California, Land of Suckers

Steven Greenhut: When P.T. Barnum allegedly talked about suckers, he was no doubt referring to the gullible folks who would drop a few bucks on his sideshows. Too bad Barnum couldn’t spend some time in modern-day California, where voters — big-time suckers, as they are — will gladly spend billions of “public” dollars on bizarre schemes that promise the moon and deliver nothing.

The Los Angeles Times reported on Monday that despite the massive failure of the $3 billion state fund for stem cell research, which has been awash in controversy and allegations of mismanagement and conflicts of interest, its millionaire Silicon Valley founder Bob Klein is looking to ask voters for another $3 billion in a 2014 ballot initiative. Knowing California voters, it will pass.

In the old days, a millionaire entrepreneur described as a “founder” of something would be the type of person who risked his own money to build an enterprise from scratch, someone who sacrificed and took risks and through the sweat of his brow made a fortune. These days, that type of person would have long ago fled the state for somewhere with a less-confiscatory tax burden, a less-punitive regulatory climate and a populace more appreciative of the joys of investment rather than redistribution.

These days, we’re left with scoundrels such as Klein — who despite the legitimate financial gains he made in real estate — is busy abusing the initiative process to get other people to fund a bureaucracy that seems to be selling mostly snake oil. Ethical issues aside regarding stem cells (and these are big ethical issues), there certainly is a lot of promise from the medical endeavor. Nevertheless, supporters of the stem cell institute — mainly folks who were angry at the Bush administration’s refusal to federally fund something that destroys human embryos — promised that the paralyzed would walk again and featured campaign ads that, per the Times, “showed former big screen Superman Christopher Reeve paralyzed in a wheelchair, struggling for breath and imploring California voters to ‘stand up for those who can’t.'”

They sold us on huge promises. Who wouldn’t want to see the paralyzed walk again? They made the claim. Yet the Times explains that the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, headed by Klein, has basically produced hundreds of scientific paper but not marketable therapies. Big surprise, right? As my colleague Anthony Pignataro pointed out, this big-government approach merely institutionalized research, making the main goal the maintenance of the institution. This is not how breakthroughs come about. Instead, taxpayers have agreed to bureaucratic turf-building mainly concerned with continued funding rather than with real-world results. Don’t worry, the scientists employed by the center say … they’ll have cures in years or decades!

Where is P.T. Barnum when you need him?

Mainly, the institute has become a bonanza for money seekers. Here’s the Times again: “[L]egislators and government watchdogs criticized the program for paying its president more than twice the governor’s salary, distributing nearly $1 billion to universities with representatives on its board of directors and overselling the promise of stem cell cures.”

By the way, many critics warned that this would happen, but they were derided as religious right fanatics against progress and science! The best part of the Times story was when it quoted Klein, bloviating about the importance of new therapies, who spoke “during an interview in the gleaming new stem cell research building at his alma mater, Stanford University, which was partially funded by a $43-million grant from the stem cell program.”

The article focuses also on huge salaries, which Klein says are needed to attract the top talent. No doubt, well-known Democratic Party hack Art Torres is the sort of top medical talent worth the $225,000 a year he earned as vice chairman of the board. And the agency’s PR flak earned $190,000 a year. Klein earns $150,000, so he is personally gaining from the ballot initiative he backed even though its far less money than he is authorized to pay himself.

Big salaries, fancy buildings and nothing to show but promises. So of course California voters will be asked to reward this progress with another $3 billion.

If they approve it (and why won’t they after another round of ads promising that the paralyzed will walk again?), then we should change California’s state bird to the golden sucker.

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