Whose idea was it to push bullet trains? Rahm Emanuel's doctor brother. I feel ill.

"The Escape Artists," the new book about the Obama administration's economic policy-making, has an amazing story about who's responsible for the decision to dump tens of billions of dollars in federal stimulus money into bullet-train debacles. One Chris Reed, writing at Cal Watchdog, has all the details. The key passage from "Escape Artists" is here: In December [2008], the economic team dutifully prepared a list of drab but high-bang-for-your-buck outlays to [Rahm] Emanuel. The list included … $20 billion to repair existing roads and bridges, $5 billion to repair public housing units and another $5 billion to upgrade sewage treatment facilities. … Emanuel’s brother, Ezekiel, a doctor who was joining the administration as a health care adviser, happened to be staying with the future chief of staff when the list arrived via fax. “There’s nothing that really gets my heart racing,” the brother later complained. “What would get your heart racing?” Rahm Emanuel asked glumly. “I don’t know. How about high-speed rail -- getting from New York to D.C. in 90 minutes?” Within days, some $20 billion in high-speed rail investments had immaculately materialized on the list. Are you kidding me? The Obama administration’s obsession with high-speed rail began as a way to get Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel’s heart racing? This is at the root of the president’s determination to trick/bully California and other states into building immense boondoggles by providing them initial billions until the projects became too big to fail? I feel ill. Also check out One Chris Reed's article for an amazing story from "Escape Artists" about green jobs. Obama knew you couldn't build an economic recovery on them, but he went ahead and lied about it anyways.  

Arnold's self-loving ode: It's revealing what he omits -- and what he includes

After Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher got national attention for self-righteously quitting the GOP to pursue the San Diego mayor's seat as an independent, it was inevitable that Arnold Schwarzenegger would write an L.A. Times op-ed patting himself on the back for being a constructive non-Neanderthal maverick Republican. Years before he was fine-tuning the constructive maverick narrative for Fletcher, political guru Matt David was doing it for John McCain,  Arnold and Jon Huntsman. But the problem for Schwarzenegger is what he leaves out of his op-ed -- his assault on the Sacramento establishment from 2003-2005 -- and what he leaves in -- implied championing of three of the left's biggest boondoggles: Obamacare, green jobs and the bullet train. If I were Fletcher, I'm not sure I'd want to be linked to Arnold. The uncomfortable truth for Schwarzenegger, Fletcher and anyone who promotes the "both sides are to blame" narrative in California is that one side has almost the power, so of course it is primarily to blame for where California finds itself. Arnold understood this from when he ran in the 2003 recall to his special election wipeout in 2005. California would have become a far saner state if Arnold had prevailed in 2005, with teacher tenure reform, a state budget straightjacket and an indirect limit on union power through "paycheck protection" over automatic deduction of union dues from public employee paychecks. But Arnold didn't prevail. And immediately afterwards, he began flailing around in the most awkward, overt legacy hunt of any politician I have ever seen. This is reflected in his onanistic L.A. Times' op-ed over the weekend. What does he knock conformist Republicans for? A thoughtful, defensible position would have been for opposing any broad changes in the tax code that might have raised taxes for some but would have promoted overall economic growth. Instead, Arnold gets on his high horse with Republicans for not going along with three of the biggest boondoggles of the modern political era: Some Republicans today aren't even willing to have conversations about protecting the environment, investing in the infrastructure America needs or improving healthcare. The first part is a reference to the green jobs boondoggle, the second to the bullet train and the third to Obamacare. It is not a partisan assertion to say that independent folks looking at all three have run away screaming over their horrible cost-to-benefit ratios. But Arnold doesn't care. He had the vision thing in spades, yunno? He wants to remind us he was for the green-jobs-will-save-us-all fantasy before Obama and Jerry Brown. That he was for the bullet train fantasy before Obama and Brown. And that between Mitt Romney and Obama, he sought the same sort of mandatory health insurance program for all Californians -- only to be thwarted by that most unlikely voice of reason, Don Perata! What's funniest of all is the way that people not in San Diego describe what's going on in San Diego. Like the NYT's David Brooks, Arnold tried to depict Fletcher as having been rebuffed by rigid GOP reactionaries, contrary to Ronald Reagan's desire for a "welcoming, open and diverse Republican Party." Two months ago, Republicans in the city of San Diego's central committee had three choices to endorse for mayor. One was Fletcher, a handsome war hero married to a Bush 43 staffer, someone with cute young kids, someone championed by former San Diego war hero-turned-mayor-and-then-governor Pete Wilson and someone whose biggest legislative accomplishment was passing a complex new law on sex offenders that was broadly if not accurately seen as a standard tough-on-crime crackdown. One was Bonnie Dumanis, the tough-on-crime San Diego district attorney who had the support of incumbent Republican mayor Jerry Sanders. She is gay, of which Bill O'Reilly, who likes to call her "Mrs. Dumanis," seems unaware. The third Republican mayoral candidate --  and the one whose victory with the city central committee led to Fletcher's quitting the party -- is Carl DeMaio -- a gay libertarian whose retail political skills are often found lacking and whose ties to San Diego are slim. So which young Republican politician's journey to the party's endorsement is more likely -- Fletcher's or DeMaio's? If you said the latter, I look forward to you naming all the other young gay libertarians whom California Republicans have rallied around. If you said the former, plainly, you're drinking the Matt David Kool-Aid. But Arnold, of course, isn't a drinker of the Kool-Aid. Since his 2005 special election wipeout, he's been a dispenser of the Kool-Aid, of the idea that Republicans share much of the blame for our local/state woes. In a state where 97 percent of the power rests with Democrats, that's nearly as ridiculous as blaming the dissidents in Pyongyang for North Korea's woes.      

