We human beings hate to admit failure. Even though our brains may know when some endeavor has failed, our emotions and our egos may drive us to continue trying to make it work.
Indeed, the syndrome has developed its own linguistic phrases, such as “throwing good money after bad,” or “sunk costs,” or “cutting our losses.”
Private businesses are usually — but not always — willing to shut down or sell off ventures that don’t pan out. Ford Motor Co. famously jettisoned the Edsel, a car named after the beloved son of founder Henry Ford, when the car failed to attract enough buyers. But Boeing stuck with an elongated version of its 737 jetliner even after two crashed and killed 346 people, and is still trying to make it acceptable.
Government officials are generally less willing to admit failure, perhaps because, unlike business executives, they have no personal financial stakes in outcomes. Their guiding, albeit informal, rule is that launching new programs enhances one’s standing while shutting down those that fail just angers their stakeholders.
California’s recent history is replete with examples of programs and projects that deserved merciful deaths but have continued to soak up billions of dollars in taxpayer money.
The woebegone bullet train project is the most spectacular. Voters were promised a statewide network of high-speed trains when they passed a $9.95 billion bond issue in 2008. Thirteen years later, we have only a few concrete structures in the Fresno area — no track, no trains and no certain date when even a relatively short segment will be operative despite the many billions of dollars spent, or wasted, so far.
It would take a book — a thick book — to fully describe all of the state government’s highly touted, very expensive digital information projects that have failed to deliver the promised benefits. While it lacks the scale of the bullet train and the failed information technology projects, Calbright may fall into the same category.
It’s former Gov. Jerry Brown’s pet project — an online community college that would offer high-quality, low-cost instruction to help working Californians upgrade their job skills.
Tens of millions of dollars have been sunk into Calbright over the past few years but it’s actually provided instruction only to a few dozen students — at an enormous per-student cost, of course.
Last month, State Auditor Elaine Howle catalogued Calbright’s failures, declaring that “A primary reason…is that its former executive team failed to develop and execute effective strategies for launching the college.”
If Calbright doesn’t shape up by next year, Howle told the Legislature, it should be axed. Five days before Howle issued her report, the state Assembly voted unanimously for legislation that “makes the California Online Community College Act inoperative at the end of the 2022-23 academic year.”
To be fair, the legislation, Assembly Bill 1432, does not merely reflect an unwillingness to continue a project that has fallen short of its lofty goals. The bill is sponsored by the union that represents faculty at the state’s 115 local community colleges and it opposed Calbright from the onset, fearing that it would undermine the existing system.
However, Calbright’s obvious shortcomings made it vulnerable to a political death sentence. The fight over its fate now shifts to the state Senate, or perhaps will be decided when legislative leaders and Gov. Gavin Newsom negotiate a final 2021-22 budget deal behind closed doors this month.
If Calbright is jettisoned, perhaps it would mark a new willingness to stop throwing good money after bad. Now how about that bullet train to nowhere?
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters