Volume 42 Number 03
October 17 – October 23, 2007
This week, the Guardian celebrates 41 years at the forefront of the battle against dirty backroom deals, sleazy sellouts, illegal buy-offs, and underhanded intrusions into the public domain — and the fight continues. Click below for summaries, current updates, and histories of San Francisco privatization issues.
>> Editor’s Notes
A point-by-point list of Newsom’s privatization fumbles
By Tim Redmond
>> The privatization of San Francisco: an introduction
The city should be a loud, visible, proud, and shining example of a different kind of America
By Tim Redmond
>> The perils of privatization: a cautionary history
Ronald Reagan started dismantling government 25 years ago, but his privatization legacy is alive and growing — even in San Francisco
By Amanda Witherell
>> Blast from the past
A few choice selections from our archives
>> Wrecked parks
Chronic underfunding has made the Recreation and Park Department a prime privatization target
By Sarah Phelan and Steven T. Jones
>> Psych out
Newsom administration pushes plan to privatize mental health treatment
By G.W. Schulz
>> Private practice
The Department of Public Health has taken privatization to a bizarre new level
By G.W. Schulz
>> Connect the Connects
Newsom uses a shadowy private organization to shield his administration’s actions from public scrutiny
By Steven T. Jones
>> Bilking the links
Public-golf revenue is up millions of dollars. But a costly public-private contract has swallowed most of the money
By J.B. Powell
>> Bus Stop
Muni remains a lucrative target for the private section
By G.W. Schulz
>> Privatize the airport?
Will SFO go on the block in 2011?
By G.W. Schulz
By now, even most nongolfing residents of San Francisco have heard the dire refrain coming from City Hall: San Francisco’s public golf courses are sucking millions of dollars from the city treasury! Dozens of media stories have trumpeted this bleak pronouncement, and city leaders are using the shortfall to push for outsourcing control of the century-old open spaces. But a Guardian review of the Golf Fund shows that the links are not nearly as down-and-out as pro-privatization forces have led us to believe.
Recreation and Park Department accounting documents we obtained show revenues at the city’s six publicly owned golf courses last year were up nearly $1.5 million from 2005 to 2006 and more than $2.2 million dollars from 2004 to 2005, an increase of nearly 30 percent. But the cost of a lavish contract with a large, out-of-state golf-management corporation has risen precipitously over the same time frame and drained most of these new funds.
For the 200607 fiscal year the city shelled out more than $3.25 million to Kemper Sports Management to operate the pro shop and clubhouse at the Harding Park Golf Course and its nine-hole neighbor, Fleming. By comparison, in 200405, Kemper’s tab at Harding and Fleming was a still eye-popping $2.07 million, but that number is nearly $1.2 million less than what the city had to pay last year. These increased costs, as well as a hefty loan repayment for Harding Park’s botched remodel in 2002 and 2003, have eaten up the links’ improved revenue and forced the city to throw in an extra $1.4 million from the General Fund to keep golf solvent.
"What’s going on up at Harding is a disaster," Bob Killian told the Guardian. Killian ran the city’s golf operations profitably for two decades until 2001. "When I was in charge we had contracts with various managers for the pro shops and the restaurants, and they made us money. They paid us. Now, Harding is run at a deficit. Where the fuck is the money going? What’s it for? Nobody knows. It’s all this big secret…. It’s a scandal."
Kemper’s seven-year deal is unique, to say the least. At every other publicly managed course, the city leases control of the pro shops and clubhouses to outside companies. In exchange for a flat fee paid into city coffers, those companies bear all of the risk and reap most of the rewards of operating the facilities. But at Harding, the city pays Illinois’s Kemper $192,000 per year, regardless of its performance, to act as an on-site manager, plus a 5 percent incentive fee for gross revenues over $6 million. But those guaranteed sums are only the beginning of the bill.
Kemper hires staff, rents golf carts, and orders the supplies to be sold in the pro shop and the clubhouse. Unlike in the city’s lease arrangements at other courses, though, the company bears none of the risk. It simply invoices the city for its expenses, and the city signs the tab. And the tab just keeps growing.
One public-golf insider who declined to be identified for fear of retribution said, "They’ve got this enormous staff there, managers and assistant managers and assistants to assistants of managers. It’s a golf course, not a hospital! I hear the payroll for the restaurant alone is like $600,000. And it’s only open for one shift a day…. They stock their pro shop with top-of-the-line gear that just sits there. If they order 20 Arnold Palmer shirts and only sell two, who cares? The city still pays for all 20."
In an e-mail to the Guardian, Kemper’s general manager at Harding, Steve Argo, told us it has between 60 and 80 employees, depending on the season. Citing this seasonal variability and "competitive reasons," he did not break down those numbers between management and nonmanagement, as we requested.
Both Argo and Katharine Petrucione, Rec and Park’s chief financial officer, attributed much of the added costs at Harding to the opening of a new permanent clubhouse there in late 2005. Argo said the increased revenues from the clubhouse have "more than covered the city’s increase in payments." But while Rec and Park’s ledgers do show that concessions revenues at Harding and Fleming have gone up since the clubhouse opened, the increase in Kemper’s bill has gone up nearly as much. All in all, with Kemper’s multimillion-dollar deal and loan payments for the over-budget remodel at the course, accounts still put the course at more than $500,000 in the red even though a round of golf there now costs well over $100 and Kemper is still making a handsome profit.
It doesn’t end there. Petrucione said Kemper’s contract costs taxpayers even more than meets the eye. Because the company submits monthly and yearly budget projections as well as reams of invoices and expenses for reimbursement, Rec and Park staffers spend hours examining Kemper’s paperwork and activities essentially managing the manager. When we asked her for an accounting of how much the Kemper contract costs the city in staff hours for these oversight duties, Petrucione replied, "It definitely requires more time and effort … than a lease agreement [like those at every other course] would."
During a recent radio interview, Sup. Jake McGoldrick called Rec and Park’s deal with Kemper "the worst contract I’ve ever seen." He added, "We don’t have a golfer problem. Golfers are coming out and playing. We have an accountancy problem."
The golf insider we spoke with echoed McGoldrick’s sentiments: "Business is up like 30 percent this year, but Kemper’s contract is jeopardizing the whole department…. If we redid the greens, tees, and fairways [at the other courses], just Band-Aid stuff like that, we would have the premier municipal system in the country. But instead they’ve given this cushy deal to a company from Chicago with no connection to San Francisco. It’s so unfair."
Despite the controversy over Kemper’s all-expenses-paid arrangement, Mayor Gavin Newsom, Rec and Park general manager Yomi Agunbiade, and others at City Hall have been using the deficits largely brought on by Kemper’s contract to push for more private control of the city’s links. In June the Mayor’s Office put forward a plan to outsource not just clubhouse and pro-shop management but all golf operations at the city’s premier courses, including Harding. The proposal was tabled after several contentious hearings at the Board of Supervisors, but many observers expect that it will make its way back to the board in the near future.
"In a perfect scenario, the city could [manage the courses efficiently], but the city has proven that it doesn’t have the ability to do it," Sup. Sean Elsbernd told us in July. Elsbernd has been one of the most vocal supporters of bringing in private golf management.
But McGoldrick, Killian, and other opponents of the idea point out that the city provided quality, inexpensive golf for nearly 100 years. They worry that private managers will find profit in higher greens fees, more part-time workers, and lower salaries and fewer benefits for full-time staff. But beyond those concerns, they see the mayor’s plan as yet another example of publicly owned assets being offered up for private gain.
The courses, McGoldrick told us, are "priceless…. We can’t just dump [them] because you’ve got folks from the Mayor’s Office and his Rec and Park Department who don’t want to be bothered."
In his endorsement interview with the Guardian, Newsom said about the golf courses, "You gotta deal with the reality of where we are and what our core competencies are. Golf courses do not reflect a core competency of government. We’re losing hundreds of thousands of dollars and about to lose over a million dollars a year, and that comes from somewhere. So rather than continuing to do what we’ve done and hope for a different result, we’re looking at best practices across the country and finding ways to manage our assets differently, and I’m not apologetic for exploring those things."
(Microsoft; Xbox 360)
GAMER I have a confession to make: I don’t like first-person shooters. Most of the ones I’ve played share the following objective: "Shoot the marines-aliens-terrorists-mutants and escape from the bunkerprisontop-secret facilitywarehouse full of crates." I find this a bit boring. I therefore believe myself uniquely suited to hack my way through the dense jungle of Microsoft-sponsored hype with a flaming machete. Lest you discount the following as being biased, I’ve gotten my FPS-playing friend Glenn Song to cover me and augment my experience with his.
In the Bungie-developed Halo 3 you play a futuristic marine named Master Chief whose mission is to destroy worlds reminiscent of Larry Niven’s Ringworld. Why? These worlds are the key to setting a killer parasite loose on the universe. I’m down with anything that showcases killer parasites. Humanity is working against an alliance of religious-zealot aliens called the Covenant. Halo 3 avoids reducing the story to cliché by maintaining a linear plot but keeping narrative revelations relevant so that they don’t interrupt game play, and by allowing free play over small areas.
The graphics are stunningly good. Even the crates are well textured. The environments are amazingly lush and realistic. The soundtrack is very well done as well, although I think it sometimes borders on melodramatic.
Both Song and I had big problems with the user interface of the game. It took me several minutes just to figure out which buttons to click to start a single-player game, and it took even longer to figure out how to play a level cooperatively with another player. The menus are all nondescript and not really labeled intuitively.
Several times while playing, I felt like throwing the controller in disgust and making this review. Really. Short. That’s because I couldn’t target any of the small, fast-moving enemies. Almost all console shooters are like this, but most console games also have a feature that allows you to lock onto your target. Halo 3 does not. The levels sometimes seem rather lazily designed. The mission on the second level involves going from point A to point B and then back to point A again. It’s monotonous on one level, but subsequent levels also seem to have a lot of backtracking.
Multiplayer is where Halo 3 really shines. There are a variety of minigames along with the traditional body-count competitions, and the games are populated with 11-year-olds up way past their bedtimes. The variety of exotic weapons and complicated terrains makes for pure, exciting mayhem.
As soon as I signed into a game, some kid asked, "Hey, are you really a girl?" I would like to say I beat the snot out of the little whippersnapper, but the reality is that I got killed in the first 30 seconds. Then I got respawned and chased a guy named Tastyporkchop around with a gun that shoots needles.
TECHSPLOITATION She looked at me with her motion detectors as I rubbed the piezoelectric sensor between her thighs. Then I spun the potentiometers that jutted out from her chest like nipples. But it wasn’t until I stroked the piezosensor on the back of her neck that she began to moan, first quietly and then loudly, like a thousand women reaching orgasm together.
