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Time for a carbon tax

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EDITORIAL

For this week’s Green Issue, our cover story (“Save the world, work less”) looks at how our economic system is accelerating climate change, proposing that we slow down and work less. It’s a fun little thought experiment that revives an important goal that has somehow been forgotten in modern political discourse.

But there’s another solution that attacks the global warming problem more directly and immediately, one that is compatible with our modern capitalist framework and which could and should be adopted now. It’s time to institute a carbon tax, which would place a price on greenhouse gas emissions and help to curb them.

California Senate President Darrell Steinberg made waves in February when he proposed replacing key parts of California’s cap-and-trade program with a carbon tax and using two-thirds of that money for tax rebates to Californians making $75,000 per year and less to offset the higher cost of gasoline, utility bills, and other areas affected by the tax, and one-third to improve public transit.

The logic behind the proposal is unassailable: If we want to control greenhouse gases, tax the burning of the molecule that creates them. A carbon tax is a far better and more direct means of addressing climate change than California’s new cap-and-trade system, an overly complex half-measure that can be gamed or used to excuse unacceptable forms of pollution.

Of course, a range of capital interests and other powerful players lined up to oppose Steinberg’s proposal, leading the pundits to declare it dead. So his Senate Bill 1156 was modified this week to allocate revenues from the cap-and-trade auction, which could total $5 billion annually, to specific needs: 30 percent to public transit, 40 percent to affordable housing and sustainable communities, 10 percent to complete streets programs (bike lanes), and 20 percent to the California High-Speed Rail Project.

Those are good priorities and we support them all, but we’re disappointed to see Steinberg shrink from a fight that was worth having. The country needs a carbon tax if we’re going to meet our obligation to help mitigate a problem that Americans have created more than anyone else in the world on a per-capita basis. This is our mess and we need to play a big role in cleaning it up, rather than passing that obligation onto poor countries and future generations.

Taxes are a time-honored tool to regulating behaviors and providing for the common good. A carbon tax would finally make users pay the full cost of their choices, such as driving a car or traveling by airplane, thus encouraging less carbon-intensive lifestyles. If this state can’t implement a carbon tax. the federal government should.

 

Rising tide of plutocracy

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EDITORIAL The pace of life under late capitalism seems to be speeding up these days, and so too have the bad news developments and warnings of impending doom come at a more rapid clip, at least according to the headlines over the last couple weeks.

First it was a report from the US Commerce Department showing that corporate profits are at the highest level in 85 years while employee compensation is at its lower level in 65 years. After-tax corporate profits are now 10 percent of gross domestic product (a record high) as a result of the effective corporate tax rate (figuring in loopholes) of 20.5 percent, the lowest tax rates since 1929, not coincidentally when the Great Depression began.

Then came the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, striking a more urgent tone than the four preceding reports as it documents the threats already unfolding and the major social upheaval to come. And then we were hit with the US Supreme Court’s 5-4 McCutcheon vs FEC decision, which “eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws,” as Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in his dissent, striking down aggregate contribution caps and giving even more political power to those with the most economic power.

So wealthy individuals and corporations are hoarding more of the nation’s resources than ever before, and now they’ll be able to spend even more of it to influence and corrupt our already broken political system, weakening its ability to take on big challenges such as addressing global warming because the solutions — including slowing down economic activity (we’ll have more on that in next week’s issue) and helping poor countries deal with rising seas and social instability — require resources from the greedy rich. Call it self-perpetuating plutocracy, with life as we know it on planet Earth at stake.

Meanwhile, on the local front, a Tenants Together study of the economic displacement now underway in San Francisco found it is mostly real estate speculators who are evicting renters using the Ellis Act, a state law ostensibly designed for letting property owners eventually get out of the rental business. Instead, the report’s analysis of eviction data since the Ellis Act was adopted in 1985 showed that 51 percent of Ellis evictions occurred within a year of the property changing hands, 68 percent within five years of new ownership, and 30 percent of Ellis evictions came from serial evictors — all told, displacing 10,000 San Francisco tenants, mostly from rent-controlled housing.

Prohibiting Ellis evictions for the first five years — which is part of Sen. Mark Leno’s SB 1439, which had its first hearing this week — is a good idea that will help. But it also feels a bit like sticking a finger in the hole of a crumbling dike, when what we really need is a strong, new, progressive seawall to protect us against the rising tide of plutocracy, or rule by the rich, and its myriad ravages.

SF’s culture of corruption

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EDITORIAL The extent of the charges in the criminal complaint against Sen. Leland Yee, political consultant Keith Jackson, and others are shocking and sensational: international arms trafficking, drug dealing, money laundering, cavorting with organized crime figures, murder for hire. But the basic allegation that Yee and Jackson practiced a corrupt, transactional kind of politics wasn’t surprising to anyone who knew how they operated.

What’s worse, they were simply a more extreme — and now, thanks to FBI wiretaps and undercover agents, a better documented — example of the political corruption that is endemic to San Francisco and some other high-stakes American cities. The city of St. Francis gets sold out to the highest bidders everyday, by politicians who value wealthy constituents over the vast majority of us who are just trying to get by — and over the interests of city finances and governance.

Part of the problem is inherent in our money-driven political system, in which politicians are constantly hustling for cash from people who want things from them. Politicians deny they take actions with political contributions in mind, but well-heeled capital and labor interests don’t spend millions of dollars on contributions out of the goodness of their hearts. These are business transactions.

We wholeheartedly support the call Senate President Darrell Steinberg made for fundamental political reform during the March 28 vote to suspend Yee and two of his allegedly corrupt colleagues. These cases aren’t aberrations, they are indicative of how power get wielded when it’s based on wealth. That’s the reality that has gotten even uglier since the Citizens United decision equated money with political speech and upped the ante for would-be public servants.

But much of the problem is particular to San Francisco, where cozy relationships between politicians and corporate interests are often feted in plain view. Former Mayor Willie Brown — a lawyer and unregistered lobbyist who won’t reveal his huge corporate client list despite having an influential weekly column in the San Francisco Chronicle — helped install his longtime City Hall functionary Ed Lee into Room 200 to guard against anyone asking too much of the rich and powerful. Yee and Lee represented rival Chinatown economic factions, both wanting to use the power of the Mayor’s Office for their interests.

In his March 22 column, Brown once again repeated a joke he’s used before, that the “e” in email stands for “evidence,” which is really only funny in a sick political culture that celebrates slick rule-breakers. And it was from Brown that Lee learned it was acceptable to brazenly give tax breaks and regulatory passes to the tech companies that his top fundraiser, venture capitalist Ron Conway, are invested in.

Megadeveloper Lennar Urban used its wealth and political connections to take control of San Francisco’s biggest tracts of undeveloped and underdeveloped land, including Hunters and Candlestick points and Treasure Island, paying off community groups and hiring Jackson and other political henchmen to get the job done.

In fact, the FBI complaint says Jackson was working on behalf of that project when he approached accused Chinatown gangster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow for support, leading to their alleged involvement in a string of wild criminal conspiracies. Meanwhile, Chow was getting public commendations from San Francisco-based politicians including Lee, Yee, Gavin Newsom, Dianne Feinstein, Fiona Ma, and even Tom Ammiano. Chow courted political legitimacy the same way politicians seek cash, and mainstream media outlets were happy to play along.

Throughout his political career, Yee has carried water for Pacific Gas & Electric, perhaps the most corrupting contributor to political campaigns in the city’s history. PG&E’s influence at City Hall had thankfully waned in recent years as a result of overreach and deadly criminal negligence, until Lee and his appointees last year killed CleanPowerSF (see “Challenge Mayor Lee and his lies,” 9/17/13) on a pretext so thin it could only be gift to PG&E.

In many ways, San Francisco hasn’t changed. It’s still the old Barbary Coast, ruled by capitalist thugs and corrupt politicians, only with glossy modern spin created by armies of well-paid political consultants. But we all deserve better.

Yee and Jackson should go to prison if there’s even a slice of truth to the allegations against them. And maybe they’ll cut deals and take other political figures down with them, giving us more of a peek behind the curtain of political power. But it’s up to all of us to break the close ties between economic and political power and begin to restore the democratic power of everyday people.

Feinstein, Pelosi, and NSA/CIA spying

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EDITORIAL

Two of the most powerful members of Congress — Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Nancy Pelosi — are from San Francisco. They’ve each spent much of their long tenures in Congress serving on the Intelligence Committees in their respective houses, overseeing the increasingly overreaching surveillance state. And they’re now in positions to do something significant to rein in the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency, if they can move from statements of outrage to actions of courage.

Feinstein is at the center of the latest national security controversy, criticizing the CIA for spying on her Senate Intelligence Committee staffers as they researched legislation to expose and rein in the CIA’s interrogation and torture policies. Apparently, Feinstein doesn’t like being subjected to the same kind of blanket NSA surveillance that she’s been defending, so perhaps this is a welcome lesson for her.

Pelosi was also in a key oversight position when this illegal wiretapping by the federal government began under then-President George W. Bush, something we and others called her out for at the time (see “Pelosi knew about warrantless spying,” 1/25/06).

Pelosi’s defense then was “I objected in writing” when she was briefed on the federal government’s overreaching surveillance operation, something that falls far short of what we would expect from someone who regularly get vilified by conservatives as epitomizing San Francisco’s liberal values.

Now is the time for San Francisco’s most powerful congressional representatives to represent our values, and those of the rest of civilized world that has condemned US surveillance programs that violate international law and cultivate backdoors and other weaknesses in this country’s critical cybersecurity infrastructure.

Feinstein should introduce bipartisan legislation, possibly co-sponsored with Sen. Rand Paul, a libertarian Republican who also has expressed concerns about the security state, to repeal the USA Patriot Act, the post-9/11 bill that gave vague license to many of the current excesses.

Pelosi and Feinstein should also pressure President Barack Obama to accept all or most of the 46 important reforms recommended by his commission on government surveillance, even if starts a fight that costs party unity in the short term.

“In our view, the current storage by the government of bulk metadata creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy, and civil liberty,” the commission wrote in its report to Obama, which was released in mid-December.

Obama has already expressed concerns about the Democratic Party losing ground in this year’s mid-term election because of apathy among Democratic voters, but a bold break from the imperial presidency of the Bush era could be exactly what the party needs to fire up the base.

Yet more important than such political considerations, it’s simply the right thing to do, and something that Feinstein, Pelosi, and the Bay Area’s other congressional representatives should be vigorously pushing.

Lee must pay for his promises

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EDITORIAL

Mayor Ed Lee has made a lot of promises to San Franciscans, but he has been unwilling to pay for them with money from the city or his wealthy backers, transforming these statements in hollow political platitudes — or, less charitably, calculated lies meant to mask the true state of the city.

Lee pledged to build 30,000 units of new housing — a third of it affordable to those with moderate incomes and below — by 2020. By that same year, Lee set the goal of increasing bicycling to 20 percent of all vehicle trips in the City. Lee also directed city departments to develop strategies for reducing pedestrian deaths by 50 percent by 2021. And so Muni’s aging fleet can keep up with population growth, Lee’s SF2030 Transportation Task Force said the transportation system needs a $10 billion capital investment over the next 15 years, a target Lee endorsed.

These were all admirable goals, and in each case, city agencies studied the problems and developed detailed strategies for getting there. And in each case, Mayor Lee chose to fund just small fractions of what the city would need to make his promises come true.

Actually, the housing problem is still being studied, but nobody thinks this goal will be met — as even the pro-development San Francisco Business Times said in a recent editorial — particularly given how the Mayor’s Office structured the business tax reform and Affordable Housing Fund ballot measures in 2012, with giveaways to developers and favored economic sectors, such as tech.

Lee’s WalkFirst program would need $240 million to meet his modest goals — far more to actually realize the VisionZero goal of eliminating all pedestrian deaths, which Lee said he supports — and the Mayor’s Office has only pledged $17 million in funding. The cycling goals would take more than $500 million, not the $30 million currently pledged. Even with approval of the two transportation ballot measure proposed for this fall, and those planned for future years, that only gets the city about a third of the way to meeting San Francisco’s future transportation needs.

Meanwhile, a downtown SF congestion pricing charge that has been studied using federal funds — which would reduce traffic and pedestrian deaths while raising $80 million annually — is being ignored by Lee, as is the once-promising idea of downtown transit assessment districts. Lee is refusing to seek the city’s share of the tremendous wealth now be generated in this city.

As a result, Lee is making promises that he knows he won’t deliver on. And last week, in the five-year budget projection his office is required to issue, we all saw the results of Lee’s economic policies: growing budget deficits for this booming city. Next year’s $67 million deficit is projected to balloon to $340 million by 2017-18. Mr. Mayor, “getting things done” requires more than just words, it requires the political courage to make your promises comes true.

Higher wages and tenants’ rights, for the win

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As we document in this week’s cover story, a citywide coalition has sprung up to fight for tenants’ rights in the face of mounting evictions and soaring rents, and momentum on this issue is steadily growing.

But that isn’t the only sign of a newly invigorated movement that’s beginning to count its victories and advance forward on behalf of tenants, workers, and thousands of San Franciscans who are less focused on turning a quick profit and more concerned with bringing about positive change. Last week brought several high notes on this front.

Citywide legislation that will limit discriminatory practices by employers and housing providers by reforming background check policies won initial approval at the Feb. 4 San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting.

Introduced by Sup. Jane Kim, the Fair Chance Act is part of a “ban the box” movement, backed by local grassroots organizations that came together to champion the rights of individuals who’ve encountered barriers to improving their lives due to past convictions that have left them with a permanent stigma.

At the meeting, Kim mentioned a woman who’d been told she “need not apply” for a job working as a cook — because of a simple shoplifting conviction from when she was in high school. The ordinance will require certain employers and housing providers to refrain from criminal history checks until after an initial job interview, and would make certain kinds of information off-limits, such as arrests that never resulted in a conviction.

Meanwhile, an initiative to curb height limits on waterfront development amassed enough signatures last week to qualify for the June ballot. That effort grew out of a successful referendum last November against the 8 Washington project, a key pushback where San Francisco voters rejected luxury condominiums at the ballot.

The Chinese Progressive Association and Jobs With Justice held a celebration last week to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the passage of the city’s minimum wage ordinance.

While it remains the highest in the nation, San Francisco’s 2014 minimum wage of $10.74 an hour still isn’t enough to make ends meet, so allies of low-wage workers are launching the Campaign for a Fair Economy to push for a higher minimum wage at the ballot and to implement a higher wage standard for major retailers and chain stores.

There remains much to rail against, to be sure. A Craigslist ad for a $10,500-per-month two-bedroom apartment in the Mission generated a barrage of angry commentary from those who read it as doomsday for the historically Latino area, especially since the tone-deaf author used the word caliente to describe the neighborhood.

But the start of 2014 has already delivered some promising victories for progressives, and many have their sights set on even greater horizons.

 

Guns, gods, and government

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EDITORIAL Humans tend to believe that we’re smarter than we really are. It’s a problem that can be exacerbated by concentrations of wealth and technological expertise, which can cause some people to believe they have an almost God-like power to manifest solutions to any challenge they confront, particularly when they have lots of money to throw at the problem.

But that’s really just hubris. It’s the story of Icarus striving for the sun and falling back to Earth when his technology failed him. Knowing our limits and feeling a sense of humility and social responsibility are the first steps toward dealing honestly with problems we face. And last week, we were reminded again of this reality by venture capitalist Ron Conway, the libertarian-leaning power broker who has taken a paternalistic hold on the city (see “The Plutocrat,” 11/27/12).

Being a newspaper that has always believed in gun control, we share Conway’s newfound desire to reduce gun violence, a cause he suddenly adopted after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school in December 2012. Conway and his Smart Tech Foundation last week unveiled some early designs for high-tech guns that only work in the hands of their owners, and which will notify those owners when someone has moved them.

“Let’s use innovation to bring about gun safety. Let’s not rely on Washington,” Conway told the San Francisco Examiner, which put the story on its Jan. 29 cover.

There are many levels of ridiculousness to Conway’s belief that his gizmos can do more to reduce gun violence than even modest federal regulation of the more than 300 million guns in this country. After all, guns are designed to inflict violence, and just 3 percent of gun deaths are accidental shootings (62 percent are suicides and 35 percent are homicides). Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza used guns from his home that he’d been taught to use by his mother, who ended up being his first victim, so it seems unlikely Conway’s guns would have changed that outcome.

When reporter Jonah Owen Lamb asked Conway how his technology differed from widely available trigger locks, he compared them to the iPhone, which invented a new market for its product. So the answer to gun violence is creating a new market for a new generation of guns that only their wealthy owners can fire?

While we’re not huge fans of the Second Amendment — the one that conservatives like Conway consider sacrosanct — we do understand that it was written to give the masses tools to resist wealthy and powerful oppressors. That includes people like Conway, fellow venture capitalist Thomas Perkins (whose comparison of progressive activists to Nazis has been lighting the Internet), and the Establishment politicians whom they sponsor.

Guys, society doesn’t need your gizmos, libertarian ideals, or hubris to address the most vexing challenges we face, from gun violence to global warming to creating a modern transportation infrastructure. We just need some of the obscene wealth you’ve been hoarding.

 

What “Google bus” really means

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EDITORIAL In recent years, “Google bus” has become a term that encompasses more than just the shuttles that one corporation uses to transport its workers from San Francisco down to the Silicon Valley. It has taken on a symbolic meaning representing the technology sector’s desire to shield itself from the infrastructure, values, and responsibilities that most citizens choose to share.

These are the very things that motivate many of us to live here, finding that community spirit in such a beautiful, world-class city. More than just the great restaurants and bars, its vistas and artistic offerings, San Francisco represents an experiment in modern urbanism and cultural development.

It is this collision and collusion of disparate yet public-spirited cultures that gave birth to the region’s great economic and social movements, from gay rights and environmentalism to groundbreaking academic research and the creation of the Internet economy.

The antithesis of this idea of creative collaboration is to consider San Francisco just 49 square miles of valuable real estate, to be used and developed as the highest bidder sees fit, as some tech titans seem to believe. It’s ironic that an industry based on creating online communities would place so little value on engaging with its physical community.

