If you thought California's fiscal situation—a structural deficit of $20 billion a year and growing, bankrupt cities, accelerating flight of business and human capital—had forced the state's leaders to get serious about reining in spending, have we got a multibillion-dollar project to sell you.
First up: The city' most connected movers and shakers want Los Angeles taxpayers to cough up $1 billion in matching funds for the project that never fails to bring prosperity: a spiffy new stadium for an NFL franchise to be named later.
"This is simple," AEG president Tim Lieweke said at a meeting of developers Tuesday. "If the private sector is going to step in and spend a billion—and we're going to have to do that, that's only way it's going to happen—then shouldn't we as a community spend a billion dollars where it has the greatest impact." Who can argue with that? Certainly not Eli Broad, the practiced expropriator of public funds who is bent on remaking L.A. into an echo of New York with "millions of people navigating a cleaner, denser and more pedestrian-friendly urban fabric via bicycle, light rail, streetcar, subway and bus."
For the record, Los Angeles is beyond bankruptcy, and its banana republic political leadership is desperately shuffling expenses to make the city's balance sheet look less dire. Former L.A. Daily News editor Ron Kaye looks at the City of Angels' unfortunate history with pigskin boondoggles:
This is a town that has twice fumbled the NFL ball and lost the Rams and Raiders to other cities, a town that lost hundreds of millions of dollars on its debt-burdened Convention Center, invested untold billions in building a skyline and is now in a class with such NFL losers Detroit and Cleveland for poverty and unemployment.
This is a town with a rotting infrastructure of roads, sidewalks, pipes and power lines, a town that can't pay its bills and guts basic services, a town whose leadership has lost all credibility and now want us to believe $1 billion of our money would have the greatest impact if we spent it for a football stadium.
How many lower income tenants could become homeowners with that billion dollars? How many deteriorating neighborhoods could be revived? How many small businesses could thrive with a little help if their vision, not the vision of billionaires and fat cats, were driving city policies?
Is a stadium not grand enough for you? Then how about a magical train? We already knew Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger came away from his recent Asia junket with a conductor's cap full of big ideas for the California High Speed Rail project. But he also seems to have picked up a taste for open government policies modeled on those of the People's Republic of China.
The governor recently vetoed a set of reporting and accountability requirements that were a direct response to the CHSR Authority's long history of shoddy research and murky disclosure. Schwarzenegger at least expressed a sense of shame about the move, noting in his signing statement, "While the Administration supports these reporting requirements, making the appropriation contingent upon receipt and approval of this report by the Legislature could result in project delays, jeopardize the Authority's ability to meet already tight federal deadlines and result in increased state costs."
The High Speed Rail project is 14 years old and has yet to drive a single spike in the ground, so you can understand the governor's hurry. The project needs to break ground by September 2012 or lose $2.25 billion in federal funds for the project.
But the governor picked up something else in China, a taste for corn dogs and funnel cakes. Last week Schwarzenegger announced his plan to bring the World Expo to California in 2020. "Shanghai has demonstrated that when you host the World Expo, the world comes to you, and I want the world to come to California," Schwarzenegger said.
At TheChinaBeat.com, Jeffrey Wasserstrom explains why this idea belongs more to 1910 than to 2010:
One problem with his plan has to do with audience. The Shanghai Expo will soon become the most attended World's Fair in history, but will do so because of its appeal to a very particular audience. The vast majority of the people going to this World's Fair, as was often the case with earlier ones, have been citizens of the host country who have not had the opportunity to travel extended distances. They go to the fairgrounds partly to get a glimpse of futuristic technologies, but largely because they are curious about what distant lands (and indeed, when held in big countries like the U.S. and China, what far-off parts of their own nation) look like, how people live there, what foods are eaten there, and so on.
The virtual travel aspect of an Expo would have little appeal in contemporary America—for the same reason that some of the more cosmopolitan Shanghainese I know were blasé about the mega-event currently taking place in their city. In earlier periods, holding World's Fairs in the U.S. made sense. But not when so many Americans can go abroad (even if lots of us never do), and when Epcot, Las Vegas, and the food courts at megamalls, international airports and other locales so readily provide us with a vicarious sense of journeying or eating our way around the world.
A second problem with Arnold's idea is that California currently can't make ends meet.
Problem? At this point, not making ends meet is a value-add.
What's offensive is not the individual boondoggles – though they're all pretty bad – but the fundamentally unserious attitude of politicians and rent seekers. We are out of money. Stadiums built to enable NFL crap shoots, trains nobody will ride, and World's Fairs are bad ideas when times are flush. When the state is bankrupt they are impeachable indulgences.