I was standing in front of a naked mannequin with the proportions of a porn star, her eyes replaced with fat lenses to detect motion, her nipples transformed into knobs, her ass and pussy and neck covered in thin sheets of metal that could detect pressure. Jutting from her left ankle was a USB connector, and through a hole in her back I could see the wires that had helped her respond to my attentions. Her voice had come from two small speakers at her feet. I had just jacked off a USB device.
Her name is Moaning Lisa, and I fondled her at Arse Elektronika, a conference in San Francisco last week devoted to pornography and technological innovation. Her creator, Matt Ganucheau, is a local artist and musician who likes to work with what he calls "novel interfaces." He designed Moaning Lisa specifically for Arse Elektronika, with help from conference organizer Kyle Machulis, to demonstrate the videogame-like properties of the human body. Ganucheau used neural network processing in her programming, and the result is that her responses are randomized. Each time you try to give Moaning Lisa an orgasm, your sensor stroking has to follow a slightly different pattern.
That’s what keeps me hovering around Moaning Lisa in fascination. Her interface, though attached to a strangely distorted female body, seems human. She’s a reminder that every woman has different physical sensitivities, and that sexual stimulation varies from person to person indeed, varies from encounter to encounter with the same person. She suggests we shouldn’t mystify sex, because after all it’s just like a game you play with piezoelectric sensors and potentiometers. Our bodies are a technology. Arousal is a program triggered by specific inputs.
Moaning Lisa is also a poignant conversation piece, inciting discussions you’d never imagine having with strangers. I got to chatting with Ganucheau about why he doesn’t plan to build a male version, and we immediately start talking about how men experience sexual pleasure, though in an oddly technical way. "Male sex sensors are biased, and not as spread out" over the body, Ganucheau said. "Sure, there are deviances in distribution, but overall it’s not as dynamic as a female. I find that if you go straight for male genitalia, the norm is that you’re guaranteed to get someone off." This situation, he asserted, would make for a pretty boring game. You grab the genitals and you win every time. I countered that men have sexual sensors and patterns as varied as women’s. Neither of us had any proof other than our own experiences.
Aside from some pretty graphic discussions of sexual sensors, Moaning Lisa inspired a lot of admiration from the women at Arse Elektronika. Many of us had suggestions for Ganucheau, especially what one could learn from people’s interactions with her. If he were to continue working on Moaning Lisa, Ganucheau said, he would want to track how women respond to men playing with her. "It would be interesting to have a study where you had one male in a room alone with Lisa, and five women behind a one-way mirror watching, commenting on the interaction."
I have less complicated ideas. I think Moaning Lisa would be a good educational toy for women who are shy about telling their partners what they like in bed. She would provide a lesson in how hard it is to arouse somebody who gives you no verbal feedback until you randomly "score" with an orgasm.
"I see the female body as an instructionless, interactive puzzle," Ganucheau explained. Moaning Lisa is like a Rubik’s Cube, a puzzle that you have to solve with your hands and your innate pattern-recognition ability. But with her exaggerated Barbie doll body shape giant breasts, tiny waist she’s also a parody of female sexuality. She meets our expectations for what a sex doll would be, then frustrates those expectations by responding to salacious touches in a chaotic and peculiarly human way. That’s what makes her a truly great piece of art. You cannot pin her down. You cannot forget her.
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who wants to give Moaning Lisa some actuators.
The central scene in Appomattox, Philip Glass’s new opera now world-premiering with San Francisco Opera, is the fateful meeting of generals Ulysses S. Grant (Andrew Shore) and Robert E. Lee (Dwayne Croft) in a private residence in the Virginia town of Appomattox Court House, where Lee surrendered on behalf of the South on April 9, 1865, officially bringing the catastrophic Civil War to a dainty close. The opera’s lucid libretto (by British playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton) faithfully instills the gravitas, human drama, and personal idiosyncrasy associated with that eminently chivalrous encounter between formal enemies. And with two excellent performances from Croft and Shore, deft staging by renowned director Robert Woodruff, and not least Glass’s score with its immediately recognizable orchestral voice in a distinctly somber mood it’s a meeting that manages to be rather riveting.
That’s also why it has to be undercut, and this the opera shrewdly does, though with mixed success. It’s not just that the story of two great men with the weight of history on their shoulders will not do by itself not least because the Civil War is not the story of two people, or even three, if you count the imposing figure of Abraham Lincoln (Jeremy Galyon). As Appomattox‘s decentering portrait makes clear (in scenes flashing forward as far as the civil rights era, which literally burst in on the proceedings at Appomattox Court House), the Civil War belongs for better or worse to many more people, then and now. The opera’s seminal scene must be undercut because history would soon come to mock the grandeur and moment of Grant and Lee’s highly civilized encounter, made on the heels of their brilliant mutual orchestration of unprecedented devastation and bloodshed.
Thus, Hampton’s libretto (coming from a skilled dramatist with a global curiosity) is aware of not only the concentrated power of the intimate drama at the opera’s center but also the quasi-reactionary limits it threatens to impose on the work’s greater engagement with history, which is to say, with the burden of the past. And so, even before broaching the legacy of white racism and black struggle, the opera comes bracketed with the voices of women. In the semiabstract and fiercely deromanticized opening panorama, it’s the women who carry the refrain "War is always sorrowful," attributed to Grant by his wife, Julia (Rhoslyn Jones).
Glass’s score too recognizable at times but nonetheless mood altering in its characteristically descending bass lines, unduutf8g strings, neobaroque arpeggios, and delicately soaring melodies rolls on just as solemnly and purposefully, rising and falling like bated breath, anxious with anticipation and weary with private and collective grief. Racing to a few notable climaxes, the score’s sad and sinister tone is broken by alternately haunted and ecstatic choral sections. Elsewhere, in a layering of period texture, a marching song lends poignant revelry to Lee’s first entrance: "Many are the hearts that are looking for the light, hoping to see the dawn of peace."
Peace is not in the cards. Immediately following the surrender scene, Woodruff’s mise-en-scène deconstructs the mismatch of old-fashioned civility and confident optimism at the dawn of the industrial age and its refurbished caste system. A frenzy of greedy souvenir hunting leaves the owner of the house where the surrender happened dazed and helpless as his fellow Americans strip it bare, leaving only an empty frame through which the future rolls in on a shiny wheelchair in the solitary figure of Ku Kluxer and convicted murderer Edgar Ray Killen (Philip Skinner). An old man spending his last years in prison for his part in the notorious 1964 killing of three civil rights workers, Killen may be finished, but what he stands for is not. And stand he does, defiantly larger than life, as he rises from his chair and strides offstage into a gray-toned future.
Thurs/18 and Oct. 24, 7:30 p.m.; Sat/20, 8 p.m.; $20$275
War Memorial Opera House
301 Van Ness, SF
REVIEW Moving from the small ODC Theater to the much larger Kanbar Hall of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco seems to have been a good idea for Benjamin Levy’s LEVYdance. At the opening of its home season Oct. 12, a large crowd seemed curious to see what else the young choreographer has in his palette. The good news is that Levy has no intention of repeating himself. The two world premieres, Nu Nu and Bone Lines, showed him stepping outside his previously hyperkinetic fierceness and embracing a more imagistic approach to dance making. Nu Nu is a candy-colored romp for four dancers set to music by rapper Fabolous, jazz singer Peggy Lee, and British songstress Anita Harris. The more ambitious Bone Lines, however, looked curiously unfocused; it didn’t sustain itself, Colleen Quan’s transparent and fragmented costumes notwithstanding.
Nu Nu‘s fast-paced mix of clowning, glamour-puss posing, and blossoming and breaking relationships was clever, smartly paced, and unpretentious.
Oral imagery permeated Bone Lines, which suggests a physical though inchoate passing of knowledge from one body to another. The piece examines Levy’s relationship with his immigrant parents; he seems much more interested in the process of his absorbing that knowledge fragmentarily, unconsciously than in any specific facts. The music and sets were strong, and so were recurring motifs of connectedness, but structurally, Bone Lines felt shadowy.
Most people rate summer more highly than autumn, and the reason is simple: summer means no school, autumn means back to school, and most people don’t like school. Therefore: summer over autumn. This straightforward syllogism manages to invert what is to me an elemental truth: that autumn is the most wonderful time of year, especially around here. Autumn brings warm days, holiday catalogues, apples, peppers, the last of the heirloom tomatoes, and nights cool and crisp enough to make turning on the oven a legitimate possibility.
Yes, the roastery is once again open, and roastables need not be meat. Many members of the vegetable kingdom take quite nicely to a turn in the oven, including some difficult cases. Asparagus, for me, is transformed by roasting into an irresistible treat; so is cauliflower. Cauliflower has long been a problem child in the kitchen, pallid-looking and quite cabbage-stinky if boiled or steamed, the usual methods of readying it for the table. I had nearly given up on it until my brother revealed to me that he’d been roasting cauliflower cut into florets, seasoned with just some extra-virgin olive oil and on a baking sheet in a hot oven until tender and lightly caramelized, to acclaim.
There was wisdom here, certainly. But I’d also clipped from the San Francisco Chronicle a recipe for spicy cauliflower from Pizzeria Delfina, which combined the florets with chili flakes, garlic, anchovies, and chopped pickled peppers. The fly in this otherwise tasty ointment was that the cauliflower was supposed to be fried, and I try to steer away from fried these days.
So, instead of frying, how about roasting the florets until golden and tender, then mixing in the ancillary ingredients? It works pretty well. The keys are an oven pre-heated to full blast, florets cut to a uniform size and laid in a single layer on a baking or cookie sheet with a generous splash of olive oil, and a careful turning (with tongs or a spatula) after six or so minutes, to make sure the florets brown evenly. When they’re well colored all the way around, add the other ingredients (mixing them in with your implement) and return to the oven for a last minute or two so the flavors melt together some. If your audience includes people who don’t like cauliflower, prepare to accept some surprised plaudits.
Make no mistake: Eugene Robinson is a throwback to a time when people used words like honor without being ironic or embarrassed. The vocalist for the 18-years-running art-rock-noise machine Oxbow, Stanford graduate, and Mac Life senior editor is also, to use his descriptor, a "fightaholic." As he says in the introduction to his forthcoming book Fight: Or, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Ass-Kicking but Were Afraid You’d Get Your Ass Kicked for Asking (Harper), he shares his "obsession with the eternal, unasked, ‘Can I take him?’" Contrary to what one might assume, people who beat the bloody hell out of each other for fun or profit Robinson is a mixed-martial-arts cage fighter are not suffering from antisocial personality disorders but often adhere to a strict moral code. Though, he confessed during our interview in South San Francisco, sitting in my car and looking out over the bay, "I definitely have antisocial reasons as well."
How much of this testing one’s mettle in the "crucible of conflict" is just a dick-measuring contest? Only in the movies, or perhaps in cage fights whose opponents are carefully matched, does the victor triumph because he wants it more. In any given fight a win can usually be attributed the basic physical facts of size and strength, so what’s the point of fighting if you’re merely measuring attributes?