Dan Richard and the bullet train: Still putting lipstick on a pig

The narrative that held the California High-Speed Rail Authority had finally figured out a smart path forward thanks to the stewardship of new board Chairman Dan Richard took a huge hit last week when the authority abruptly reversed course and said it would include Orange County after all in its first phase. So much for new realism and new austerity. This week, Richard's rep took another hit with his bizarre likening of the bullet train fiasco to a Southern California Association of Governments' long-term plan that has all kinds of dedicated funding sources. Yo, Dan: We're paying attention. Acting confident and aggressively trying to cow journalists who pose tough questions can only take you so far. At some point, everyone will figure out you're still putting lipstick on a pig. Here's the key point from a UT San Diego editorial: ... there is a huge difference between the L.A. regional plan and the state rail authority’s plan. The former has a clearly defined funding strategy. It anticipates using a combination of state and federal gas taxes; passing county sales taxes to pay for transportation projects, as has been done in recent decades; building toll roads; and borrowing. Proponents may not have all $525 billion lined up, but they have a good idea of where they will get most of their funding. The bullet train, by contrast, has no established source for its missing $55 billion. Dan Richard, like Jerry Brown, is a throwback in Sacramento -- a reminder of a bygone era in which pragmatism and candor occasionally trumped lame ideological narratives. How either one got trapped into not just defending but promoting the bullet train boondoggle is beyond me. #EpicFail

Bullet train's cruel charade: getting up the hopes of Orange County's dopes

I roared with laughter when I saw the alert saying the geniuses at the California High-Speed Rail Authority had changed their minds and added a direct Orange County line back to their revised business plan. All that praise for being realistic and for bringing the mythical cost down to $68 billion and the kudos from Sen. Feinstein for smartly avoiding construction in crowded urban areas? Never mind. It's back to the selling of the bullet train as political pork once again. Yo, Edmund G. "Jerry" -- thanks for the guffaws. That extra layer of spectacle and silliness you've added to this mess since going all-in last year? It's been a treat! But there is a downside here. For at least four reasons -- starting with the new theory about the CTA semi-coming to the rescue that I debuted Wednesday -- I doubt the bullet train comes close to getting built. So what is the point of promising people in Orange County something that they of course will never get? I know, I know -- political kabuki requires all Dem hands on board, etc. This is President Obama's grand vision! We mustn't let him down! But at a very basic level, it's kind of cruel. They're taunting the rail cultists in Orange County who are actually dumb enough to believe they'll ever have a 200-mph train regularly paying their area a visit. These people are already doomed to troubled lives -- stunted cognition and congenital naivete are not a recipe for personal and professional success. Now they're being led on by political con men. How mean can the CHSRA get? Sheesh. Success has a dozen fathers, and defeat is an orphan. I understand that. But we need to have one person to blame most of all for the bullet-train insanity, and there's only one candidate: Arnold. The guy who got elected in 2003 on the grounds that he would bring fiscal conservative smarts and basic common sense to Sacramento -- and who was skeptical about the bullet train his first four years on the job -- ended up as a key proponent for the bullet train in 2008, leading the campaign for Proposition 1A. The measure narrowly won. Thanks for nothing, Arnold. It was amazing to watch Arnold shift into legacy mode after getting thumped in the 2005 special election. It wasn't just the bullet train and AB 32. People forget that he tried to bring Romneycare/Obamacare to California throughout 2007 and actually got it through the Assembly, only to have Don Perata and Senate Dems point out there was no money at all to pay for it. I've never seen a more desperate, frantic hunt for a legacy. It yielded two mega-fiascos in AB 32 and the bullet train. But at least it allows Arnold to circumnavigate the globe to the huzzahs of green true believers. If you live in California and aren't a rail or green cultist, hisses are more in order.

