Oscar Wilde once described a cynic as somebody who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. So what do you call someone who knows the purported "value" of something without discussing the price?
How about "an L.A.-area politician"? The L.A.-area politicians and political hacks who are shilling for Measure J are engaging in a cynical and deceptive campaign to sell the "benefits" of the measure to an unsuspecting public without giving a true picture of the price. Surprised?
Measure J, a 30-year tax extension is currently being touted as a job-creating bonanza. Forget the fact that it is an extension of Measure R, which less than four years ago was sold as the solution to years of inactivity in developing infrastructure for the county's public transportation system. Nope, if you believe the ads, Measure J is now all about jobs.
Essentially we'd be borrowing against future tax revenues; it seems that the Insiders' Club of L.A. Politics in their infinite wisdom have "discovered" that the 30 years of increased taxes wasn't going to be enough to meet their enormous appetite, so they now come to us -- the voters -- for more.
Here's how it would work: We'd be spending the money now, putting future generations in debt. It's a little bit like the Seinfeldian shtick about going to a restaurant and ordering various dishes off the menu like there's no tomorrow. You clap your hands and someone brings you more food. Ah, another dish to try out. Waiter, please, let's have more of that! And then the bill comes... And there you are, stuffed, sleepy and stuck with a massive bill.
Measure J is kind of like that, but the "good" news for us is: we won't be stuck with the bill. That'll be our kids and their kids and their kids' kids. Call it the "Great Grandchildren Tax" or the "Multi-Generational Tax," if you will. For our Jewish friends we can call this the "L'dor v'dor (from Generation to Generation) Tax."
There are those who would argue that our kids will supposedly benefit from the infrastructure upgrades which Measure J is meant to accelerate. But what if they didn't want the lobster roll, after all? What if the dumpling we leave them with turns out to be rancid? What if the system planned by the wags of today doesn't meet the needs of the generations of tomorrow?
Another "argument" we hear in favor of Measure J is that construction costs and interest rates are at historical lows. Let's leave out the wisdom of the "Buy it -- it's cheap" mentality for a moment. Aren't lower interest rates more than counterbalanced by the extra length of time we'll need to pay off the mega-loans? Won't the total amount of interest we end up paying be much greater than if we had lived within our means and not borrowed as much up front?
We hear constantly from Metro, the would-be steward of the billions which Measure J would borrow on behalf of future generations, that technology is constantly evolving, improving. Subway construction today, for example, is both cheaper and safer because of revolutionary advances in TBM (tunnel-boring-machine) technology, which only a few years ago were unthinkable. By Metro's own reasoning, we can't be certain -- far from it -- that spending money like drunken sailors on "job creation" or transportation will give us the best value for money or the best technology. In fact, we can say with near certainty that the system will be outdated or obsolete by the time the loans are finally paid off, the better part of a century from now. I'm just talking about the technology, not even about the efficacy of the system, as the centers of population or transportation corridors could shift in the course of decades. Buses can change routes; subways can't. Once we build a subway, we're stuck.
Folks, I'm not going to mince words: If Measure J seems like a scam, well, that's because it essentially is a scam. It's -- yet again -- short-sighted thinking with long-term negative consequences from those who should be protecting us. Yet again. Measure J is really an attempt to create a monument to the monumental egos of some of our regional politicians who want to cement their "legacy," such as it were, by building a network of choo-choo trains. That's some heavy hardware, innit? And they don't care if it's going to take a blank check to get it done, especially since they are writing out the blank check in our name. No way will they let fiscal prudence, social justice, civil rights, common sense or the welfare of future generations get in their way.
Don't get me wrong: public transportation is extremely important. And, of course, that means that it's extremely important to make sure that we get the biggest bang for each of our scarce tax bucks. But it needs to be done in a way which makes sense for all of us, not the least for those of us who are most dependent on a working, convenient public transportation system. But while Metro fiddles with building their choo-choos, the public transportation system will burn with the continued reduction of bus service. The fact is as follows: in the wake of Measure R and the spending frenzy on heavy rail, Metro has eliminated a million hours of bus service. This massive reduction of bus service hits those who need public transportation the most -- not that the L.A. political grandees from both sides of the political spectrum care about that at all.
Nor do they evidently care about the message that feeding the beast that is Metro sends. Metro is notorious for being the governmental agency version of the Wall Street banks which were "too big to fail." Metro is notorious for not listening to the constituencies it is supposed to serve from BH, Boyle Heights, to BH, Beverly Hills. Metro is notorious for its dubious safety record, its numerous civil rights violations and its poor fiscal management, not to mention all the costs associated with its bloated bureaucracy, such as the governmental salaries, pensions and benefits. Giving these guys more dough is not the solution. It's the problem.