Robinson told me about a fight he had with a Red Sox fan while loading Oxbow’s van in Maine. The Sox, who serve as the home team even for the New England hinterland, had just been humiliated by the Yankees to the tune of 192. Three Sox fans strolled by, and one inevitably asked the frontperson what the fuck he was looking at. Given multiple chances to bow out, the guy kept pushing, and ultimately had his ass handed to him. "At that point," Robinson said, "I was honor bound to deliver the lesson he had so aggressively been seeking. Whatever happened in that exchange, it wasn’t dick measuring. It was a cautionary tale, carefully delivered."
But do people really learn from being whupped on? My thinking on this subject has evolved along the lines of my employment. When I delivered pizzas for Pizza Hut in a hot pink Lacoste-style shirt, I was forced to eat spoonfuls of shit doled out by every disgruntled lard ass whose Meat Lover’s Special arrived 10 minutes late. "Someday," I thought, "someone is going to fuck that guy up." Needless to say, it was a precarious act to hang the smothering cloak of my rage on that altogether insufficient nail of "someday." When I moved on to working security at clubs, I realized that yes, someday someone will kick that guy’s ass, and it may as well be today. As the old activist saw goes, "If not now, when? If not me, who?" But after some time, I realized that the behavior of others wasn’t worth getting upset, let alone violent, over. Not because it wasn’t satisfying to deliver lessons, but because no lessons were learned. In this way, I found working in nightclubs as dissatisfying as substitute teaching.
If you fight someone and they win, then might is right, and whichever asshole behavior they were indulging in before the fight is justified. If you fight them and they lose, they will immediately work the victim angle for sympathy and punitive damages. Any attitude adjustment is clearly fleeting.
"This is a valid critique," Robinson told me, but it doesn’t derail his motivations. "The few seconds that we’re together, I’ve got to hope for the best." He recounts a situation when a member of another band was having a high-volume conversation at the edge of the stage while Robinson and Oxbow guitarist Niko Wenner were playing as an acoustic duo. After Robinson warned the musician to "shut the fuck up," things got heated. Audience members tried to cool things out, but, in Robinson’s words, "this evenhanded, kind of neutered approach didn’t pay heed to the reality of the moment. Which is, you had an enemy of art, and you had somebody who was trying to be the standard-bearer of Eros." He pauses. "Forget about all that. If I’m standing at a café and somebody is screaming at the top of his lungs next to me, I’m asking him 100 percent of the time to shut the fuck up. You don’t have to live all over me. It’s boorish. And rude. And uncouth. And in that way, it’s a form of bullying."
While it may seem excessive to put a spindly, long-haired dude in a Texas boogie-rock band in a submission hold called an ultimate head and arm, I can’t argue with Robinson’s reasoning: "Disrespect begets disrespect." In any case, the vocalist does allow for the possibility of walking away. But walking away for him has more to do with the Japanese concept of saving face, of avoiding conflict with honor, than with the Christian ethic of turning the other cheek. "Am I doing this out of graciousness or am I doing it out of fear?" he asked. "I think way too many people will choose to look the other way out of fear. My whole life has been a testament to avoiding base fears."
For this, I’ve got to respect the guy. Robinson may be derided on the Web as a prick, a sadist, and an egomaniac, but let’s look at the lessons: (1) You are honor bound to follow through on a promise. (2) Art is worthy of respect. (3) Fear should be avoided as a motivation. Sounds pretty fucking reasonable to me. Though, in my own top five, I try and sometimes fail to add: (4) Violence should be avoided as a teaching tool.
Really, though, we live in a time when shit talking is considered a sport in itself. Go to theoxbow.com and look at some of the live footage. Robinson trances out onstage and strips down to his underwear, and the band plays the sound of a psychological meltdown. Knowing what you know and seeing what you see, why would you fuck with him?
"To a certain degree, culturally, we’ve been neutered. And that’s what civilization is about: to get us to places of greater peace," Robinson said. "But clearly, that aspect of it is not working." I’d have to agree that it’s not working, especially in social situations, where people seem to assume a disconnection in the causal, karmic links between action and consequence. Witness the hapless Scotsman in the 2003 Christian Anthony documentary Music for Adults. He gets pantsed in front of a crowd by Robinson, who asks, with what seems genuine concern, "Did that hurt? Did I hurt your feelings?" before adding the rejoinder "It’s an Oxbow show. That’s what happens." *
Wed/17, 9 p.m., $10
2565 Mission, SF
In conversation with V. Vale and James Stark
Nov. 8, 6 p.m., $5
657 Mission, SF
Thurston Mooreites still absorbing the noiseless acoustics of Trees Outside the Academy, his sophomore full-length released last month on his Ecstatic Peace imprint, may be unaware of another basement romp from the Sonic Youth guitarist, which the Los Angeles label Deathbomb Arc put out as a vinyl-only split in August. Delivered white hot and fresh to your record player at 33 rpm, Thrash Sabbatical includes three slabs of glossy vinyl designed and packaged by the artists of Not Not Fun Records in a large pizza box spray-painted in fluorescent hues of pink, orange, and yellow. The box set highlights Moore at varying degrees, ranging from the calming, breezy sensations of the acoustic instrumental "Petite Bone" to the free-noise guitar slayings of "Creemsikkle," and pairs him in three separate instances with the clattery lineup of Barrabarracuda, Men Who Can’t Love, and gasp! Kevin Shields?
Uh, no, not that Kevin Shields. The My Bloody Valentine leader’s name also happens to be the nom de plume of LA native Eva Aguila, a harsh-noise soloist whose crushing bursts of blackened tumult have, for the past three years, exceeded Shields’s drone-layer-and-loop blueprint at hair-raising volumes. Aguila started KS as a means to document her work and tour as a solo musician after graduating from college but has frequently collaborated with guest player Amy Vecchione under the KS moniker, and together the duo supply two powerful-sounding tracks to Thrash Sabbatical that merge roaring feedback and unrelenting chaos with shrill gadgetries. Aguila who is also a member of Gang Wizard and just started an electronic-dance outfit called Winners revealed over the phone that she’s into "aggressive music, even when listening to other genres," but is put off when people criticize harsh noise for being, well, just a bunch of goddamn noise.
"Lately I’ve really gotten into the idea that you can have abrasive music and still have it be beautiful," she explained. "Like, it can be kind of blissful, especially because a lot of people that are into harsh noise think that it can only be this one thing, and I strongly disagree with that. You can have different emotions from it and get other things out of it." She laughed. "I don’t know if it makes a difference that I’m a woman or something, but I’ve always been into it. It’s what gets me pumping."
KEVIN SHIELDS WITH BRIAN MILLER
With Sword Heaven and 16 Bitch Pileup
Sat/20, 9:30 p.m., $7
1131 Polk, SF
You can’t imagine all the types of shit I’ve seen in my life
You can’t imagine all the pain ’til you look in my eyes
Ike Dola, "This Is My Life"
I met Ike Dola two days after his father died. Not only did the 23-year-old East Oakland MC keep our appointment, but he’d also performed the same day his father succumbed to cancer. As Ike said, he’s "been strong through it all.
"I wasn’t going to do it, but Moms and my auntie told me to do it," Ike (né Isaac Walker) explained of his family’s show-must-go-on ethos. "They were both DJs. My daddy was a DJ and a truck driver. He’d come home late after driving the truck and still hit the club and DJ. He was real supportive. He’d knock my shit in the car. His favorite track was ‘Fuck What You Think.’
"Now I’ve got to take care of everything," he concluded. "It’s a little big for me."
ALL IN DA FAMILY
Ike’s increased responsibilities come at a time when his reputation has grown a little big as well. Having dropped his first two major solo projects the mixtape Dope Illustrated and the more albumlike Beast Oakland (Nickel and Dime Ent.), mixed by DJ Fresh in addition to guest spots on tracks by Husalah, Lee Majors, even Mac Dre himself, Ike is widely considered the next local MC who will blow up around here.
"He’s definitely next," said DJ Impereal, who, as a member of mixtape kings Demolition Men, touches all major Bay Area talent.
"He’s got his own style," Impereal said of the MC’s rapid-fire twang, delivered at a much higher pitch than his speaking voice. Ike’s unique vocals betray more than a hint of the Southern drawl that influences black Oaklandese, partly because his family moved to its ancestral Mobile, Ala., when he was 15.
"It’s hard out there," Ike recalled of those high school years. "It’s cool, though. At lunch we had the freestyle battles. A lotta guys knew me as ‘Dude from Oakland’ I was rippin’ it." If Ike had an unfair advantage, it was simply because his auntie’s son happened to be Keak Da Sneak, already signed to Virgin as a member of 3X Krazy.
"I was always freestyling with Keak and them," Ike explained. "But when I moved to Alabama, my brother-in-law was rapping, and he was raw. I was, like, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ He’s, like, ‘Nigga, you need to write some shit.’
"When I got back I had a song called ‘Try Me,’<0x2009>" he continued. "I spit it for Keak. He was, like, ‘You ready!’ I wasn’t going to school, though, so he was damn near not fucking with me. He said if I go to school, he’d start fucking with me. But my credits didn’t transfer. They tried to put me in a low grade. I was, like, ‘Fuck that,’ but I went back and got my GED."
After that, Ike’s career took off, particularly when Keak formed the Farm Boyz with Ike and Bra Hef.
"We’d go to my auntie’s farm in [Sacramento to record]," Ike said. "The Farm Boyz was big in Sac even before the album came that put me on the map." Their first, self-titled album (2002) quickly sold out and was never re-pressed. Their second album, Farm Boyz 2 (Thizz Ent., 2005), was even more successful.
"That was the time around Mac Dre dying," Ike said. "They were looking for something hot to put out. So we dropped that that was some songs we already did. I’d been in Lee Majors’s lab, writing songs. Keak had songs, so we put them together."
Now Ike is concentrating on his solo career, and his distinctive voice different from Keak’s but just as far out has earned him huge underground buzz as he prepares for his first proper album for Nickel and Dime, collaborating with in-house producers like Trademark Traxx and 17-year-old phenom Swerve. Currently touring with J-Stalin’s Livewire, Ike hopes to build his buzz beyond the region, and his distinctive flavor provides more proof that the Bay Area’s rap resurgence is far from over.
Lonely, socially awkward dude becomes obsessed with an eerily lifelike female doll. Uh, I’ve seen that movie before, when it was a horror flick called Love Object. But if you can imagine the same plot transferred into a bittersweet romance and with the kink factor dialed way down, you’ll have a grip on Lars and the Real Girl, a movie so softhearted it implies the silicone-worshiping misfit in question (Ryan Gosling) doesn’t even have sex with his sex doll. They do smooch on occasion, though.
