Democracy, said H.L. Mencken, is the theory that people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard. In 2008, Californians passed an initiative authorizing $9.95 billion in bonds to build what they were told would be a $33 billion high-speed rail system. California, constantly lurching from one budget crisis to a worse one, could not nearly afford even that, and soon the price was re-estimated at about $100 billion. Not to worry, said Gov. Jerry Brown — the real price will be only $68.5 billion. Why? Partly because it will be less than bullet-like, not requiring extra-expensive roadbed.

Note Brown’s hilarious “.5.” Such is his precision that in May his projection of a $15.7 billion state budget deficit was 70 percent higher than his January estimate.

Eager to hook states on higher spending, especially for high-speed rail, the Obama administration wants California to quickly spend $3.3 billion of federal funding (much of it borrowed from China, one source of President Obama’s train envy). Simitian says the $3.3 billion is about 5 percent of the cost “if the project stays on budget.” If. The $3.3 billion and $2.7 billion of state money would finance 130 miles of track in the Central Valley — a train from, and to, nowhere.