Political and financial reality have begun to catch up with supporters of stem-cell research in California.
Wealthy venture capitalists, movie stars, and biotech firms poured $27 million into the campaign for Proposition 71, the now famous stem-cell initiative. The slick advertising blitz promised myriad miracle cures and enormous financial returns from new scientific patents. Opponents were shouted down as bible thumping, card-carrying members of medieval red counties.
In fact, the diverse groups opposed to 71 fought nobly, but were outspent by a margin of 27-1. They simply weren't able to get air time for their concerns—and the media wasn't about to equalize the playing field. The Los Angeles Times proclaimed 71 "worth the gamble," gleefully embracing a proposition that their editorial page acknowledged was "intended to both insult and subvert President Bush's decision" to restrict embryonic stem-cell research.
Reasoned deliberation was left behind in the midst of California's new gold rush for stem-cell research money. Given the worst of the initiative process and lapdog liberal journalism, there was no substantive policy debate on Prop. 71 in California. Few individuals, least of all the members of the starry-eyed media, read the fine print.
Although a majority of Californians may be for embryonic stem-cell research, a solid majority are against cloning. Few people understand that Prop. 71 allows cloning—many embryos are needed for research, and deceptive rhetoric obscured the fact that the measure will likely use public money to harvest cloned embryos for their stem-cells.
Even fewer people are aware of the measure's structural defects, which seem to have been crafted in the same spirit of lawlessness once rampant in the old wild west.
Prop. 71 ensures that virtually no governmental oversight can interfere with the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine it creates. The measure authorizes $3 billion to be doled out by private citizens, many of whom are members of the same groups that will receive the grants. The former "Yes on 71" chairman will likely become the chairman of the managing body for a new research institute that he helped buy.
If and when any of the proposition's controversial research succeeds, there is no guarantee that the state will receive any of the profits. Ask yourself: if the research will bring in all the money its supporters claim, why didn't private interests fund it themselves? In spite of the California's current budget crisis, Prop. 71 forces Californians to take out an enormous loan for $3 billion, costing at least another 3 billion in interest.
Adding insult to injury, scientists will not even have to disclose their research to the taxpayers who will fund their projects, since the Proposition conveniently allows them to bypass normal sunshine and open meetings law.
Now that it is too late, one of 71's most vocal supporters in the state senate has introduced legislation to try to rectify these and other egregious flaws. While the San Francisco Chronicle downplayed such concerns during the campaign when they supported the "bold" proposition, the paper recently changed its tune, calling for the legislature to "look for a way to injectâ€¦common-sense reforms into the state's funding of stem cell research."
Unfortunately, the $27 million investment doesn't just pay out billions to Big Biotech—it also buys protection. The initiative bars any legislative amendments for at least 3 years, and after that only by a 70% vote in both houses.
The LA Times recently ran an unrepentant editorial that laughed such unpleasantries off with its customarily glib arrogance: "Like most California ballot measures, it was more an expression of voter intent than a legal blueprint for implementation."
Perhaps the voters of California would be surprised to find that when they vote for initiatives they are merely expressing their feelings in polls rather than passing specific laws that have consequences. Following the failed progressive ideas that are at the root of their political philosophy, liberals at the Times and elsewhere are comfortable trusting supposedly apolitical experts to "interpret" the will of the people.
The Progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century sought to bypass representative government and uphold the rule of "objective" experts. Ironically, Hiram Johnson, the California governor who pushed for the initiative process, sought to prevent special interest groups from influencing politics for their own gain. While the initiative process is sometimes used against the progressivism of California's powerful liberal establishment, Proposition 71 is yet another example of the abject failure of that movement to outthink our nation's founders, who rejected direct democracy.
In the meantime, the brave new gold rush is on. The message to would-be stem cell researchers, who are scrambling from across the country and world to stake their claims, is clear:
Go west, and follow the money.