The CTA's pending good deed: It's going to kill the bullet train

This Chris Reed fella, writing in the L.A. Daily News, has some good news about the California High-Speed Rail Authority: Why would the [California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers] turn on their normal allies and oppose plans for the bullet train? Because of the growing evidence that Gov. Jerry Brown thinks the only plausible way to fund the project is with the fees that heavy industries pay for the right to pollute under AB 32, the state's landmark 2006 anti-global warming law. The state Legislative Analyst's Office expects the fees from the "cap and trade" system to generate billions of dollars annually -- perhaps as much as $14 billion by 2015. There are plenty of legal precedents that appear to limit how the fees can be used. Since they are gathered to help fight pollution and reduce global warming, state finance officials say the fees must be spent for that purpose. But anyone who expects this argument to inhibit the CTA and the CFT from trying to get their hands on this immense new revenue source is hopelessly naive. .... Lawmakers in Sacramento won't get in the unions' way. Why would they start behaving honestly and ethically now? Read the whole column here. There is a very basic and obvious ploy that the CTA and CFT can use to grab AB 32 fees. Good column. I could read that guy all day and never get tired of his whining.  

Bullet train derailed? Path to demise looking clear! Woo. Hoo.

Monday's L.A. Times story with this headline -- "Bid to appease bullet train critics may violate law" -- and this subhead -- "Revisions are in conflict with the ballot measure approved by voters and may go against the Obama administration's plans. Gov. Jerry Brown backs the changes but admits potential legal problems" escaped my notice for a day. But it's epochal: It points out the clear path to the bullet train's demise. Sharp attorneys hired by well-heeled opponents of the project -- whether they are cities in the Silicon Valley, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association or Central Valley agribusiness, or all three in tandem -- are going to kill this dead in court, using the incredibly specific provisions in Proposition 1A exactly as they were intended: to prevent a boondoggle. Hip hip hooray! A series of concessions over the last year to quiet opposition to the California bullet train has created a potentially lethal problem: the revised blueprint for the system may violate requirements locked into state law when voters approved funding for the project in 2008. The Legislature packed the law with an unusual number of conditions intended to reassure voters, protect the project from later political compromises and ensure that it would not end up a bankrupted white elephant. But many of those requirements may be at odds with the plan to integrate bullet trains with existing commuter rail lines in Los Angeles and San Francisco. ... Outside critics, state oversight boards, some legislators and former officials of the California High-Speed Rail Authority say the compromises violate those requirements ... The story quotes Jerry Brown as being dismissive of the possibility that a judge might block construction if he found Prop. 1A was being violated, but that is just laughable. That's because we're not talking about the state trying to finesse the rules. The rail authority wants to obliterate them: The mandates in the law are considerable. They require that any initial segment has to use high-speed trains. Money for each operating segment needs to be in hand before construction starts. Passengers must be able to board in Los Angeles and arrive in San Francisco without changing trains. As many as 12 trains per hour are supposed to run in each direction and the system has to operate without taxpayer subsidies. Instead, the rail authority has agreed to run fewer trains at slower speeds on tracks shared with commuter rail systems, Amtrack and freight trains. In the early years, passengers will probably have to transfer trains to get from one end of the system to the other. The concept, known as the blended approach, was pushed last year by Bay Area politicians, who fought the original plan to run high-speed trains through the region on 60-foot high viaducts over local neighborhoods. The idea has attracted support in Southern California as well. What's funny about this is that the same Legislature that wrote all these specific provisions into the law wrote the ballot summary that bamboozled voters in 2008.  It was so outrageously slanted that it led to a Howard Jarvis lawsuit that prompted a state appeals court to essentially block lawmakers from ever again writing ballot descriptions. So on the one hand, they were duplicitous scumbags manipulating us into voting for $9.95 billion in bond seed money for the project. But on the other hand, they were careful watchdogs who built in safeguards to protect us ... from they themselves? What a deliciously strange twist. Kings County is already suing the rail authority for noncompliance with 1A. And Jon Coupal, president of Howard Jarvis, is ready to jump in. “We don’t see how these bonds could ever be issued with such a significant legal cloud hanging over them," he wrote in an email to me. "In addition to the existing legal challenges, it is likely that multiple parties would jump into any validation action filed by the state seeking to inoculate the financing. Wall Street itself may demand that the issue be revisited by the voters.” That's a great point. Not even Kamala Harris, our Mussolini fan of an attorney general, is going to be able to make this train run on time, or ever. Woo. Hoo. Editor's note: This was updated at 8 a.m. March 28 to add Coupal's comments.

