Guest Opinion: High-speed rail — the Great California Perpetual-Motion Machine
Some People of Vision decided that it would be good to build a gigantic perpetual-motion machine in California that would provide enormous wealth and be self-sustaining for all time.
The idea was so glorious that with wishful-thinking numbers and intense promotion, the Esteemed Visionaries convinced 52 percent of California voters to authorize a $10 billion bond to begin this wondrous machine.
At first a few small voices objected, noticing that this contrivance was not only too expensive to build, but that once built it would not operate as promised. The apparatus would require continuing ever-increasing amounts of input. And it would be tremendously intrusive on the lives of thousands of residents. Not only would it fail to yield a net gain, it would become a net drain on taxpayers forever.
But the vision of something-for-nothing was too strong, and its promoters on the board of the California Perpetual-Motion Machine Authority (CPMMA) rushed ahead to undertake the project. In fact, the only "perpetual- motion" evident were the escalating estimates of construction costs and fare prices.
But doubts grew. The chorus of those opposed to the project increased steadily from hundreds to thousands, and anger flared as CPMMA board members refused to address the realities of the project and the concerns of the citizens.
Several thoughtful state legislators requested an independent study and contracted highly respected experts from a great state university to analyze the project. Their study concluded that perpetual motion violated the second law of thermodynamics and was, in fact, impossible. They reported that the numbers put out by CPMMA were, well, wrong virtually from one end to the other. Many people believed the numbers to be fraudulent, concocted to mislead the public and sell the project — no one could be so wrong so much of the time unless it was on purpose. When cities near where the machine would be built complained, they were labeled "NIMBYs" and "obstructionists" — never mind that perpetual motion was, in fact, impossible.
Yet, the promoters, of course, favored the wondrous machine. Consultants and engineers favored it; they made enormous profits. Construction unions favored it, even though the machine itself would be built in distant China or France and little of the specialized labor would be performed by local workers.
Unions believed that the promised 600,000 "jobs" meant 600,000 individuals working, while, in truth, it meant 60,000 men working 10 years, and that figure even included the foreign workers — an example of perpetual-motion mathematics. Environmentalists favored the machine, believing it would reduce energy consumption and air pollution — never mind the findings of another independent professorial study that energy payback on construction and operation would require 71 years even if the machine performed as billed (already proven impossible).
So, construction began. As is usual for such projects (such as Boston's infamous Big Dig) the cost of construction more than doubled. The original $43 billion estimate ballooned to more than $100 billion (10 percent of a trillion dollars!).
The project, thinly funded from the outset because private investors were too smart to put money into it, ran out of funds. Construction ground to a halt.
People were horrified. Thousands of acres had been cleared of lovely trees, venerable homes and businesses had been demolished, enormous ditches had been gouged in the earth, and towering structures of concrete and steel erected.
They loomed, now, over the countryside, dark, desolate and abandoned. People wailed at the blight. Some said, "Tear it down." Others argued, "At least finish it so we can enjoy some benefit from this eyesore." Because tearing it down would cost too much and leave egg on the face of those who had favored it, the California Legislature voted to take on more debt and continue construction.
It was completed. Politicians and others in bespoke suits stood tall and proud at the ribbon cutting while their pictures were taken — pictures they would hang prominently in their offices. Then they moved out of the state; they knew what was coming.
The perpetual motion machine did not work. Yes it ran, all right, but it was not self-sustaining: It required ongoing taxpayer subsidies to keep it operating.
At the outset, voters had mandated that the machine must run with a net gain without support from citizens. When faced with the truth that the perpetual-motion machine would bleed them forever, taxpayers demanded it be shut down. But legislators decided they could not simply walk away and allow these looming structures of concrete and steel, costing 10 percent of a trillion, to be abandoned to weeds, rust and decay. They found a way to bend the law and sidestep the voters' anti-subsidy mandate.
Taxes skyrocketed to support the machine's operating costs and to pay the enormous compounding interest on the tenth-of-a-trillion-dollar construction loans. Expenditures on vital projects such as education, health care, local infrastructure and social services were cut repeatedly to feed funds into the voracious machine. The rumble of the machine was head for miles, and property values plummeted, undermining California's tax base and further escalating everyone tax bills.
With high taxes and without good education to produce bright and creative citizens, California withered, no longer a favorable place to live or do business. Unemployment increased, especially for the construction trades that depended on both education and a vibrant business environment. In cruel irony, these same construction workers had wasted their abilities on the short-term promise of the perpetual-motion machine instead of building schools, hospitals and essential local infrastructure.
In the end, California became a poor backwater state bought low by clever propaganda, by the misplaced priorities of its Legislature and by a seductive but fatally flawed dream. The persuasive power of a multi-million-dollar PR campaign and derisive cries of "NIMBY" and "obstructionist" cowed the citizens and legislators, who chose in the end to lie down and be "civil." They failed to reorganize their priorities and take timely action in order to save themselves and their once-prosperous state.
Yet, their gravestones proudly proclaim, "We were civil to our end."
A 19-year resident of Menlo Park, Don Barnby is a co-founder, director and former president & CEO of a Bay Area biotech company. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com.