“Taxes,” Warren Hellman told me last week, “are the third rail of American politics.” The billionaire financier was talking about my Feb. 16 column. I complained that Hellman and a group working on reforming San Francisco’s pension system were asking city employees to take more cuts — but nobody ever seems to ask the rich to take cuts.
Thing is, Hellman agrees with me. He told me that the rich in this country are undertaxed, that every other industrialized country taxes the wealthy more than we do, and that it’s unfair to ask middle-class people to take on all the burdens of a bad economy. He’s not opposed to looking at higher taxes as part of a plan to solve the city’s budget problems; he just doesn’t see how it’s going to happen.
“I’ve gotten my head handed to me three times now when I’ve supported tax increases,” he said.
Hellman’s a smart guy, and unlike a lot of the folks at the Chamber of Commerce and the Committee on JOBS, he’s actually reasonable. He’d rather work with the city employee unions and the progressive community than try to force something on us that we’d all oppose.
And when I put forward my proposal — combine pension reform with a comparable tax increase on big businesses and the wealthy — he didn’t laugh or dismiss the idea. He said it was worth thinking about. And I believe him.
I also agree that it’s hard to talk about taxes these days. Part of it is the lack of any serious national media discussion of how low taxes have ruined the country. Part of it is the California pathology: we want it all, and we don’t want to pay for it. But part of it is that San Francisco city leaders (Willie Brown, Gavin Newsom) have refused to talk seriously about local revenue, wealth disparity, fair taxation, or anything that might remotely relate to progressive tax increases. Mayor Ed Lee isn’t doing much better. And the only tax talk I’m hearing from the Board of Supervisors these days is the debate over whether to give Twitter a tax break.
And if we all just say, never mind — the voters won’t go for new taxes, the polls aren’t good, nobody wants to go there — then nothing is ever going to change.
The pension-reform discussion is an excellent forum for a new approach to taxes and city finance. Key players are at the table. Hellman, who commands respect from all sides, agrees with me on the crux of the problem. So let’s use this to change the tone of the debate. Let’s get taxes off the third rail. If we can’t do it in San Francisco, then where is it ever going to happen?