – I’d rather people have been a little more responsible, used their votes a bit more wisely, and demanded real answers to some questions before voting.
Now, it’s bad enough that voters passed a law with more loopholes, giveaways, and outright deceit as this one – but it is worse to see what so-called “leaders” of California’s cities are doing now to attract the Big, Taxpayer Funded Headquarters for this thing.
Reading the “bids” taxpayers’ representatives in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, and elsehwere are simply astonishing. We have a situation where cities, in a desperate bid to get the institute in their home towns are trying to out-do each other with offers of free office rent, free gym memberships, free this, and free whatever. Anything at all to get the $3 billion dollar credit card in their home town.
Now, what’s really pathetic is that once again local elected officials are doing two dumb things local electeds do really well – make “investments” in vague promises, and never tell anyone where the money is coming from to pay for said “investments.”
The first is one we hear a lot. Whenever some large, and usually dumb, idea is presented to the public, elected officials use their favorite word when they want to “invest” in a vague promise with your money. They use the word “encourage.” Whenever you hear this word, you need to get out a guard dog and put it next to your wallet – because it usually means someone wants to take money away from you and piss it away on something really dumb or give it away to someone who already has billions of dollars.
In this case, cities are giving away all kinds of free things, including hundreds of thousands of square feet of real estate, money to pay for fancy offices, and money for things like gym memberships to get the Big Headquarters of the so-called “California Institute for Regenerative Medicine” aka “The $3 Billion Credit Card You Have to Pay For.”
Every single time you read what elected officials have to say when asked why they’re giving away money in a time of budget crisis to this thing, they all say something along the lines of how spending this money is an “investment” that will “encourage” businesses to open up shop near said institute, and thus, trickle down the effect of all that spending into local tax coffers, and of course, “create jobs.” Now, there’s nothing in any of these deals that guarantees any of that. But you never hear that part. No one asks, and no one tells.
If there is one thing I wish I could accomplish in politics, it would be to spend the next ten years on a long rage PR campaign to put a stake in the heart of political “junkie logic” like this in public discourse. Why? Because it is 100%, pure, unadulterated bullshit. Let’s see why.
Now, let’s use our friend “metaphor” to deconstruct the political junkie logic in an easy to understand way, and see why any local elected official that engages in said logic needs to be asked to leave town:
Suppose you were asked to take a good portion of your take home pay and put it in an investment your new friend wants you to make. No one can show you the potential rate of return. In fact, no one can show you that there’s any return at all. Worse, when you ask how the investment will work, you’re attacked as being a coward, a liar, or just plain crazy. “Can’t you see how your ‘investment’ will ‘encourage’ people?” they say?
You keep asking “But if I give you my $40,000 of savings, how will I make the money back?” and your new friend keeps saying that your money won’t directly benefit you back – but it will encourage others to give money to you since you’re such a great person for making this investment, and you want to encourage others to do the same so you get your money back. You have no guarantees, and the person taking your money could disappear tomorrow -and you’d be left with nothing.
Now, if this sounds more like a “con” than a sound investment, you’d be right. If you did something like this, you’d go to jail. If you’re an elected official, you’re praised as someone who “creates opportunity” and is “pro-business.”
Meanwhile the countryside is littered with abandoned office space and industiral plants businesses got at the taxpayers’ expense, all in the name of “investing” in the community and the vague promise of “jobs” in the future. And guess what? Most of those elected officials got promotions from the voters anyway!
In the case of the Stem Cell Mafia Institute, the “winning” city may find itself in for a rude shock should they “win” the right to have this debt-creator in their backyard, paid for by more of their citizens’ money. See, there’s no rule in any of that well-written law that the money has to be spent locally. In fact, they’re mandated to spend money where research is being done now – anywhere. Even out of state.
And no company has put up its stockholders’ dividends or its own profits up and said “Hey, I’ll move to the city where the Institute is!” – because most companies aren’t so stupid as to invest in fairy tales. There’s also no guarantee that in the future the Stem Cell Mafia won’t come back and say “give us more or we’ll leave” after the big investment.
So while we can’t figure out how to pay for a few cops in L.A., we can find money to give away $177 million to a billionaire for speculative development, and we can find millions more to “give” to a taxpayer-financed credit card agency with no real fiscal oversight. We can’t vote ourselves taxes to pay for roads, schools, and whatnot but we can vote to borrow money and entrust it to a guy with no scientific background and let him play with it as he sees fit.
It’s time to end the madness. If there was even a small amount of common sense, civic leaders across California would not be letting themselves be played like this. They’d instead suggest that if the Stem Cell Mafia wants to pitch its circus tent in their neighborhood, they’d have to have written guarantees that they’d employ local people at decent wages.
They’d have to guarantee that the states taxpayers, who are paying for the credit card debt keeping the lights on, would share in the patents and royalties generated by any research. And they certainly wouldn’t’ compete against each other like hookers at a street corner – they’d work together, since all of California voted for the initiative, and all of California should benefit.
I realize what I just said was a fairy tale as well. But hey! A person has to dream, right?
(note: this article was originally published on March 29, 2005. However in the ensuing upgrade from one platform to another, it was lost. It is being republished as current events warrant a trip in the Political Wayback Machine.)
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