The proposed $1 per bus stop use, and $50 per docking that new exclusive Google ferry is paying, is a privatization of public space that barely covers the city’s costs. The tech industry should be doing much more just to counteract its negative impacts on the city’s economy, let alone actually being good corporate citizens of this region.

A new report called for by the Mayor’s Office says Muni needs a $10 billion investment over the next 15 years just to maintain current service levels. A big chunk of that should come from the wealthy corporations in our community through a downtown transit assessment district and higher fees on Silicon Valley companies that are using us as a bedroom community.

San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit has been developing a critique of the Google bus since her initial shot last February in the London Review of Books, answering a subsequent techie/enviro criticism published in Grist with a Jan. 7 article in Guernica called “Resisting Monoculture.”

“And thus come the well-paid engineers to San Francisco, and thus go the longtime activists, idealists, artists, teachers, plumbers, all the less-well-paid people,” she writes, citing surveys that the buses allow Silicon Valley workers to live in San Francisco when they otherwise wouldn’t.

That’s the issue. The only thing green about Google buses are the piles of money their riders and their bosses are keeping from the city we all share. Segregated buses have never been a good idea, but if these companies insist on them, that should come with a higher price tag.

 

Start the mayor’s race now

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EDITORIAL

We hope you enjoyed last week’s cover package, “The Rise of Candidate X,” a parable about politics and the media in San Francisco. While it was clearly a fantastical tale, it also had a serious underlying message that we would like to discuss more directly here. Bold actions are needed to save San Francisco. It will take a broad-based coalition to keep the city open to all, and that movement can and should morph into a progressive campaign for the Mayor’s Office, starting now.

While 22 months seems like an eternity in electoral politics, and it is, any serious campaign to unseat Mayor Ed Lee — with all the institutional and financial support lined up behind him — will need to begin soon. Maybe that doesn’t even need to involve the candidate yet, but the constellation of progressive constituencies needs to coordinate their efforts to create a comprehensive vision for the city, one radical enough to really challenge the status quo, and a roadmap for getting there.

It’s exciting to see the resurgence of progressive politics in the city over the last six months, with effective organizing and actions by tenant, immigrant rights, affordable housing, anti-corporate, labor, economic justice, LGBT, environmental, transit, and other progressive groups.

Already, they’ve started to coordinate their actions and messaging, as we saw with the coalition that made housing rights a centerpiece of the annual Milk-Moscone Memorial March. Next, we’d like to see progressive transportation and affordable housing activists bridge their differences, stop fighting each other for funding within the current zero-sum game of city budgets, and fully support a broad progressive agenda that seeks new resources for those urgent needs and others.

Yet City Hall is out of touch with the growing populist outrage over trends and policies that favor wealthy corporations and individuals, at the expense of this city’s diversity, health, and real economic vitality (which comes from promoting and protecting small businesses, not using local corporate welfare to subsidize Wall Street). The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce recently gave this Board of Supervisors its highest-ever ranking on its annual “Paychecks and Pink Slips” ratings, which is surely a sign that City Hall is becoming more sympathetic to the interests of business elites than that of the average city resident.

This has to change, and it won’t be enough to focus on citizens’ initiatives or this year’s supervisorial races, which provide few opportunities to really change the political dynamics under the dome. We need to support and strengthen the resurgent progressive movement in this city and set its sights on Room 200, with enough time to develop and promote an inclusive agenda.

San Francisco has a strong-mayor form of government, a power that has been effectively and repeatedly wielded on behalf of already-powerful constituents by Mayor Ed Lee and his pro-downtown predecessors. Lee has used it to veto Board of Supervisors’ actions protecting tenants, workers, and immigrants; and the commissions he controls have rubber-stamped development projects without adequate public benefits and blocked the CleanPowerSF program, despite its approval by a veto-proof board majority.

Maybe Mayor Lee will rediscover his roots as a tenant lawyer, or he will heed the prevailing political winds now blowing through the city. Or maybe he’ll never cross the powerful economic interests who put him in office. But we do know that the only way to get the Mayor’s Office to pursue real progressive reforms is for a strong progressive movement to seek that office.

New York City, which faces socioeconomic challenges similar to San Francisco’s, has exciting potential right now because of the election of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who waged a long and difficult campaign based on progressive ideals and issues. By contrast, San Francisco seems stuck in the anachronistic view that catering to capitalists will somehow serve the masses.

The Mayor’s Office has been a potent force for blocking progressive reforms over the last 20 years. Now is the time to place that office in service of the people.

 

Tech leaders must engage their critics

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EDITORIAL It’s time for San Franciscans to have a public conversation about who we are, what we value, and where we’re headed. In the increasingly charged and polarized political climate surrounding economic displacement, the rising populist furor needs to be honestly and seriously addressed by this city’s major stakeholders.

Whether or not the technology industry that is overheating the city’s economy is to blame for the current eviction crisis and hyper-gentrification, it’s undeniable that industry and it’s leaders need to help solve this problem. They are rolling in money in right now, including tens of millions of dollars in city tax breaks, and they need to offer more than token gestures to help offset their impacts.

As we were finalizing stories for this issue on Dec. 9, the Guardian newsroom was roiled by our rollercoaster coverage of a protest blockade against a Google bus, which has become a symbol for the insulated and out-of-touch nouveau-riche techies in the emerging narrative of two San Franciscos.

Our video of an apparent Google-buser shouting at protesters “if you can’t afford it, it’s time for you to leave” went viral and burned up the Internet (and our servers) even as we discovered and reported that he was actually a protester doing some impromptu street theater.

But there was a reason why his comments resonated, and it’s the same reason why The New York Times and other major media outlets have been doing a series of stories on San Francisco and the problems we’re having balancing economic development with economic security, diversity, infrastructure needs, and other urban imperatives.

Rents have increased more than 20 percent this year, the glut of new housing coming online now is mostly unaffordable to current residents, even that new construction has done little to slow real estate speculators from cannibalizing rent-controlled apartments, and the only end in sight to this trend is a bursting of the dot-com bubble, which would cause its own hardships.

We need this city’s political leaders to convene a summit meeting on this problem, and Mayor Ed Lee and his neoliberal allies need to bring tech leaders to the table and impress upon them that they must engage with their critics in a meaningful way and be prepared to share some of their wealth with San Franciscans. Not only is the future of the city at stake, so is its present, because the housing justice movement won’t be ignored any longer. The good news is that San Francisco has a golden opportunity to test whether democracy can help solve the worst aspects of modern capitalism, offering an example to others if we succeed. But if our political leaders don’t create good faith avenues for meaningful reforms, San Francisco may offer a far messier and more contentious lesson.

A new holiday tradition: workers’ rights

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The holiday season has officially started, and if you’re any kind of American, you know what that means. Hordes of wild-eyed shoppers have descended upon us.

If early morning stampedes at chain retailers and other hallmarks of the Black Friday phenomenon seem like a peculiar tradition, recent offshoots of the trend may prove even more bizarre. One is business’ attempt to claim other Thanksgiving week calendar slots as holiday-shopping bonanzas in their own right. Cyber Monday is the busiest online shopping day of the year, we’re told, while a growing number of intrepid early-birds skipped out on Turkey Day altogether to go bargain hunting on the woefully titled “Brown Thursday.”

Then there are the growing ranks of cynics who’ve found creative ways to critique in-your-face consumerism as a cultural deficiency, a sort of anti-Black Friday tradition. There’s Buy Nothing Day, an alt standby appealing to the conscience of the thoughtful consumer.

The web-based Black Friday Death Count (www.blackfridaydeathcount.com), documenting six years of violent incidents stemming from holiday shopping frenzies, reads like a stark condemnation of petty greed. Viral YouTube videos of squabbling gift buyers, meanwhile, suggest that a mass audience of Internet viewers is reaching for the popcorn and taking it all in, perhaps with the glee of blood-sport spectators.

Yet a different aspect of Black Friday 2013 deserves a second look. This year, low-wage employees who generally make Black Friday profits possible got louder in their demands for better working conditions.

Look at Walmart. It’s the nation’s largest employer, but its employees earn notoriously low wages — a fact highlighted by Black Friday protests staged outside Walmart stores nationwide, including in the Bay Area. For low-wage retail workers who can barely make ends meet let alone leave gift-wrapped digital devices under the tree, momentum seems to be building. The National Labor Relations Board recently announced its intention to pursue complaints against Walmart for illegally threatening and firing employees who participated in last year’s Black Friday protests.

Further up the supply chain, the Port of Oakland saw a work stoppage from a group of truckers last week who have fallen into dire straits financially. Classified as owner-operators instead of employees and therefore unable to unionize, many face potential job loss because they can’t afford engine retrofits needed to comply with new environmental regulations. The timing of their quasi-strike, just as container ships were coming into port with cargo destined for Black Friday sales shelves, was no coincidence.

All of which begs the question: If Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Buy Nothing Day can all be incorporated as modern American traditions that directly follow Thanksgiving, why not claim a slice of the pie as well for workers putting themselves at risk in the name of better conditions? If these struggles are effective, it will be one more thing to give thanks for.

