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Perpetual motion machine entices Connecticut again

The Chris Powell Column

Maybe state government’s investment in Gov. Malloy’s Jackson Laboratory project in Farmington — $345 million, 44 percent of it bonding interest — will pay off eventually. But it will have to spur a lot more development to bring the subsidy to Jackson below the breathtaking level of a million dollars per job, a mere 300 jobs after 10 years.

There is no hard evidence that this can be done, just supposition and hope. As state Rep. Arthur O’Neill, R-Southbury, noted in debate in the state House of Representatives, “Hope is not a strategy.”

Indeed, the Jackson Lab plan’s main justifications seem to be the governor’s belief that bioscience is the wave of the future and that Connecticut must hurl itself upon that wave, premises the General Assembly’s Democratic majority accepted almost overnight, though a few weeks ago most legislators might not even have been able to spell bioscience.

Yes, the Malloy administration has offered an economic development model concluding that the Jackson Lab project, combined with the nearly billion-dollar expansion of the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, will produce much other development that will recover the state’s costs. But a reliable estimate of how much value will be created is impossible, particularly in a field as new as bioscience. And Connecticut has seen such dubious models before.

They long have been used most tediously by arts groups seeking government subsidy. The claim has been that every dollar given to the arts replicates itself a dozen times or more. Of course, most dollars don’t stay still after they are spent once; they keep changing hands. But that is true no matter how a dollar is spent. Indeed, it may be true even if the dollar is not appropriated and spent by government at all, as its original holder may spend it in his own way.

Thus these models resemble perpetual motion machines that are revved up only as politics requires. If they were really what they claim to be, they could justify pouring all society’s wealth into them, as every dollar put in would yield infinite dollars coming out. But the development prospects in the neighborhood of, say, the first bridge over a river are more compelling than the development prospects in the neighborhood of a company that makes most of its money selling laboratory mice.

These perpetual motion machines have been tried on Hartford several times in the last 40 years — first with the hundreds of millions of dollars spent building and rebuilding the Hartford Civic Center, then with the tens of millions lavished by the administrations of Govs. William A. O’Neill and Lowell P. Weicker Jr. on the now-departed Hartford Whalers hockey team, and then with the hundreds of millions lavished by the administration of Gov. John G. Rowland on the “Adriaen’s Landing” project.

Yet Hartford remains impoverished and declining. It bears no resemblance to the rich and envied little city it was more than a hundred years ago, before government invented perpetual motion. O’Neill and Weicker are beyond political responsibility now, while Rowland was held responsible not for “Adriaen’s Landing,” but for things that put him in prison for a year. Now, as host of a popular radio program, Rowland gets to chide politicians who have managed to stay out of prison.

In 10 years when it will be time to assess the Jackson Lab project, its progenitor, too, may be long gone politically. In the meantime, he will ask for suspension of judgment, though it’s hard to see how, if the massive undertaking in Farmington is to look like it is succeeding, his economic development people will have time for anything besides ginning up more bioscience projects. And how much subsidy will they demand?

But judgment doesn’t have to be suspended on legislators from Connecticut’s cities who voted for the $1.5 billion public works bonanza for tony Farmington, thereby choking off resources for serious infrastructure work in the cities. Nor does judgment have to be suspended on the 1,000 Friends of Connecticut and other pious advocates of “smart growth” who suddenly fell silent about the “sprawl” they had been condemning. They are friends only of political correctness.

When Republicans do this sort of thing, it’s trickle-down economics. When Democrats do it, it’s economic development.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.