'Solyndra Times Seven': A new frame for the bullet-train debacle

The national media have devoted plenty of skeptical attention to California’s bullet-train boondoggle—from the ballooning cost of the California High-Speed Rail Authority project to its shoddy management to the baffling decision to build the first segment in the lightly populated Central Valley. But the press has yet to focus on a crucial fact: the bullet train isn’t just some quirky Left Coast fiasco; it’s also a grotesque waste of federal money. The project serves as a powerful reminder of the Obama administration’s mishandling of the $787 billion stimulus that Congress passed in February 2009 with solemn assurances of prudence and accountability. The bullet-train project, in fact, can be thought of as “Solyndra times seven”—that’s how far its costs outstrip those of the much-touted Bay Area solar panel manufacturer that burned through $528 million in federal loans before declaring bankruptcy and folding last September. That's the lead of my new piece for City Journal California. It's step one in my campaign to make the bullet train a national story about stimulus insanity, not just about a crazy folly unfolding in the goofy Golden State. Thanks to my old friends John and Ken at KFI 640 AM for giving attention to the column on their show Wednesday. You can hear them talk about the bullet train fiasco and my commentary for about 20 minutes beginning at the 12:40 mark of this on-demand podcast.

Well, looky here: Someone in state media notices Dems are rigid, too

Last week, I wrote the following about the California media's peculiar media dynamics: So here's the headline in this morning's S.F. Chronicle: California GOP out of sync with most state voters. This may well be true given the party's deep social conservatism. But have you ever seen a headline saying California Dems out of sync with most state voters? California Democrats want higher taxes, oppose pension reform and pass laws seeking to insulate public employee unions from budget pain and the economic downturn. These are not at all things the public wants, so it is not a stretch at all to envision a story headlined California Dems out of sync with most state voters. But of course what I'm getting at is this: Here's another story that could easily be written: California media out of sync with most state voters. Reporters are rarely social conservatives, so of course the GOP seems "out of sync." But for reasons that defy logical explanation, reporters often buy the theory that since Dems hold the majority in Sacramento, they reflect the majority's views. Bunk. Today, Dan Walters of the Sac Bee makes a similar point about Dems and the media. Republicans are not the only practitioners of automatous politics. Liberal Democratic factions are just as adamant about enforcing their ideological dicta. Pity the Democratic politician who doesn't endorse same-sex marriage, abortion rights, tax increases, animal rights or carbon reduction, to name a few of the left's current shibboleths. A case in point is a lengthy screed by Robert Cruickshank who writes for Calitics, a website by and for leftish activists, about Alan Lowenthal, a liberal Democratic state senator from Long Beach who's running for Congress this year. Cruikshank sees Lowenthal, one of the Legislature's brainier and less robotic members, as an ideological traitor for failing to march in lock step with himself and other "progressives" about building a bullet train. But unfortunately for Dan, he ends with a dumb mistake: "So Lowenthal has a choice in front of him," Cruikshank writes. "Will he side with Obama, Brown and congressional Democrats and vote to build high-speed rail in California in 2012? Or will he side with Tea Party Republicans and vote against high-speed rail?" That sounds like radio shock jocks John and Ken threatening to put Republicans' "heads on a pike" if they vote for tax increases. Uh, Dan, it's "heads on a stick," not a pike. But he's sure right about Cruikshank. If a report came out tomorrow that said the bullet train would cost $1 trillion, not $98 billion, Cruikshank would still back it and rip people who disagree. He didn't just drink the Kool-Aid. He emptied the tank.