 

We give thanks

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EDITORIAL We offer a lot of criticism here on the Guardian’s editorial page, which is probably inescapable given the obvious failures of our political and economic systems to address the needs of the people and the planet and to uphold the progressive values that the Guardian and much of the Bay Area supports. We have so much potential, and it’s sometimes maddening when we fall short of realizing it.

So, this week, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, we’re going to put a positive spin on the civic scene and talk about some of the things that we’re thankful for.

We’re thankful to live in such a beautiful, vibrant place. San Francisco is one of the greatest cities in the world, both physically and culturally. And we’re thrice blessed to have Marin County and the East Bay — particularly the progressive and diverse cities of Oakland and Berkeley — just a short bridge ride away. Layer on top of that the nearby Sierras, Sonoma County, and the coastline from Point Reyes down to Santa Cruz and this is perhaps the best region on the planet.

We’re thankful to have a functional, modern transportation system that offers plenty of good alternatives to the automobile. While there’s certainly room for improvement, BART is an amazing transit system that closes the gap among the Bay Area’s many diverse communities, while Muni does a good job at ferrying huge numbers of people around this bustling city. Caltrain is a great link down the peninsula and we’re super excited to see it electrified and that transportation officials are working hard to connect downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles with a long overdue high speed rail line. And we love how San Franciscans have embraced bicycles as an important everyday transportation option.

We’re thankful that so many smart, interesting, creative people have been drawn to San Francisco and its environs. This is home to recognized global leaders in pursuits ranging from technological innovation to progressive and environmental organizing and advocacy. We’re proud of the political initiatives hatched here in the Bay Area, from marriage equality to criminal justice reform. We have a cornucopia of artists and musicians tucked into every little nook of the city, from the stage of Slim’s to the studios of surreal Hunters Point Shipyard. And the locals here cook up some of the world’s best culinary offerings, from a plethora of fancy restaurants to quickie taquerias to surprisingly bountiful food trucks.

And we’re really thankful for you, the person reading these words. The Guardian has been around since 1966 because of the support of our readers, our advertisers, and our community, and we’re grateful that you’ve all given us the opportunity to offer the news, views, and reviews that are helping to shape this wonderful place. Happy Thanksgiving.

 

Single-payer is the cure

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EDITORIAL We’re sorry to see all the problems surrounding President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which has made some important improvements to the country’s healthcare system, such as helping those with preexisting conditions get coverage and preventing those who do have coverage from being arbitrarily dropped. Given a break from being exploited by the insurance industry, there’s no way this country’s citizens will want to go back to how things were.

But the convoluted Obamacare system was a foreseeable mess, one that is now causing unnecessary anxiety across the country and bringing right-wing extremists back from the political dead as the mid-term elections approach. Republicans may not be correct when they trumpet the old system as the best on the world, but their criticisms of Obamacare are already finding increasing resonance, and we haven’t even gotten to the point yet where it will be illegal not to have health insurance.

It doesn’t make sense to leave something as important as our healthcare system in the hands of for-profit corporations with the incentive to drive up costs. The New York Times has done some excellent work this year showing how US residents pay astronomically more for every procedure and drug than citizens of other countries. We should have all been suspicious when the insurance industry cooperated with enacting Obamacare and helped preclude a public option, leaving us with the insurance exchanges that have been so problematic.

There’s really only one remedy to this country’s ailing healthcare system, which we said at the time that Obamacare was being passed and we’ll repeat again now that there’s even more evidence supporting our position: We need socialized medicine in this country.

Conservatives who read that assertion are probably shaking their heads in disbelief right now, believing that Obamacare’s shortcomings prove that government can’t run a healthcare system. And the inexcusable technical problems with the federal healthcare.gov website and its related state exchanges unfortunately reinforce that view. But they’re wrong, and the single-payer advocates have been right all along, noting among other things that the government runs Medicare well and with far lower overhead than insurance companies.

The problems with Obamacare are similar to the problems it sought to address, and they stem from the fact that an insurance-based model is a terrible way to run a healthcare system. It’s too expensive and does too little to hold down medical costs, it’s confusing and stressful to people who are already wrestling with disease or injury, and it unjustly creates different standards of care for the rich and poor.

Socialized medicine — or a single-payer system, administered by either government or a private contractor, but paid for automatically through our taxes — works well in just about every other industrialized country, most of which are far less expensive and yet have better healthcare outcomes. A single-payer system could utilize the existing healthcare infrastructure, it would simply change how we pay for it and bring much-needed price controls and regulatory oversight.

Think about it: Healthcare coverage is something that every citizen needs in equal measure. We all need the right to see a doctor when we’re sick or injured. None of us should have to gamble with our health by weighing the cost of various monthly insurance premiums against our likelihood of ending up in the hospital. And it really shouldn’t be up to struggling small businesses to pay expensive health insurance premiums for their employees, even though that’s really the only way to make the fatally flawed insurance model work.