From Craig Gillespie the director of Mr. Woodcock, a far less gentle 2007 affair and scripter Nancy Oliver (a frequent Six Feet Under writer), Lars and the Real Girl couches its outrageous concept in classic Amer-indie trappings, including a naturalistic setting that incorporates small-town vistas, snowy cinematography, and a Sundance Channelready cast. Besides genre darling Gosling, there’s Patricia Clarkson as Dagmar, a sympathetic doctor; Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer as Lars’s concerned brother, Gus, and pregnant sister-in-law, Karin; and Kelli Garner as Margo, Lars’s endearingly dorky coworker. Margo’s sweet on Lars, but he’s so terrified of human interaction that he’d rather form a relationship with Bianca, the Angelina Jolieesque plastic vixen that arrives via UPS one chilly morning.
Naturally, Gus and Karin are horrified Gus is perhaps more mortified when they meet Lars’s much-exalted new girlfriend (he met her on the Internet, you see). Having an anatomically correct doll as a constant companion is spooky enough, but Lars believes she’s real and conducts one-sided conversations with her and tenderly looks after her well-being. Before long, Bianca trades in her fishnets and hooker makeup for sweatpants and bangs, settles into her very own wheelchair, and accompanies Lars everywhere he goes.
Surprisingly, the community comes to accept Lars’s new friend they all love Lars, a lifelong resident. His mother died in childbirth, and older bro Gus has only recently reentered his life, having moved away to sow oats while leaving Lars in the care of their cold, distant, now-deceased father. This is a guy who feels pain when he’s touched no wonder his dream girl is even less alive than Kim Cattrall in Mannequin (or, to cite my favorite movie with an inanimate humanoid as its main character, Terry Kiser in Weekend at Bernie’s). Thanks to the fact that everyone in town plays along with Lars’s Bianca-is-real delusion, the doll does begin to take on a life of her own. She volunteers! She gets a job! She’s elected to the school board! Much to Lars’s annoyance, she’s too busy to spend every waking moment with her boyfriend even though she is technically not awake.
Lars and the Real Girl has its moments of broad comedy, but its delicate tone demands that it underplay any sight-gag potential. After Half Nelson (and, perhaps no less so, The Notebook) cinephiles have come to expect great things from Gosling’s performances; he’s got a way of elevating even uninspiring material to a more meaningful plane, in the manner of Edward Norton or Sean Penn. As Lars he’s pudgy, slovenly (except for his perfectly slicked-back hair), and mustachioed, with a nervous blink and a hunched, shy demeanor. He interprets Lars’s overflowing reserves of fear and grief with subtle grace. At first a salve for loneliness, Bianca becomes both a coping strategy and a way for Lars to externalize his repressed anguish. Any actor able to transfer such complicated emotions onto a plastic costar is clearly as real as they come. *
LARS AND THE REAL GIRL
Opens Fri/19 in Bay Area theaters
By now it’s natural to expect a lot from the Arab Film Festival, which is opening its 11th annual survey of cinema from the Arab world and diaspora with veteran Tunisian filmmaker Nouri Bouzid’s excellent feature Making Of, then presenting more than 80 features, docs, and shorts from 13 countries in screenings around the Bay and, for the first time, in Los Angeles. Ghassan Salhab’s The Last Man (2006), on the other hand, delivers something probably less expected: the first Lebanese vampire movie. As it turns out, a Lebanese vampire movie not only makes perfect sense but is also the best thing to happen to the genre in a long time.
That’s because Salhab (whose fine Terra Incognita screened at the fest in 2005) opens the field to new resonance with a deft artistry that recapitulates the vampire film’s enduring tropes while making nearly every shot a fresh, unexpected surprise. Like Terra Incognita (whose hip, desultory, and existential multicharacter drama remains a kind of companion piece), The Last Man unfolds in the limbo that is present-day Beirut. Here a handsome fortysomething bachelor doctor (a haunted, quietly mesmerizing Carlos Chahine) becomes involved in a rash of bizarre murders. Meanwhile, his personality appears to be undergoing a profound transformation, which leaves him progressively alienated from his surroundings.
The narrative unfolds masterfully, punctuated by a visual and aural economy and style that are immediately riveting, like those of a subtle hallucination or waking dream that takes hold of you on a lethargic and very bright summer day. As daylight slowly bleeds from the screen and night takes over, familiar themes at the heart of the vampire film the centrality of vision and the gaze, for instance, and the collision of scientific modernity with some premodern, even timeless mystery of nature return, ingeniously wedded to a specific social and political context.
Beautifully painted, The Last Man‘s context is the half-ignored backdrop of Beirut and the background of war, invasion, civil strife, political crisis, and looming uncertainty (aggravated by TV chatter about US-occupied Iraq) that constitutes what one passing remark calls "the situation" which has brought an existential malaise in its wake, a sense of heightened expectation that is also a socially paralyzing numbness. In this agonized slumber, this halfway world between life and death, is the last man the one who, alone and haunted, wakes fully to the visceral nightmare of being? *
ARAB FILM FESTIVAL
Oct. 1828, most shows $10
Call or see Web site for program info
THE LAST MAN
Sat/20, 7 p.m., $10
Roxie Film Center
3117 and 3125 16th St., SF
1. Dans la Ville de la Sylvia (José Luis Guerín, France/Spain)
2. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, Canada) My two favorites of the festival were both ghost stories in which a haunted protagonist (fey Xavier Lafitte in Sylvia and Maddin’s voice-over in My Winnipeg) traces his past in a city charged with memory. In Guerín’s detailed mise-en-scène and patterned compositions and Maddin’s loopy reenactments and smeared dissolves, we get nothing less than cinema as seeing, remembering, being which is to say, a cinephile’s dream.
3. Useless (Jia Zhangke, China)
4. The Unforeseen (Laura Dunn, US) Terror’s Advocate and Scott Walker: 30th Century Man have their strengths, but these two documentaries gave me the greatest hope for the state of nonfiction cinema Laura Dunn’s chronicle of an environmental crisis in Austin, Texas, for its plainspoken visual lyricism and Jia Zhangke’s observation of the fashion industry for its side-wind narration and flowering long takes.
5. Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, France/Iran). Sometimes all it takes is lively storytelling. Fingers crossed that this pitch-perfect adaptation of Satrapi’s graphic novel will edge out Ratatouille for the animation Oscar.
6. Fujian Blue (Robin Weng, China)
7. La France (Serge Bozon, France) My two dark horses, each in its way about a band of outsiders. Fujian Blue‘s tender portrait of a group of friends living on the edge in southeast China (a center for human trafficking) evokes Mean Streets, while Bozon’s chronicle of a troop of World War I deserters makes delightful, if often inexplicable, use of vintage Hollywood movies (the westerns of Howard Hawks and John Ford, the combat films of Raoul Walsh and Samuel Fuller) and sun-dappled musical arrangements that would make Wes Anderson blush.
For Johnny Ray Huston’s report on the Vancouver International Film Festival, go to Pixel Vision at www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision.
Trucks of day-old bread emptied into landfills, a sea of chicks shoved through an assembly line the horrors of the global food industry make for wildly surreal and yet all-too-real images in We Feed the World, one of six feature documentaries at this year’s CounterCorp Film Festival. Erwin Wagenhofer’s movie views excess, waste, and animal torture from a European point of view, so you can only imagine how much more hellish an American counterpart would be though the cinematography’s attentiveness to the way slaughterhouse machinery robs adult chickens of their features wordlessly says as much as any commentary in 2000’s The Natural History of the Chicken. A final in-office meeting with the CEO of Nestlé, who sings the praises of "foodstuffs" (and uses Mike Tyson and "an undernourished Bengali" in one tortured allegory), adds a bitter layer of megaprocessed frosting to the movie’s paradoxes. You say tomato, farmers say you no longer know what a tomato tastes like.
Any movie that splices Bryan Boyce’s State of the Union (and its Teletubbies images of George W. Bush blowing up oil towers and little bunnies) into an opening-credits sequence is worth a look. Narrated by author Naomi Klein, Freedom of Expression is an effective primer on corporate censorship and culture jamming a window into movies such as Craig Baldwin’s creatively inspired Sonic Outlaws, one hopes. In addition to Boyce, Negativland (partly via the hilariously brilliant Ethel Merman track "No Business") and www.illegal-art.org are also featured. (Johnny Ray Huston)
COUNTERCORP FILM FESTIVAL
2961 16th St., SF
With the recent cashiering of Barry Bonds, the House that Barry Built goes into receivership, while the neighborhood pauses to reflect. Perhaps the foul odors that have gathered over AT&T Park in recent seasons bad-team and steroid-scandal stinks will now dissipate. Perhaps the park will be given a more euphonious name, one that actually has something to do with baseball, the team, and the city, and is not just a reference to the highest corporate bidder du jour.
Are people thinking these sorts of deep thoughts at Pete’s Tavern, a new venture by the canny Peter Osborne, who opened MoMo’s in the neighborhood before there was much of a neighborhood? I doubt it. For one thing, it is hard to think any sort of thought when you are a sodden sports nut in your Alabama sweatshirt, watching Crimson Tide football on one of the many flat-panel screens mounted high around the huge bar and bellowing like an agitated zoo gorilla at every first down and penalty flag sloshing beer on your sweatshirt too. Yes, Pete’s is part sports bar, and while it happens to be across the street from a major sports temple, it would be what it is no matter where it was. Sports culture, like cyberspace, is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, and the people who plug into it tend to float free from the reality-based community.
But Pete’s (which opened in August) isn’t just a sports bar, a place where postcollegiate men sit with pitchers of beer and luxuriate in periodic outbursts of boorishness. It’s also a restaurant, and it serves food I might be tempted to describe as "surprising" if MoMo’s weren’t so good. Osborne is obviously a savvy entrepreneur who understands the lure of sports in attracting crowds, but his restaurants (including, once upon a time, the Washington Square Bar and Grill) have been estimable despite their often raucous venues, and Pete’s Tavern, in a Falstaffian way, adds to this legacy.
"Tavern" suggests dim lighting, at least to me, and Pete’s can be very dim indeed. When we stepped into the place’s large vestibule over a recent sunny noon hour, it was as if we’d gone blind.
"If it were any darker, there’d be a lawsuit," said my friend. We halted for a moment to let our eyes adjust and thoughts of litigation clear. Then we mounted the half-staircase to the main room, where an enormous bar stands at center court, with tables and chairs lining the sidewalls. The noise factor at Pete’s is not inconsiderable; apart from the oft-madding crowd there is, even in moments of relative lassitude, a soundtrack of thumping music that reverberates off a world of hard surfaces, including handsome but rather chilly zinc-topped tables.
The mood, then, was distinctly unpromising in those first moments. Then the bruschetta ($9) arrived, and when I bit into a point of beautifully pillowy grilled garlic bread laden with chunks of fresh mozzarella, drippingly ripe slices of heirloom tomato, and julienne of basil the whole enlivened with a judicious flick or two of salt my spirits rose. Clearly the kitchen (under the direction of chef de cuisine Damon Hall) wasn’t stinting on ingredients nor sending out plates of food that hadn’t been properly seasoned.