And the Metro Zombies who support Measure J have the chutzpah to suggest that "Measure J doesn't raise taxes." It may not raise current sales tax rates, but it sure as hell does raise taxes by extending them for another 30 years. To suggest anything else is both disingenuous and insults the intelligence of the voters of L.A. County. Unfortunately, it is both with increasing frequency and impunity that the politicians try to get away with insulting our intelligence by getting us to act like sheep. And they succeed. Shame on us.
If the LA county politicians really felt it was so important to blow all that dough now, why did they feel they had to burden future generations? Why didn't they simply make the argument that we are in desperate need of these infrastructure upgrades and frontload the tax burden? In other words, why didn't they ask us to pay for our own meal, rather than passing on the bill to our grandchildren? Have the courage of your convictions, ye self-styled "Transit Advocates": raise taxes now rather than saddle future generations with unwanted debt. Guess that "solution" didn't poll so well and guess they think we're as short-sighted as they are. Unfortunately, as the current polling suggests, they may be right. Shame on us.
Don't think that Measure J will be the end of it: the L.A.-area politicos will keep coming back for more, continuing to pluck us like a Christmas or Chanukah goose. Villaraigosa's financial pooh-bah Miguel Santana has already advised he'd like to place some more new taxes on next March's ballot. L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson has already said he wants to raise the sales tax in Los Angeles above the levels piled on by Measures R and J. As Johnny Carson might have said, there is still "more to come." Much more. And it's scary stuff.
Is it any surprise that the millions of dollars in pro-Measure J propaganda have been "donated" by some of the L.A. area's most influential benefactors including Eli Broad (who has gotten preferential treatment by L.A. in building his museum), the Westfield Corporation (which is getting preferential treatment by L.A. in expanding its Century City mall) and AEG (which got preferential treatment by L.A. in its downtown stadium plans). Is anybody really surprised that the "Yes on J" campaign is being run by Matt Szabo, Villaraigosa's former chief-of-staff and a candidate for an open L.A City Council seat? The Insiders' Club carnival and carousel continues to spin and the good times continue to roll for L.A.'s political elite while the Little Guy -- and our kids, grandkids and great-grandkids -- like good ole Charlie Brown, get the proverbial rock in our trick-or-treat bags or a few scraps from the table, if we're lucky.
In this "it's all about me" society, by swallowing the sugar-coated nonsense we're being fed by L.A.'s political elite and by not roundly rejecting Measure J, we're enabling the System to continue treating us like sheep. We're proving Lincoln was right about one thing: you can fool all (or most) of the people some of the time. Too much of the time. We're proving that crony capitalism is alive and well and firmly ensconced in L.A. politics. Shame on us.
"J" stands for "jobs" in the facile propaganda which is being funded by millions of dollars of special interest money, but which for the rest of us should stand for the "Joke" of crony capitalism and the "Junk" that the Insiders' Club is trying to sell us. We seem trapped in a system where the influence of money and special interests can create an almost trance-like mass psychosis. Is it any surprise that in L.A.'s "pay-to-play" political scene, wealthy and politically connected corporations are allowed to draft city ordinances which affect the way they themselves would be regulated? Do we really want the inmates to run the asylum or should we not try to shake ourselves and wake ourselves from our slumber and get our government to work for us rather against us?
We can start by rejecting the new and extended taxes which the political elite are trying to sell us by hook and by crook, by promising, by coaxing and by threatening. Let them first prove that they are able stewards with our taxpayer dollars. Let them first show us that they can give us the best value for our taxpayer dollars.
We can start by demanding common sense and accountability in all levels of government, but especially in our local government. We can start by demanding that governmental agencies actually do their jobs and actually listen to the People. How often do institutions such as Metro forget that they exist to serve the people, not the other way around?
While it might be our natural inclination to enjoy the sunshine, shrug our shoulders and simply say, "Forget it, Jake: it's Chinatown," we can start by sending a message, thinking for ourselves and saying "No" to Measure J next week.
With apologies to Oscar Wilde, even those of us who truly know the value of sensible mass transit have ample reason to be wildly cynical when it comes to Measure J. And in this case, as Lillian Hellman so pointedly wrote, "Cynicism is an unpleasant way of saying the truth."