Dan Walters: Law of Triviality really bites here in California

April 1, 2013 

Humorist C. Northcote Parkinson dubbed one of his observations about organizational conduct the "Law of Triviality."

"Briefly stated, it means that the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved," Parkinson wrote, citing a city council that devotes just a few minutes to talking about a nuclear reactor, but hours to the placement of a bicycle rack.

Why? The council's members can't grasp a nuclear reactor; it's simply beyond their ken. But they understand a bicycle rack.

Parkinson's wry humor aside, his Law of Triviality has real world effects, as we are learning all too well in California.

The Legislature acted in sheer ignorance, for example, when it unanimously enacted a sweeping overhaul of electric power in 1996 on assumptions that lawmakers never questioned, but that turned out to be completely false. The subsequent utility meltdown is still costing consumers billions of dollars.

The Legislature voted in equal ignorance three years later for a massive expansion of state pension benefits on what we know now was a bogus assurance from the union-controlled California Public Employees Retirement System that investment earnings would fully cover costs.

The state budget is now on the hook for several billion dollars a year to pay for that folly, which was compounded when cities and counties throughout the state followed suit.

By and by, as pension costs mounted, many local governments issued "pension bonds" on promises by lenders that they would more than pay for themselves -- but when recession hit the locals found themselves facing double payments to bondholders and CalPERS.

A pension bond is the largest single declared debt of Stockton as it seeks bankruptcy and much smaller Pacific Grove, adjacent to Monterey, is contemplating bankruptcy as it's hit simultaneously by demands from CalPERS for more money and payments on its $19 million pension bond.

Meanwhile, in dozens of school districts, voters approved school construction bonds only to learn after the fact that they were sold with delayed principal repayments, thereby multiplying the eventual cost by several times over.

Ironically, the Legislature, which has committed so many sins of ignorance and inattention itself (let's not even mention chronic budget deficits), is self-righteously seeking to crack down on those outrageous school bonds.

The average legislator, city council member, county supervisor or school trustee doesn't understand complex, multi-year financial commitments so they reserve serious attention for matters they can grasp, such as Parkinson's metaphorical bicycle stand.

It's called the Law of Triviality and we're seeing it applied again in Sacramento's hurried approval of a very costly basketball palace.

Email: dwalters@sacbee.com

THE SACRAMENTO BEE

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