The chili con carne ($5 for a bowl) was meaty as could be with what seemed to be high-quality, house-ground chuck, and it was nicely decorated with matchsticks of crisped tortilla. A tuna salad ($10), meanwhile, featured fresh tuna (mashed with mayonnaise and lightly browned so as to resemble a pat of goat cheese) nested in mixed greens, with cherry tomatoes, quartered hard-boiled eggs, and a creamy vinaigrette on the side.
Prices are not terrible for what you get and considering where you’re getting it, but they do seem higher than the pubby average. Zucchini strings were a little dear at $7, though the pile was haystack huge. (This dish, consisting of batter-fried shreds, was the only one we found to be underseasoned. A side cup of ranch dressing, for dipping, helped.) And $12 for an open-faced turkey sandwich? Well, all right, especially since the gravy, flecked with green peas and carrots, was intensely flavorful and the flaps of meat were draped over tasty cheddar biscuits.
On the other hand, $13 for half a rotisserie chicken seemed fair enough, given the snap of the house-made sauce and the moist tenderness of the bird, which wasn’t quite confitlike but was in the (sorry!) ballpark. By the time we were staggering toward the far end of this plate of food (which included quarters of roasted new potatoes, just to make sure), we were revisiting the wisdom of having opened with chicken and chorizo nachos ($10) in addition to the zucchini strings. The nachos plate was like many a nachos plate in many a sports bar: a great coming-together of tortilla chips under an oozy cap of melted cheese, with large mounds of sour cream, salsa, and guacamole on top, the last two house-made. The nachos, plus a pitcher or two of beer, would have been plenty to keep a couple of exfrat rats satisfied into extra innings.
But there were no extra innings that night, just another Giants loss, and an exodus of fans streaming forth into the mild evening as we stepped out of Pete’s. We waved at old Barry, but he didn’t see us, just as we hadn’t seen him. *
Daily, 11 a.m.midnight
128 King, SF
You don’t necessarily expect a choreographer to be interested in playing with conceits. After all, dancers work in an art form that is primarily nonverbal and movement driven. Yet Donna Uchizono’s imagination embraces ideas in conjunction with physicality. "All of my work is concept based," she explained over the phone from her home in New York. "The idea always comes first, and then I develop a movement vocabulary to support the concept. So the pieces are very different from each other."
Sometimes she takes off from a single word. When I asked her about an early work, Fault (1990) which had struck me as a puzzling combination of brain and brawn she chuckled. "The piece was terrible," she remembered. "But then [later that year] I made San Andreas out of it, which was very beautiful." It turns out that she had been inspired by the idea of "fault," as both a geological concept and the attributing and accepting of blame, as in "It’s my (or your) fault."
More recently, for last year’s Leap to Tall for Mikhail Baryshnikov, she thought about how his life has been full of huge leaps to the top of the ballet world, from the Soviet Union to the West, from ballet to modern dance, and from dancer to the founder of the Baryshnikov Arts Center. She also noticed that for many women Baryshnikov is still a matinee idol and that at his arts center he is surrounded by "strong, capable women." Leap turned into a trio for Baryshnikov, Hristoula Harakas, and Jodi Melnick, the last two of whom support him in his leaps, both literally and metaphorically.
Uchizono has been choreographing for close to 20 years, and her work has garnered just about every major dance award, from a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1998 and a Bessie Award in 2002 to three Rockefeller Foundation Multi-Arts Production Fund grants (to work in Argentina with indigenous musicians) and most recently an Alpert Award in 2005.
Uchizono is known for lush movement and intricate partnering that "takes months and months to learn." For Thin Air, with which her namesake company makes its Bay Area debut Oct. 18, she chose a different approach. "It’s very minimal, very transparent, and it takes a long time for something to develop," she said. "I am working with a very long time frame." She described the piece as having been influenced by quantum physics and the Buddhist concept of emptiness.
Cocommissioned by ODC Theater, Thin Air premiered Oct. 9 in New York City. Locally, it’s part of ODC’s expanded presentation series, which will continue to showcase local companies and also include national and international artists, similar to the way ODC operated in the 1980s.
Thin Air includes a score by Fred Firth and a video component, agreed to somewhat reluctantly by the choreographer. In principle, Uchizono doesn’t like video with dance. "I am so tired of how these large projections dwarf dancers, but since I am working with the idea that the observer is actually projecting reality into emptiness, video seemed appropriate. Video clearly is projected reality." Uchizono, who is not dancing in the work, relied heavily on her dancers’ input, particularly that of longtime troupe member Harakas, whom Uchizono described as being "her inside eye" and "like a great actor who gets involved in the part and [has] discussions with the lighting designer and the director."
As for the future of her project-based company, Uchizono is both a conceptualizer and a realist. She dreams of an installation project, but then she pulls back, noting that what she’d really like to do is provide her dancers with health insurance. Ideas may turn her on, but Uchizono’s feet remain firmly planted on the ground. *
Thurs/18Sat/20, 8 p.m., $18$25
3153 17th St., SF
CHEAP EATS Fish chili is still chili. Everyone else was wondering or grumbling, but there was never any question in my mind. Fish chili is chili. It just is. If you call a thing a thing, then it is what it is. Ask Popeye.
It was chili because it had chiles in it, or chili powder, and because it was at a chili cook-off and, most important, because the guy who made it called it chili. We live in a free country, and even if we didn’t, fish chili would be chili.
You don’t like that, move to Texas. In Terlingua, at the famous annual "international" chili cook-off, you are not allowed to put beans in your chili. Or pasta. Or rice. Or "other similar items."
Fish? I wonder….
I love Texas-style chili. I prefer it by a mile to your average ground-beef-with-bean varieties. And I love that you can call a chili cook-off an "international" event and then disallow beans and things, pretty much eliminating all the other kinds of chili in the world except Texas-style.
Oh, but chili was invented in Texas.
Give me a break. If so, it has since migrated to New Mexico, where, in Old Mexican fashion, it’s more about the peppers than the meat or the beans or whatever they happen to flavor. Ever been to Cincinnati? Chili has. It’s cinnamony. Beans, onions, and cheese are optional; spaghetti is standard.
Not to blow its cover, but chili lives incognito in Providence, RI, home of the oddly named New York system, which basically means chili dogs slapped together in a line of buns on a guy’s arm. They don’t call it chili, but it’s ground beef with chili powder and cumin, somewhat distinctified by soy sauce, ginger, and my personal favorite celery seed.
Now, Oakland is not Terlingua or Cincinnati or Detroit or New York City or New York system or New Castle, Pa. or a lot of other places, if you think about it. It’s where Joe Rut lives, in a warehouse, and I’m jealous because he gets to vote for Barbara Lee and host chili cook-offs.
I get to go. I get to vote for my favorite chili. In a field of more than 20 contestants, which included a couple of excellent pork chilies, a wild-turkey chili (dude shot the bird hisself!), and an elk and bacon one, among the many beef-and-bean, just-beef, and vegetarian entries, my hands-down, hats-off, and belly-up favorite was the fish chili I’ve been trying to tell you about. It was ridiculously delicious, well stocked with several kinds of fish and shellfish, colorful with peppers, and just all-around pretty. Plus I liked its politics, and philosophy.
My only dilemma was whether to vote for it for best meat chili or best vegetarian. Joe Rut’s chili cook-off ballot, like life, gave me only two choices, neither one quite right, and I had to find my way around that.
This time it was easy: I put number five on both lines. The fish chili was the best meat chili and the best vegetarian one. This from a pork-barbecuing chicken-farmer chick whose favorite two things to eat are raw beef and green salad.
For the record, if there had been a line on the ballot for gumbo, I’d have fived that line too. Hell, if we were voting on pancakes, I’d have voted for the fish chili. You know how sometimes a bowl or plate of food just speaks to you, and speaks your language?
Well, apparently I wasn’t the only one listening. I just got forwarded a mass-mailed e-mail from Joe Rut announcing the winners: fish chili won best meat chili. I love the world!
My guess is about a hundred people voted. Very few were wearing cowboy hats. There must have been at least probably about 150 folks there, you gotta figure, because it was a warehouse and it was crowded. There were bands. There were pies for dessert and a big fruit salad just so everyone could at least have a chance of pooping the next day.
The name of the guy who made this fish chili, also for the record, is hold on a second Russ Leslie … and I publish that journalistic fact right here (of all the crazy places) in the wild but sincere hope that he will read this and invite me over for leftovers. Or next time he makes a pot, I guess, because it’s been more than a week.
I miss it.
Why, umpteen zillion years into the AIDS era (I used to volunteer for Gay Men’s Health Crisis in the 1980s), is there still no useful data about the risks of oral sex for men? Have we really learned nothing since the first appearance of "Low risk but not no risk"? With the understanding that not letting someone come (or precome) in your mouth is a start (but also loses a lot of the appeal), is there any sensible way to assess and reduce the risks of the common American blow job?
Loyal East Coast Reader
Actually, the relative risks of the Great American Blow Job have been much on my mind of late. I’m working on an article about whatever happened to the heterosexual AIDS epidemic and what straight, middle-class ladies should do about HIV when they start dating again after their marriages break up. (Quick answer: nothing. They’re not going to encounter any, but while they’re taking unnecessary precautions against HIV they’re incidentally protecting themselves from real menaces like human papillomavirus and herpes.) Not that this applies at all to your question or your demographic; what’s sauce for the goose, after all, is not necessarily sauce for gander and gander.
Back when you were first volunteering in New York and I was out here gearing up to become a sex educator, nobody knew nothin’, and the safest thing to do was to lump everything that might possibly be dangerous into "Thou shalt not" and try to get people to take a "100 percent safe" pledge. I suspect that then, as now, the people most likely to achieve 100 percent safety weren’t at much risk to begin with, while the hard partiers continued to party hard-ly, no matter what their T-shirts said. I know for a fact that politically aware womyn at the time would not shut up about woman-to-woman transmission, which turned out to be so much poppycock or poppyhen, as they might have had it. Likewise, the much-ballyhooed heterosexual AIDS epidemic never made it off the cover of the news magazines and into the bedrooms and bloodstreams of straight America.
