The drive to get California's taxpayers to fund stem-cell research, the heavily backed Proposition 71, represents the ultimate triumph of narcissism and cynicism over sound public policy and social justice. It epitomizes much that is wrong with the new brand of "progressivism" that has entranced much of the media, academic and corporate elites in the state.
Broadly stated, Proposition 71 should be regarded as little more than an outrageous money-grab, costing upward of some $3 billion with an additional $3 billion in interest over its 10-year life, marketed to the public by a group of self-important, self-referencing philanthropists, venture capital "visionaries" and heart-throb celebrities. It seeks to turn California into a kind of perpetual funding machine for a particular line of research that may, or not, be the best means to deal with a series of horrendous diseases from Alzheimer's to Parkinson's and spinal injuries to cancer.
Why narcissism? My sense is that the secret appeal for this measure is the growing desire -- particularly among baby-boomers -- to prolong their lives or the quality of their lives as long as possible.
Nothing wrong with that, except that there may be lots of other, more economical ways, from diet to other promising forms of research to do this. What stem cells represent, however, is the kind of magic bullet that baby-boomers have been looking for since their drug experimentation days.
Under normal circumstances, stem cells, described even in one editorial endorsement as an "iffy proposition, " would be seen correctly as one of many different therapies with potential to help deal with serious diseases. But the often morbid use of celebrities from the late Christopher Reeve to Michael J. Fox -- has blotted out any rational discussion of priorities. People see that even the rich and famous can suffer tragic diseases, and wish so much to relieve the pain.
Even Gov. Schwarzenegger, no mean celebrity himself, seems to have lost his normally sensible ability to sniff out misguided emotion-led public pork. His endorsement may both seal the proposition's passage and also undermine his reputation for fiscal vigilance.
The cynical part of the equation lies in the large-scale funding of Proposition 71 by perhaps the most arrogant, self-referential and elitist of all California business groups--the Silicon Valley venture community. Having bet other people's farms on the dot-com craze in the late1990s (most of them got out in time to keep oodles of cash for themselves), venture capitalists regard biotechnology, as one San Jose economic development expert put it, "as the next great thing." Normally this is a great thing for California but this time they want to con the California taxpayers into funding the first round.
The support of the venture capitalists, however, represents only one part of the constituency building for this measure. So far largely unsuccessful in getting much relief for the thousands of smaller and medium-sized more mundane businesses that employ the vast majority of Californians, the State Chamber of Commerce has decided that this pork is the other kind of white meat that is to its liking.
Indeed, this measure has achieved a kind of remarkable political hat trick. It has won over a substantial Republican constituency by promising a new high-tech boom while convincing would-be Democratic populists, like millionaire Treasurer Phil Angelides, to back the measure. The opposition to embryonic stem cell research by the troglodytes in the Bush administration makes 71 all the more appealing to Democratic clones in the professoriate, the media and the political world.
Usually when you see this kind of broad backing for a measure, you think it might make good public policy. Unfortunately, this time it shows you how the collective elites of this state have lost the basic ability and lack the moral compass to make sound public policy.
The reasons are so obvious that even the most befuddled Hollywood star should be able to figure it out. California is broke, with an estimated $10 billion deficit looming next fiscal year. We only recently rescued ourselves from one of the worst bond ratings in the nation. This is like Paraguay floating a bond issue to be the first nation to land on Pluto. If we are to indebt ourselves, should we do it to benefit a few university professors, perhaps a venture capitalist or two, when the state can barely pay the bills for more essential basic services? Even on an economic basis, the logic for 71 is flimsy at best. California has lost tens of thousands of jobs -- including roughly half the IT jobs in the Bay Area -- in part due to a regulatory climate, housing cost structure and tax regime that is pushing firms elsewhere. The biotechnology industry itself, in a recent report by the California Healthcare Institute, cited its greatest problems not a lack of research funding, but business climate issues such as workers' compensation, trial lawyers' litigation and over-regulation that also impede other businesses in the states.
Citing worries about the state budget and its effect on state taxes and incentives, the Bay Area's biotech association, Baybio, has taken a pass on the initiative. They are aware, as I was reminded in Houston earlier this week, that states such as Texas, which has not embraced Bush's fundamentalism, see a business unfriendly, fiscally ruined California as a rich potential source of new biotech jobs.
Perhaps even more disturbing is what this measure says about our priorities, particularly in health care. It may not be obvious to people on the Stanford or Caltech payrolls, or to the denizens of Malibu and Atherton, but more than 70 hospitals have closed in the state over the past decade. Emergency rooms are closing down.
In part due to inadequate care, Third World diseases such as tuberculosis, which should not even exist in an advanced industrial economy, still afflict people in this state. The potential impact of a flu epidemic in rural Fresno or east Los Angeles represents exactly the kind of health crisis that we really should be worried about.
With the defunding of health care, it's likely some of these people will inevitably die, but then again they won't likely be celebrities or parents and children of the state's cognitive elite. Instead, they will be people who pick our crops, or clean our houses, or work in garment factories. Of course, maybe in 10 years, stem cell researchers might find a miracle cure for the kind of diseases rich people get too. That's why writer Gregory Rodriguez has characterized Proposition 71 as "trickle down liberalism." So if we are going to identify a "health crisis" that needs to be fixed, perhaps we should steer the six billion dollars to something that government should do in the public interest. One idea would be to use it to fund a network of clinics to serve the underinsured and the roughly seven million uninsured across the state.
This would both help millions of Californians right now, and also perhaps assist hospitals by relieving them of enormous debts from treating colds, cuts and everyday illnesses in emergency rooms.
At one time, this is what "progressives" thought government should do, bolstering our basic infrastructure while serving the neediest. Instead the largely liberal crowd behind Proposition 71 embrace a more narcissistic agenda, asking us to spend billions on research so rich baby-boomers might elude the kind of health tragedies too many Californians suffer as part of everyday life.
Copyright 2004, Sacramento Bee