Bullet train: Jerry can't bully Simitian, Lowenthal -- or escape the facts

Jerry Brown can bully and bluster and name-call all he wants to revive the deranged assault on sanity that is the bullet-train project, but there are Senate Democrats who just disregard his propaganda and point to the basics. In a polarized Capitol full of partisan hacks, these people are -- I'm going there, people, yes I am -- taxpayer heroes. What a comment on modern politics that being honest is all you need to rise to hero status. “There’s an inadequate business plan,” state Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, said at a Friday luncheon of the Democratic Foundation of Orange County. “A UC Berkeley study found the ridership projections were too high. We have $10 billion in state funds and $3 billion in federal funds for a $98 billion project. To start in the middle (of the state) when you have no (financial) commitment is too risky.” For starters, Lowenthal said, the first leg of the line should serve higher population areas than the Central Valley, where groundbreaking is planned. That's from the Orange County Register. This is from AP: "I don't want the state of California chasing $3.5 billion in federal funds at a cost of $98.5 billion. That's not my idea of a bargain," said state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, a one-time supporter. "If future funding is uncertain, then whatever we're going to build and pay for today has to have real value in and of itself." He calls himself a "supporter of high-speed rail done right," but said he'd yet to see such a project. Simitian questions whether the initial phase, a 130-mile section of track linking Fresno to Bakersfield, would have any value if the rest of the line is never built. Lowenthal and Simitian aren't going to go along with Jerry's Kool-Aid on this. They want something that makes sense. Good luck with that, guys! The AP story, by Judy Lin, also included this passage: "Spain can build it. China can build it. France can build it. Germany can build it. England can build it. Japan can build it. But oh, we can't build it," Brown said, mocking critics in a speech a week ago to the California Democratic Party convention. "No, we can build more airport runways, more freeways over the next 50 years. That's twice as expensive. So I'm not saying it's cheap; I'm just saying it's cheaper than the alternative, and it's a hell of a lot better." Brown was addressing the convention in San Diego, one of the major California cities left off the first phase of the high-speed rail line, which has led to local criticism. Bunk. Judy Lin shows zero familiarity with San Diego. The bullet train has faced derision for years in the city where I live because so many people here think the whole thing is a lie -- not because of the fact that the San Diego link is way down the list if the project is ever to be built. The latest evidence came just Sunday in this UT San Diego editorial, which is consistent with everything my paper has opined about the bullet train for years. The editorial also points out the big bullet train development that Judy Lin seems to have missed: Some state lawmakers and rail insiders expect the new proposal to essentially give up on building new tracks in the metropolitan Bay Area and in Los Angeles and Orange counties in favor of a system that links the southern tip of the former region with the northern tip of the latter region, then relies on upgraded existing tracks to get folks where they want to go, albeit at much slower speeds. This would certainly bring down the cost immensely by wiping out the need to build the most costly bullet-train tracks, in suburbs where activists and their lawyers would demand underground train lines or other extremely expensive ameliorative measures. A recent S.F. Chronicle article pointed to this. But I'll admit up-front to bias here; I may be picking on AP. Why? Because I've never gotten over how AP's California staff has accepted stupid union talking points without context for years and years, dating back to the 2005 special election. Here's how AP covered a June 15, 2005, rally in which Arnold was heckled for seeking reduced pensions, spending limits, teacher tenure reform and limits on the power of public employee unions: Schwarzenegger has been feuding for months with groups he calls "special interests" -- teachers, nurses and other public employee unions who accuse him of selling out to big business while shortchanging education, health care and other programs. Even seven years later, AP should still be ashamed. Fighting against the California status quo is "selling out to big business," say the non-"special interests." Sheesh. Bottom line: AP should be seen as a full partner in California's dysfunction.