So, your question. If there were a definitive answer to that, it would be coming out of a few labs here in San Francisco. But of course, HIV being a shifty bugger and human behavior being even worse, there isn’t. There are animal studies (using simian immunodeficiency virus, which is similar but by no means identical) demonstrating that you can easily spread the virus by swabbing monkey tonsils with an infected Q-tip. Then there are the epidemiological studies like HOT, the HIV Oral Transmission study, dedicated to finding those cases in which a guy gave blow jobs but never, ever, ever had unprotected anal sex and seroconverted anyway, and that is so complicated a business I’m going to let one of the researchers explain it:
"I’m going to conclude with the HOT study, in which, again, we interview men who we screen and rescreen to ascertain that, in fact, their only risk is oral sex. So they are a special population, and they are screened and rescreened, and they get their HIV test, and eventually we do another very in-depth interview, and after three corroborating screenings, or two screenings and one interview in which they say they’ve only had oral sex, 25 percent later report a higher risk exposure anal sex in the same time period after we get them in another environment with a different questionnaire and a face-to-face interview, and this is after they’ve been told that, in fact, they’re negative. And so we see this working many ways, and they’re, like, ‘Whew! Well, now I can tell the truth.’ But in fact, of those 363 men, we estimate that up to a quarter of them probably weren’t having only oral sex, and so I think that we have huge problems in terms of self-reported risk behavior."
That was from a very informative experts’ roundtable discussion I found on HIV Insite (hivinsite.ucsf.edu), a UC San Francisco site I have just declared required reading for the interested. The good news is that the best work currently being done is readily available to us for free. The bad news is that, due not to bad science or lack of science but to the vagaries of human memory and human motivation, they still can’t really answer your question. How many new HIV infections are caused by fellatio to ejaculation? I’ll let the above experts answer that. It’s funny but not, you know?
JK I think we agree it’s less than 5 percent, don’t we?
SB Uh, … yes, I’d probably say it’s it may be less than 5 percent. I’d say 5 percent or less. But I wouldn’t say 1 percent either.
JK Well, 1 percent is less than 5 percent … [Laughter]
KS Well, I wouldn’t say "5 percent or less."
SB So I don’t know that we’re going to come to consensus on that.
And what’s the best way to reduce whatever risk there is? Not going down on HIV-positive men. Easy for me to say, sure, and awfully glib, but you can’t say it ain’t so.
Low-income tenants cheered late last year when the San Francisco Department of Public Health ended its housing contract with the John Stewart Co. But no one expected the alternative would be a secret $5 million deal between DPH officials and a preferred vendor.
In fact, the DPH has opened a new chapter in privatization by creating a dubiously accountable, quasi-independent nonprofit while paying someone else to operate it with a sole-source contract.
The health department leases several single-room-occupancy hotels in San Francisco that house mental health and substance-abuse patients through a program called Direct Access to Housing, part of a laudable nationwide trend toward deinstitutionalizing such medical clients and changing how the formerly homeless receive services.
The Camelot on Turk Street and Le Nain on Eddy Street were among those managed by John Stewart until last autumn. Mercy Housing oversaw two more. But there were problems; tenants complained about the Stewart company’s management, and political organizers last year charged that desk clerks at some of the buildings prevented them from registering tenants to vote.
"If you’re part of a larger company that just sees themselves as a more generic property-management company," said Marc Trotz, director of the health department’s housing office, "there isn’t necessarily the training and skills development that needs to be there to handle the complexities that come up on a daily basis with the population we’re dealing with."
So the health department’s answer was to broker an exclusive $5 million contract with a nationwide nonprofit based in San Francisco known as the Tides Center. Tides doesn’t do any of the heartwarming outreach we tend to associate with nonprofits. Instead, the outfit handles the boring administrative functions like payroll and human resources for community projects created by others.
The project in this case is Trotz’s brainchild Delivering Innovation in Supportive Housing, which essentially exists as a nonprofit only on paper. There’s no board of directors. There are no federal tax forms outlining expenses and revenue. And Tides doesn’t itemize projects like DISH in its annual financial statements. So there’s no easy way for the public to track the money that goes into the project.
Yet DISH has so far never been forced to compete for property-management contracts like any other nonprofit wanting to do business with the city. That means the DPH gets the best of both worlds, paying someone in the private sector to manage its books and not having to subject its pet project to the competitive atmosphere of contract bidding.
Further, since Tides is technically the employer of record for DISH’s 60 or so employees, they exist in an ethereal world where they don’t fall under the city’s salary and benefits structure, but unions can’t reach them unless they’re willing to organize all 200 projects managed by Tides nationally.
Needless to say, none of this is sitting well with the nonprofits and unions that insist they weren’t informed of the plan until it was off and running.
"I feel like at union nonprofits, the turnover’s much lower, the training’s higher, and if a manager is abusing a tenant, for instance, a union worker can make a complaint to a city agency, write them up, do something without being afraid for their jobs," said Sarah Sherburn-Zimmer, a former organizer for the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. "And we just give better care."
The THC, whose workers are represented by Service Employees International Union Local 1021, says it was never formally invited to bid on DISH, despite the fact that it does extensive work with the city and manages more than 1,500 units of low-income housing.
"All they had to do to find out was send a letter or call us…. The fact that they made the effort to set up their own entity kind of shows that’s what they wanted to do," THC director Randy Shaw said.
The Tides contract so annoyed Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin that he drafted a resolution pointing out that Mayor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order in 2004 calling for maximum competition in city contracts.
"This Board of Supervisors has been on record for years in wanting to make sure contracts are competitively and fairly bid," Peskin told the Guardian. "This whole thing seems rather bizarre. The government was in essence contracting with itself."
The health department’s Trotz dismisses this criticism, saying sole-source contracts were designed in the first place to allow for agreements like the Tides deal, which he calls a pilot project. Next time, he promises, the department will open the contract to bids. Trotz added that Tides is responsible if a DISH employee screws up, and it faces an annual monitoring probe by DPH staffers, just like any other contractor.
"I know now that THC and the union seem to be upset by this," Trotz said. "What we’re saying is we’ve heard that and we are doing what we always intended to do, which is run a two-year pilot and put a [request for proposals] out on the street and ready for people to apply to prior to the start of the next fiscal year."
Of course, no one’s suggesting Tides and DISH will necessarily do a poor job handling supportive housing. Shaw said lefties were the first to argue nearly three decades ago that nonprofits could address public health much more sensitively than did Dianne Feinstein’s mayoral administration of the 1980s. Last year the health department did $174 million worth of business with nonprofits. While unions have been slow to organize nonprofits, the trend is growing, but Tides and DISH seem structured to stiff-arm them when covert, sole-source contracts haven’t done that already.
"This obviously was a secret decision," Shaw said. "[The DPH] never consulted with anybody. They just did it. I don’t want to comment on the health department beyond what I’ve said. But this experience has left people very cynical about dealing with the health department [and] the way they handled the whole thing."
The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department has a long history of maintaining parks, community centers, and other recreational offerings. In fact, it controls more land in the city than any other entity, public or private. But after seeing its budget repeatedly slashed during lean fiscal years, the underfunded department has become a prime target for some controversial privatization schemes.
There are ongoing efforts to privatize city golf courses, supported by Mayor Gavin Newsom and Rec and Park general manager Yomi Agunbiade (see “Bilking the Links,” page 22). And there are ongoing fears that the city intends to privatize its popular Camp Mather vacation spot, something the RPD studied a few years ago and Sup. Jake McGoldrick has fought and highlighted.
Rec and Park has identified $37 million in needs at Camp Mather — the product of a private study the agency has been unable to fully explain to the public (see “From Cabin to Castle,” 4/4/07) — but left Camp Mather off a big bond measure planned for February 2008.
“They say $37 million you need up here, and how much you got in there for the ballot measure? Zip, zero,” McGoldrick told the Guardian. “It’s a familiar pattern: you underfund the hell out of something, and then you turn around and say, ‘We, the public sector, cannot handle taking care of this.'<0x2009>”
Rec and Park spokesperson Rose Dennis denies there are plans to privatize Camp Mather or that its omission from the bond measure is telling. “Many people disagreed — including you — with the funding needs and whether we could back it up,” she explained as the reason for its omission from the bond measure.
In his Oct. 1 endorsement interview with the Guardian, Newsom said, “We actually made some commitments just this last week with Sup. McGoldrick to help support his efforts, because he’s very protective of Camp Mather, and I appreciate his leadership on this, to help resource some of the needs up there without privatizing, without moving in accordance with your fears.”
And while Newsom said he hoped to avoiding privatizing Camp Mather, he refused to say he wouldn’t: “I’m not suggesting it’s off the table, because I’m not necessarily sure that the conditions that exist today will be conditions that exist tomorrow, and I will always be open to argument.”
But at least the Camp Mather and golf arguments have been happening mostly in public. That’s what voters intended in 1983 when they passed Proposition J, which requires public hearings, a staff study, and a vote by the Board of Supervisors before city services can be privatized. Yet over the past couple of years, there’s been an effort to quietly shift operations at a half-dozen rec centers away from city programs and toward private nonprofits.
It’s called Rec Connect. Its supporters bill it as an innovative effort to bring much-needed recreation programs to underserved, low-income neighborhoods. “This is a pilot program to see if a collaboration between a community-based organization and a rec center yields a richer program and a more engaged community,” said Margaret Brodkin, director of the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families, which created the program and oversees that and other uses of the city’s Children’s Fund.
But to members of the Service Employees International Union Local 1021 — which includes most city employees and has filed grievances challenging Rec Connect — the program is a sneaky attempt to have underpaid, privately funded workers take over services that should be provided by city employees, who are better paid, unionized, and accountable to the public.
“The city took funds from the city’s coffers and gave them to the Department of Children, Youth and [Their] Families,” Margot Reed, a work-site organizer for the union, told the Guardian. “DCYF is using these funds, through Rec Connect, to contract out to private nonprofits work that rec staff were doing for a quarter of the cost.”
Brodkin was the longtime director of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth — a perpetual thorn in the side of City Hall and the author of the measure that set aside some property taxes to create the Children’s Fund — before Newsom hired her to head the DCYF. She sees her current role as a continuation of her last one, and she sees Rec Connect as an enhancement of needed services rather than a privatization.
“There is a commitment that no jobs would be lost. I’m a big supporter of the public sector,” Brodkin said, while acknowledging that the RPD is chronically underfunded. “I am certainly aware of the resources issue at Rec and Park…. I’d be a happy camper if the Rec and Park budget was doubled. But I’d still believe in this program and say it offers a richer experience.”
Rec Connect began in 2005 with a study that looked at unmet recreational needs and evaluated facilities that might be good places to bring in community-based organizations to offer specialized classes. The whole program was financed through a mix of public funds and grants from private foundations. The three-year pilot program started just over a year ago.
“The Rec Connects,” Newsom told the Guardian, “are a way of leveraging resources and getting more of our CBOs involved and using these great assets and facilities, instead of limiting use to the way things have been done.”
Rec Connect director Jo Mestelle denied that the initiative is a privatization attempt.
“Rec and Park brings the facilities, the sports, and traditional recreation. The CBOs bring the youth-development perspective and nontraditional programming,” Mestelle said. “Hopefully, together we build a community that includes youth-leadership groups and advisory councils.”
Few would dispute the need for more after-school or other youth programs, particularly in the violence-plagued Western Addition, where some of the Rec Connect centers are. But the means of providing these programs is something new for San Francisco, starting with the fact that even though Mestelle works in the DCYF office, her salary is paid for entirely by private foundations.
