Economic Stimulus Plan Build A Repository Of Promises
Written by Michael Lewis on November 13, 2008
By Michael Lewis
As governments plan construction to combat recession, let each be sure to include one mammoth structure: a repository for promises they make to voters.
Think how much space we’d need to record the promises of presidents and Congress. The National Repository of Promises might have to go in the suburbs — the District of Columbia couldn’t fit it in. It could be President Obama’s first big economic stimulus, and hold his campaign pledges to boot.
Locally, we might build a single tower for city and county promises. The Orange Bowl site would have been big enough if we hadn’t already promised it for a baseball stadium. We could use instead the downtown land that we promised for a baseball stadium a few years ago — and then add that promise to the archives.
The City of Miami could fill shelves detailing its fire-fee refund. When it collected nearly $100 million illegally, it promised to give it back, then cut a secret deal to do it for just $7 million and only for seven people.
When that trick failed, the city promised again to give refunds to everyone, but a judge two weeks ago approved less than 20 cents on the dollar — plus $1.8 million to the lawyers.
What a nice collection of failed promises.
The city can also place in the Repository of Promises commissioners’ vow this month that they won’t spend more than $94 million for a baseball stadium garage and the manager’s vow to bring it in at that level — or certainly with less than $30 million overage.
The city this year signed a $94 million garage pledge despite a study putting cost at $150 million. Commissioners now vow they won’t pay much above $94 million though a second study says $156 million.
But then, that’s like the Miami-Dade County Commission’s pledge before construction of the then-named Performing Arts Center that the county would never pay a cent of operating costs. Since it opened, however, the county has been paying $8 million plus a year for operations and nobody expects a subsidy to ever end — though voters were promised it would never begin.
Key to pledges is this: once government makes a promise, the project can begin. And once the project is in the works, there’s no limit on spending.
That’s how the county could pledge to build a $200 million arts center and wind up over $500 million. The promise is only good when it’s made, if then. Circumstances always prevent compliance.
Now county commissioners are trying to "unify" transportation funds. "Unify" is the code word for breaking a solemn vow to voters who in 2002 agreed to a half-percent sales tax surcharge to finance new transit. "Unify" means grabbing those funds to pay debts, operating costs and maintenance without adding much new at all.
Right after that 2002 vote, commissioners voided a pledge that a trust would control surtax spending. Commissioners decided they, not the trust, would get final say.
Now, commissioners and the county manager want to scuttle the last vestige of their pledges to voters, who never would have approved commission control of tax money. Just more promises for the archives, not the real world.
But a Repository of Promises would be useful: it would remind voters of how politicians today ignore the vows of yesterday.
They get away with it because public memory is short and government can rewrite history to erase earlier promises. Shades of George Orwell’s novel "1984."
These in power don’t worry about yesterday’s pledges because they can claim new circumstances nullify them, just as kids say something didn’t count because of X so take it over.
A rare excuse may be valid. The stadium site next door to County Hall, for example, never would have worked. But usually the excuse is trumped-up, as in most of the failed promises above.
And politicians get away with it because by the time the promise is broken they’re out of office and it’s someone else’s problem, like pledges by former county Mayor Alex Penelas to build far more rail lines than the half-cent surcharge could ever fund.
Politicians’ mantra must be over-promise and under-deliver. Did we get that backward, or did they?
Surely they don’t all intend to bait and switch, or lie to voters, or fail to deliver. They must have meant at some point to do what they said.
Maybe they just forgot their promises. After all, if the press doesn’t constantly ask what happened to those pledges, who will? And the press is, to put it mildly, not what it once was.
With the press shrinking, who in the future will remind officials of promises large, small and disappearing? Who will keep their feet to the fire?
That’s the beauty of Repository of Promises buildings. Somewhere, promises would remain on the record.
And, once those major public works projects are built, we could begin a second wave of pump-priming construction: Museums of Kept Government Promises.
On second thought, they might be too small to bother about.