ALPERN AT LARGE - 2013 is on its way to being the Year of the Numbers. Numbers as in deficits and debts, numbers as in unemployment and tax rates, numbers as in ways to fund transportation, education and health care initiatives in a cost-effective way that gains the respect of both the number crunchers AND those who cherish our basic human needs.
Humans aren't numbers, however. Yet in our ongoing War on Math (where budgets and affordability become eclipsed by widespread denial and making political points), we'll need humans more than ever to start respecting those numbers--starting with the humans at the top of corporate and governmental food chains--but ultimately it will be up to each and every one of us.
First, the key political numbers: both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama got by far fewer votes than John McCain and the President did in 2008 (over a million less). President Obama's viewing numbers were also considerably lower for his second inauguration than his first and polls on the performance of Congress are frighteningly low.
This is all both consistent with second inaugurations and voter distrust of politicians in general, but it's safe to say that he average voter isn't as keen on the President or Congress as GOP or Democratic partisans would like to maintain.
Second, the key economic numbers: employment isn't zooming back up, although underpaying jobs with lousy or no benefits appear to be more available than ever. American companies are laying off to both ensure profitability and to please investor sentiment while worldwide unemployment is going up.
Sadly, we don't follow enough of the "underemployment" figures because that would (as with true inflation figures) paint a nasty picture for our politicians to present to their constituencies, but let's dispense with the "things are getting better".
We all want things to get better, but for every bright spot there's a worry-provoking spot. We're treading water at best, and at a national level we're doing it for over $1 trillion a year that our children and grandchildren will have to pay back...somehow...some way.
Third, let's get to the nitty-gritty: we've got some big ideas for transportation (I'll use that as my example, because it's not only my personal passion but what I believe in to be the most critical, if not most overlooked, way to bring back our economy and our sanity). This at a time when labor and materials costs are relatively low--they were prohibitively high during the past global economic boom, but as horrible as this recession/depression is, it's an opportunity to build a lot of things for relatively little money.
After the Measure R transportation measures are planned, funded and on their way to construction, the much BIGGER projects loom.
SCAG and Metro analysts have noted that the Wilshire Subway and I-710/I-210 connections are among the most important with respect to mobility and environmental benefits, but other projects such as a Westside/Valley rail connection and a Metrorail/LAX connection, to say nothing of regional freeway and road repairs and upgrades, are out there to fund and build.
So along come some planners and politicians, usually from the politically- and economically-conservative end of the spectrum, who have proposed that the aforementioned Westside/Valley rail and Metrorail/LAX connections and Pasadena I-710 gap, be funded and built via private/public partnerships.
Ten-twenty years ago, before the public finally got on board with planners and politicians to upgrade our transportation/infrastructure on both a local and regional level, this would have been a great idea.
The expansion and ongoing widening of the SR-91 freeway in Orange and Riverside counties, for example, needed that private investment to jumpstart the expansion of that critical highway (the 91 Express Lanes). The public ended up buying it, via an expensive OCTA buyout of the 91 Express Lanes, and both the former private and current public management of these carpool lanes were and are either losing money or (at best) breaking even.
So to my mega-libertarian fellow Americans, but also to L.A. County Supervisors Knabe and Yaroslavsky and Antonovich, let's reconsider that while public-private partnerships have their role in transportation, the political will of the voters are probably more in line with a cost-effective and well-run public sector construction effort that limit-sets and closely monitors construction costs of both highway and rail operations.
Metro is one of the few relatively cost-effective and well-run portions of government at this time, so let's go with the tried and true approach that's given us the current I-405 Westside/Valley widening project and Phase 2 of the Expo Line.
Public-private partnerships do have their role (an ideal one would be a Metro/City of Los Angeles land purchase/acquisition, perhaps with AEG and Casden Developers, to construct a Westside Regional Transportation Center where the I-405 and I-10 freeways, Pico, Sepulveda and the Expo Line all come together), but it'll be cheaper to have a publicly-run, cost-effective rail project to connect the Westside and Valley, and to connect Metrorail to LAX, with a well-managed project in a "Son of Measure J.
The I-710 Pasadena Big Dig is a lousy project, and needs to be diverted to either local rail projects (the Foothill Gold Line extension to Montclair and/or the Alameda Freight Corridor East) or other projects. We need the private sector as a counterbalance to over-reaching public-sector unions, but both these unions and private-sector unions at the membership level (sadly, not the leadership level) "get it" with respect to jobs that pay well and motivate project contractors to build projects right the first time, on time and under budget.
Let's cut out the nonsense about building public sector infrastructure (which even most conservatives recognize as a critical role of government and where our taxes should go) by handing the reins of planning and building to a private sector that might not always prove accountable.
Transportation projects usually are NOT direct money-makers---they are paid for via gasoline taxes and other taxes--but they make lots of money for the greater economy by creating mobility and JOBS which, in turn create more revenue for local, state and federal governments.
An extra billion or more to connect LAX to the Crenshaw and Green Lines, with the ability to link to a future north-south Westside rail line or two? So what? An extra billion or more to fund a 10 minute Valley/Westside rail connection between Metrolink, the Orange Line, the Wilshire Subway and the Expo Line (and maybe LAX)? So what? We barf that money out each year on priorities that often don't get spent well already, but at least we'll have the jobs and mobility to support our economy, and the billions if not trillions they'll pay for over a century makes these investments no-brainers.
There is no shortage of political and economic conservatives who support vetted and well-planned projects such as these, and who also decry and demand an end to budget overruns and government waste. Which, of course, still does exist, and brings us to a quick update on Health Care.
If Obamacare was inspired by Romneycare, then it will behoove us all to note that the costs of the latter to Massachusetts is consuming over 40% of the state budget, while destroying the budgets of all other priorities like transportation and public safety.
As the old adage goes, "if you think healthcare is expensive now, just wait until it's free." Not surprisingly, support is widespread for expansion of Medicaid, but it's to be remembered that good jobs with good benefits allow better coverage and benefits than Medicaid, and allows a happier life for Americans because virtually no one wants this country to be a "Medicaid nation".
The difference between being poor and middle class? Having health care and related benefits! So a "public-private partnership" for health care would be to recognize that among the most patriotic things our leadership and nation can do is to find ways to responsibly and morally reduce health care costs.
Asking Americans to pay more for their own health care, through both premiums and healthcare saving plans, and not have "someone else" pay for otherwise-healthy Americans?
Asking and incentivizing employers of all sizes to pay for their employees' health care costs? Making more health care plans available and with their overhead costs readily available to consumers to compare as they would with nutritional labeling for food? All responsible ideas, and all ideas which both major political parties have promoted in the past, and which is the smartest move of all to balance state and federal budgets.
Don't just "cut", but spend smarter and spend where it must be spent. Medicare and Social Security were meant to be supplements, not welfare checks, as a reward for contributing to them over the course of a hard-working lifetime--so spending that money well and asking more of taxpayers in a transparent and moral manner is something that both parties have failed to do so far.
President Obama would do well to get the heck out of campaign mode, and ask himself whether or not he loves America more than he hates the Republican Party.
The Republican Party would do well to get out of screaming/fury mode and ask itself whether or not it loves America more than it hates President Obama and the Democratic leadership.
The County Board of Supervisors would do well to stop talking about ridiculous and non-starter ideas of public-private partnerships where it's obvious that major public works projects needs to be transparently and cost-effectively implemented (and as we're now seeing with the I-405 Sepulveda Pass Widening Project and the second phase of the Expo Light Rail Line Project, and the Foothill Gold Line Project).
We are Americans, and we are adults--and we're more than mere numbers. The Internet has allowed public consensus to be achieved, but unfortunately has also allowed public division to also be much more easily created---yet if our leadership chooses to be more than fumblers and bumblers, and presents the numbers to Americans in a straightforward and sincere manner, our budgetary problems can be fixed with much less difficulty than has been decried.
It's simply looking out for Number 1, which has always been what's best for the majority and for future generations.
Tags: Ken Alpern, Alpern at Large,
Vol 11 Issue 8
Pub: Jan 25, 2013