That relationship and those funders aren’t posted anywhere or immediately available to the public, but Brodkin agreed to provide them to the Guardian. They include the Hellman Family Philanthropic Foundation ($50,000), the Hearst Foundation ($50,000), the San Francisco Foundation ($128,000), the Haas Foundation ($100,000), and the SH Cowell Foundation ($150,000).
Brodkin and Mestelle characterized those foundations as fairly unimpeachable, and Brodkin defended the arrangement as part of a national trend: “The thing that’s odd about SEIU’s perspective is this is happening all over.”
That’s precisely the point, SEIU’s Robert Haaland says.
“It’s been a strategy since the ’70s to, as [conservative activist] Grover Norquist calls it, ‘starve the beast,'<0x2009>” or defund government programs, Haaland said. “On a national level there is a lot going on that impacts us locally.”
Minutes from a recent Recreation and Park Commission meeting confirm that rec center directors have only about $1,000 each year to cover the cost of buying basketballs, team jerseys, referee whistles, and other basic sports and safety supplies. The SEIU grievance also notes that recreation staff positions have decreased by a third just as senior management positions increased by a third.
“We don’t have enough dollars for $20-an-hour rec center staff who are directly responsible for the kids and are well known to the community. We believe kids deserve great coaches, consistency, longevity, and commitment,” Reed said.
SEIU Local 1021 chapter president Larry McNesby is also the Rec and Park manager who oversees Palega Park, one of the Rec Connect sites. He told the Guardian that while his rec directors are “under pressure from the mayor to show him numbers of people that they are serving,” Rec and Park’s new online registration fails to reflect the “hundreds of drop-ins” that rec staff serve on a daily basis.
But he said the department has been set up to fail by chronic underfunding.
“I’d love Rec Connect and DCYF to be on a level playing field, because my directors could out-recreate theirs any day,” McNesby said. “You can’t just eliminate our jobs and replace them with someone who makes just above minimum wage.”
Actually, Brodkin and Mestelle note that negotiations with SEIU over Rec Connect have resulted in a guarantee that no jobs will be replaced and an agreement by the city as to 250 different tasks that the Rec Connect CBOs can’t perform. Still, they say the program brings innovation to a stagnant city agency.
“Before Rec Connect the rec centers always had a Ping-Pong table and some board games, but some of them were really poor, many were tired looking, none had computers or Internet. So we’ve had to think outside the box. Rec [and] Park is a big department, and it’s not always efficient,” Mestelle said.
Public records show that in 2006, the DCYF, whose primary function is to administer grants, sent $1 million in public money to Rec Connect from the Children’s Trust Fund, a pool of cash the city gathers each year by levying 3¢ per dollar of property tax.
Both Rec Connect and city workers stress the importance of offering a range of good programs to young people. “Our work is at a more social level,” McNesby says. “Every minute a kid spends in a rec center is a minute they’re not breaking into a car or victimizing someone or being victimized.”
The question is who should provide those programs. “It’s society’s value system that controls where the money goes,” Rec and Park spokesperson Dennis said. “It’s a really provocative discussion. There are some very compelling trade-offs argued in convincing fashion by intelligent people on both sides. These aren’t easy decisions.”
But the union people say that when it comes to Rec Connect, that discussion isn’t happening in public forums in a forthright way. As Reed said, “Gavin Newsom never went to the voters and said, ‘Here’s what we want to do: cut the rec staff and bring in private nonprofits.'”
San Francisco is a beautiful place. But it’s also a city where an extraordinary number of people suffer from mental health problems, sometimes quietly, sometimes visibly. City government has always taken on the burden of caring for those who really need it, but the Gavin Newsom administration has been trying to outsource that obligation in recent years.
Department of Public Health director Mitch Katz has tried for years to trim the number of psychiatric-care beds maintained by San Francisco General Hospital. He proposes to replace those services by contracting them out to local nonprofit Progress Foundation, which earned most of its $11.5 million in revenue last year from government sources.
The proposal is for Progress to develop and operate a community-based psychiatric treatment center as an alternative to SF General’s emergency-room and inpatient beds. A key difference would be that the alternative treatment would be voluntary and cater to those without severe symptoms.
Katz wants to eliminate 14 of SF General’s beds and reduce the number of patients it assesses by 30 percent. Add to that seven other beds that were stripped of funding two years ago, and it’s clear that mental health treatment in San Francisco is changing.
"It’s a problem we have to solve by coming up with alternatives," Katz told the board’s budget committee Oct. 10, "because it’s not right for that person, or for the cost to the system, that [they] be in a locked ward. It’s more downstream alternatives."
Opponents of the cuts, however, including psych nurses at SF General, led by the hospital’s chief of psychiatry, say the Progress proposal might complement SF General’s services but it would be dangerously shortsighted to think it can replace them.
Private-sector hospitals in San Francisco have already cut a combined 100 psych beds over the past 10 years, leaving behind only 75. Patients relying on Medi-Cal subsidies end up at SF General more than ever. Admissions, in fact, have climbed by as much as 50 percent in the past decade.
"I don’t want to be alarmist," said Alfredo Mireles, a psychiatric nurse at SF General who is opposing the cuts, "but we have this one guy who’s been in and out of here since his teens. He’s in his 30s now. He’s smart, college educated. But he has these violent outbursts with no remorse."
The man had assaulted a police officer just the night before, Mireles said. He recalled another patient who was so paranoid he wouldn’t come out of his room to eat. He had ended up in the emergency room after not eating for eight days.
Nonetheless, SF General’s psych ward maxed out last December for the first time in its history, forcing police offers to divert patients to jail or to hospitals unprepared to deal with them. All those facilities can do is strap down the patients or lock them in seclusion until a slot opens at SF General.
"You have to be very acute to get admitted," psych nurse Stacey Murphy said, referring to SF General. "But then we can’t get rid of people, because nobody wants them. They’re not acute enough to technically belong in our hospital, but they belong in a locked facility or in board and care."
Murphy explained that Progress won’t be able to handle certain patients now living in a sort of gray area at SF General between being willingly and unwillingly hospitalized such as the drug addled or violent. And that’s one problem with privatization in general: corporations and nonprofits will gladly take over profitable services, but the hard or expensive cases often fall to government … or simply through the cracks.
Progress argues that SF General spends too much time and money on patients who have serious mental health problems but aren’t so acute that they need to be locked up. Its idea is to put psych patients back into the city but help alleviate the misery they might otherwise endure alone or in a maddeningly sterile hospital. It seems to think the hard cases aren’t that hard.
"The time and resources devoted to this group of clients in a psychiatric crisis who are not hospitalized represents a cost to the mental health system that is unnecessary and avoidable if the intervention, triage, assessment, and treatment can occur in a community setting," the Progress Foundation’s June proposal reads.
"To the extent that there are people who would do better if we really wrapped services around them, shouldn’t we all focus on those people who would accept services voluntarily?" Katz asked the committee. "I think to focus a lot of our resources trying to convince people to take treatment against their will as outpatients when so many people would benefit from more loving, positive care, I don’t think it’s the right priority."
Piers Mackenzie still views Katz’s plan as poor public policy. His daughter, then 22, required a brief stay at SF General’s psych ward during a sudden mental health catastrophe four years ago. The event politicized Mackenzie, and he has since agitated against attempts by Katz to scale back psychiatric services at the hospital.
"I couldn’t think of a more retrogressive step, simple as that," Mackenzie said. "When there’s a proven need for more beds than there are presently, to cut them is just plain idiotic. I don’t understand it."
Over the past few weeks almost every major news outlet in the country has reported on Blackwater, a private company the US government hired to do work in Iraq that was once the exclusive province of soldiers.
The deal hasn’t gone so well: on Sept. 16, Blackwater guards opened fire and, according to the Iraqi government, shot 25 civilians. The incident set off an international furor and has brought into focus the breadth of the company’s work for the US government. It’s prompted an investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which showed that since 2001, Blackwater’s federal contracts have increased 80,000 percent. It’s revealed the massive pay inequalities between private security guards and US soldiers the cost of one private guard could pay the salaries of six soldiers.
And it’s raised a question that’s critical to understanding how government increasingly works in the United States: should a private company be doing the work of the military?
Privatization of public services is all the rage in this country now, at all levels of government, from Washington DC to San Francisco. Supporters say the private sector can often work better and more efficiently than the old, bureaucratic, much-maligned government.
But Blackwater is a great example of the perils of privatization. And there are many more.
STARVE THE BEAST
Over the past few decades governments at all levels in this country have been in a near-perpetual state of deficit. Taxes are way down from their historic postWorld War II levels, and except for a brief period during the tech boom, there is rarely enough money for even basic social services.
"It’s been a strategy since the ’70s to, as Grover Norquist calls it, ‘starve the beast,’<0x2009>" Robert Haaland, an organizer with Service Employees International Union Local 1021, told us.
And because politicians, even Democrats, are terrified of tax hikes, they’ve been looking for more efficient ways to use the money they have. The magic bullet goes by many names privatization, public-private partnerships, competitive outsourcing, creative financing solutions but the basic idea is to allow the power of competition, set free in an unregulated market, to provide the public with the best services at the lowest cost.
"To do or to buy is the question that all governments face," says Ken Jacobs, director of UC Berkeley’s Labor Center.
We’ve been buying. Since 2000, outsourcing of federal dollars has increased 100 percent, to $422 billion in taxpayer funds in 2006, according to a September study by the Washington DC US Public Interest Research Group. The US government is now the private sector’s largest customer.
San Francisco may be known as one of the most progressive cities in the country, but this town has also been wooed by public-private partnerships with promises of improvements to the golf courses, construction of a new power plant, and funding for the many civic needs we have.
Cheerleaders for privatization look at someone like Nathaniel Ford, executive director of San Francisco’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, and see everything that’s wrong with the public sector. Ford’s salary is nearly $300,000, plenty high enough to attract a talented leader. But the Muni system he runs keeps the average San Franciscan waiting on the corner in the morning, delivers that person to work at an unpredictable hour, and lurches them homeward every night aboard a standing-room-only bus. Nobody thinks Muni is performing well.
That makes the case for privatization seem almost appealing.
"The public has been schooled to think that government is the problem, not the solution," Elliott Sclar, professor of economics at Columbia University, told us. In his 2000 book on privatization, You Don’t Always Get What You Pay For: The Economics of Privatization (Cornell University), he writes, "American folk wisdom holds that, by and large, public service is uncaring, unbending, bureaucratic, and expensive, whereas competitively supplied private services such as FedEx are efficient and responsive."
Competition, the privatizers say, drives innovation. Less red tape means more efficiency. A lack of unions and collective bargaining agreements translates to lower labor costs. Large-scale multinational operations can reduce redundancy and streamline their processes all of which adds up to a lean-running machine.
But this country has a lot of experience with privatization, and the record isn’t good.
One hundred years ago private companies did a lot of what we now call government work. "Contracting out was the way American cities carried out their governmental business ever since they grew beyond their small village beginnings," writes Moshe Adler, a Columbia professor of economics, in his 1999 paper The Origins of Governmental Production: Cleaning the Streets of New York by Contract During the 19th Century. At one time private companies provided firefighting, trash collection, and water supplies, to name just a few essential services.
But according to Adler, "By the end of the 19th century contracting out was a mature system that was already as good as it could possibly be. And it was precisely then that governmental production came to America. The realization that every possible improvement to contracting out had been tried led city after city to declare its failure."
For example, the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires in San Francisco were what prodded the city to municipalize water service after the company charged with the task, Spring Valley Water, failed to deliver while the fires raged.
In Philadelphia as well as San Francisco, the business of firefighting was once very lucrative for both the firefighting companies and the arsonists who were paid to set fires for the former to fight. And corruption was rampant. "Large amounts of public contracting out historically created lots of opportunities for fraud and nepotism," Jacobs said.
So public agencies stepped in to provide basic services as cheaply and uniformly as possible. Towns and cities took on the tasks of security with police and firefighting, education with schools and libraries, and sanitation with trash collection and wastewater treatment. Nationally, the federal government improved roads and transit, enacted Social Security benefits, and established a National Park System, among many other things.
And then, about 30 years ago, the pendulum started to swing the other way. Driven by University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, enacted in a massive policy shift by Ronald Reagan, proliferated by Grover Norquist and the neocon agenda, and fully appreciated by corporations and private companies, privatization came back.
In Reagan’s first term, he cut taxes 25 percent overall; the rich got a 40 percent cut. Domestic spending fell by half a trillion dollars in the 1980s, although any savings were countered by a rise in the defense budget.
Harvard economist Lawrence Summers, quoted in Looking Back on the Reagan Presidency (Johns Hopkins University), put it this way: "The Reagan budgets will influence the government for the rest of this century. Just as the Great Society left an imprint of Federal commitment to help the indigent and equality of opportunity, the Reagan budget deficits will leave an imprint of non-involvement."
Such a massive realignment of money coupled with tax breaks too politically painful to reinstate led to a boom in the outsourcing of public services. Private companies began doing more municipal work, while nonprofit organizations tried to fill the gaps in funding for social services, welfare, housing, health care, and the environment.
The George W. Bush era has seen even more overt outsourcing. These days no-bid contracts are preferred, and at times government services are completely turned over to the private sector in "direct conversions," and the public agency that once did the job is not allowed to compete to keep it. The Washington Post recently reported that no-bid government contracts have tripled in the past six years.
This doesn’t really sound like the competitive free market espoused by the theory of privatization.
FLUNKING THE TEST
To field-test the primacy of privatization, the Reagan administration sponsored a transportation experiment in the early ’80s: Miami’s Metro-Dade Transit Agency got to compete against Greyhound. The two providers were each given five comparable transit routes to manage over three years, and 80 new buses were bought with a $7.5 million grant from the federal government.
After 18 months 30 of the Greyhound buses were so badly damaged that they had to be permanently pulled from service. Passenger complaints on the Greyhound line were up 100 percent, and ridership was down 31 percent over the course of a year.
Why? There was no incentive in Greyhound’s contract to maintain the equipment or retain riders. The company’s only goal was to deliver the cheapest service possible.
The Miami transit contract could have contained clauses calling for regular inspections or guaranteed ridership, but that would have significantly increased the cost of the work perhaps to the point where it would have been competitive with what the city provided.
That’s an important lesson in privatization politics: when you add the cost of adequately protecting the public’s interest and monitoring contract compliance, the private sector doesn’t look so efficient.
Which is why many say privatization only succeeds as a theory and why, for all the problems with Muni, no private company is likely to be able to do a better job.
"Market fundamentalists present an idealized, simpleminded notion of competitive markets in which buyers and sellers have equal knowledge," Sclar told us. "Anyone can be a buyer, anyone can be a seller, everyone can evaluate the quality of the good. In this never-never land, that’s often the way the case is made for privatization by this particular group of economists."
In the real world a number of issues arise when a service goes private. "Accountability gets to be a really big problem," Ellen Dannin, professor of law at Penn State University, said in an interview. "There are predictions about how much money will get saved through privatization, but no one ever goes back to check."
The September study by the US Public Interest Research Group profiled several companies that do government work, including Bank of America, LexisNexis, ChoicePoint, KBR (formerly Kellogg, Brown, and Root), General Electric, and Raytheon, and found instances of illegal behavior in all cases. There were often massive errors in the companies’ work.
Bank of America and LexisNexis had security breaches compromising the data of at least 1.5 million customers they were handling for the government. ChoicePoint allowed identity-theft scams amounting to more than $1 million in fraud. KBR overcharged the government millions of dollars for work in Iraq and Kuwait. GE made defective helicopter blades for the US military. Raytheon failed to fully test the systems of new aircraft. These companies are all still employed by the government.
When companies take over services that aren’t typically part of a competitive market, all sorts of unexpected problems occur. Jacobs points to the rash of contracting for busing services in cash-strapped school districts. Not only did costs eventually rise in many places, but when schools tried to go back to providing their own service, the skilled drivers who knew the routes, knew the kids, and were able to do much more than drive a bus were gone.
Sclar and Dannin agree that any service that lacks competition should be public. Sclar presented the example of electricity. "It’s a natural monopoly," he said. "Essentially it’s either going to be a well-regulated industry or it’s got to be done publicly."
Corporations exist to make money. And although graft, mismanagement, and scandal have always been present in City Halls around the country, in the end the legislative, judicial, and executive branches were not designed to generate profits. That alone means contracting out is financially dubious.
Hiring mercenaries is a classic example. "It costs the US government a lot more to hire contract employees as security guards in Iraq than to use American troops," Walter Pincus wrote in an Oct. 1 article in the Washington Post. "It comes down to the simple business equation of every transaction requiring a profit."
As Pincus details one of the many contracts between the security firm and the US, "Blackwater was a subcontractor to Regency, which was a subcontractor to another company, ESS, which was a subcontractor to Halliburton’s KBR subsidiary, the prime contractor for the Pentagon and each company along the way was in the business to make a profit."
Blackwater charged Regency between $815 and $1,075 per day per security operative. Regency turned around and charged ESS a slightly higher average of $1,100. After that, the costs dissolve into the enormous bill that KBR regularly hands the federal government.
When the US Army is paying the bill the costs are far lower. An unmarried sergeant earns less than $100 a day. If you’re married, it’s less than $200. If you’re Gen. David H. Petraeus, it’s about $500 less than Blackwater’s lowest-paid workers.
Very little about the Blackwater contracts would be known by anyone outside the company if it weren’t for the federal investigation, since private businesses are not subject to the same public-records laws as the federal government. They don’t have to open their books or publicize the details of their bids and contracts, and they often fiercely lobby against any regulations requiring this, which leaves the door wide open for corruption which is what brought sunshine laws to government in the first place.
Sclar said that when it’s a good call to contract out, corporations, private companies, and nonprofits should be required to abide by public-records laws in addition to adhering to a five-year wait for employees departing the public sector for the private. "I think transparency should always be the goal," he said. "As much information as possible." If a company doesn’t want to make its records public, he told us, "[it shouldn’t] go after public work."
THE AIDS LESSON
Privatization comes in many forms and emerges for what often seem like good reasons.
In the early 1980s gay men in San Francisco were starting to get sick and die in large numbers and the federal government didn’t care. There was no government agency addressing the AIDS crisis and almost no government funding. So the community came together and created a network of nonprofits that funded services, education, and research.
"The AIDS Foundation was founded in response to the epidemic at a time when there wasn’t a response from the federal government," Jeff Sheehy of the AIDS Research Center at UC San Francisco told us.
At first, activists all over the country praised the San Francisco model of AIDS services. Over time the nonprofits began to get government grants and contracts. But by the 1990s some realized that the nonprofit network was utterly lacking in public accountability. The same activists who had helped create the network had to struggle to get the organizations to hold public meetings, make records public, and answer community concerns.
That, Sheehy said, shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
"There isn’t that same degree of accountability that you would have" with the public sector, he told us. "SF General is not going to turn you away at the emergency room, but nonprofit hospitals are less and less interested in running ERs."
Sheehy said he’s seen cases where difficult clients have been banned from accessing help from nonprofits. Unlike at public institutions, "the burden is not on the agency to provide the service. It is with the client to get along with the agency," he said.
Sheehy outlines other issues: nonprofits run lean and are more apt to make cuts and resist unionization, which means workers are often paid less, there can be higher turnover, and upper management is often tasked with fundraising and grant writing and distanced from the fundamental work of the group. There’s no access to records or board meetings. "If service takes a sudden downward shift, what can you do?" Sheehy asks. "You can’t go to board meetings. You can’t access records. What’s your redress?"
And that perpetuates the problem of government not stepping up to the plate. More than half of the social services in San Francisco are run by nonprofits, a trend that isn’t abating.
"When the services are shifted from the public sector to the nonprofit sector," Sheehy said, "that capacity is lost forever from government."
THE LOTTERY TICKET
When Dannin teaches her students about privatization, she uses the analogy of personal finance. "If I find my income does not meet my expenses, I can cut my expenses, but there are certain things I have to have," she said. To meet those needs a person can get a second job. In the case of the government, it can raise taxes.
But "that is not an option governments see anymore," she told us. "So the third option is to buy a lottery ticket and that’s what privatization is."
When a publicly owned road is leased for 99 years to a private company, the politician who cut the deal gets a huge chunk of cash up front to balance the local budget or meet another need. When the new owner of the road puts in a tollbooth to recoup costs, that’s the tax the politician, who may be long gone, refused to impose. What option does the voting driver have now?
Public goods, from which everyone presumably benefits, are frequently and easily falling out of the hands of government and into the hands of profit-driven companies. In New Orleans, charter schools have replaced all but four public schools. In about 15 municipalities public libraries are now managed by the privately owned Library Systems and Services. (In Jackson County, Ore., it’s being done for half the cost, but with half the staff and open half the hours.) At least 21 states are considering public-private partnerships to finance massive improvements to aging roads and bridges. User fees have increased in the national parks as rangers have been laid off and some of the work of park interpretation is picked up by private companies, as is the case with Alcatraz Island.
Dannin also asks her students to consider who really owns a job. The easy answer is the employer. "But there is another claimant of ownership of that job," she says. "That is the public. Employers depend on roads for their employees to drive to work, a public education system to train their workers. They depend on housing, police, the court system, the system of laws. That is a huge amount of infrastructure we tend not to think about.
"We live within an ecosystem. We’re having a hard time seeing that ecosystem, that infrastructure that we’re all in. That’s what your taxes pay for."