There’s infighting among congressional Democrats now about whether to roll back parts of Obamacare, such as hospital subsidies and whether to let people remain on minimal catastrophic coverage plans, and all that will do it upset the careful balance the plan tried to achieve to hold down long-term costs.

For now, we need to apply whatever bandages needed to stop the bleeding and limp the flawed Obamacare along for a little while. But we also need to immediately start the difficult work of transitioning to a socialized medicine system.

 

Reduce California’s prison population

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EDITORIAL California must reduce its prison population — as federal judges have been ordering for years to address severe overcrowding and substandard health care — and it should use this opportunity to completely reform its approach to criminal justice.

Instead, Gov. Jerry Brown has chosen to fight this reasonable directive, exporting thousands more of our inmates to other states and propping up the unseemly private prison industry in the process by signing a $28.5 million contract with Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America.

Last month, the federal judges overseeing California’s prison downsizing once again extended their Dec. 31 deadline for the state to cut its 134,000-person prison population by another 9,600 inmates, pushing it back to Feb. 24 while the state and lawyers for the prisoners try to negotiate a deal. An update on the status of negotiations is due Nov. 18.

We urge Gov. Brown to follow the lead of his fellow Bay Area Democrats in choosing a more enlightened path forward. Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-SF), who chairs the Assembly Public Safety Committee, has convened several recent hearings looking at alternatives to incarceration, including one on Nov. 13 focused on diversion and sentencing.

“I’m hoping to come up with a sentencing reform bill out of this hearing,” Ammiano told the Guardian, expressing hopes that Californians are ready to move past the fear-based escalation of sentences that pandering politicians pushed throughout the ’90s, continuing the progress the state has already made on reforming Three Strikes and some drug laws. Sen. Mark Leno has also provided important leadership on these issues.

There’s no justification for California to have among the highest incarceration rates in the world, four times the European average, and we should embrace the mandate to reduce our prison population with everything from sentencing reform to addressing poverty, police and prosecutorial bias, early childhood education, and other social and economic justice issues.

Closely related to reducing our prison population, at least in term of dropping the “get tough” attitudes that undermine our compassionate and humanity, is treating those we do incarcerate more humanely.

Ammiano and Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) helped end this summer’s prisoner hunger strike by holding a hearing on improving conditions in the prisons, including the possibility of abolishing cruel solitary confinement practices, as the United Nations recommends and even Mississippi has managed to do. And we think abolition of capital punishment should remain an important near-term goal.

Brown isn’t the most progressive on criminal justice issues, following in an unfortunate tradition of Democratic governors who fear being called soft on crime. But Ammiano sees hopeful signs of potential progress, and he has our support. Now is the time to move California’s criminal justice system into the 21st century.

The next election

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EDITORIAL This week’s dismal election in San Francisco is a symptom of deeper problems in our political system, both here and across the country. It isn’t voter apathy that caused what is expected to be record low turnout at the polls. It was an understandable loss of faith in an electoral system dominated by money and insider political games. And that’s what we need to address before the next election.

Three of the four officeholders on the Nov. 5 had no opposition, while Dist. 4 Sup. Katy Tang had only token opposition from someone new to town with no relevant experience. Why would these important, coveted, well-paying jobs have no applicants? Because the cost of admission is just too high, and it looks to many observers like the fix is in.

Tang and Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu were each appointed to their posts by Mayor Ed Lee, and it is because of that connection that they were able to raise nearly $200,000 each, the most in this field of experienced office-holders. They also unfairly benefited from the power of incumbency, which can be formidable (as Lee knows, given that he was appointed mayor on the condition that he wouldn’t run for office, breaking that pledge and spending millions of dollars to win the 2011 mayor’s race).

We need a better system, one that the power brokers who put Lee into office can’t game as easily as they do. Maybe we should hold special elections for each vacancy, with shorter campaigns requiring less fundraising and thus opening up the field. Alternatively, we could make all appointees temporary caretakers and prohibit them from immediately running for a full term.

We should also limit how much developers can spend on political campaigns pushing their projects. The $2 million that Pacific Waterfront Partners just spent selling the 8 Washington luxury condo project to voters — particularly the deceptions and limits on reviews by the Planning Department in Prop. B — was obscene and unfair. But it was a smart investment on seeking profits of more than 50 times that figure.

In the post-Citizens United world, where money equals speech, there are legal barriers to doing what needs to be done. But we need to be creative and aggressive at pushing for political reform, from public financing, spending caps, and greater disclosure on campaigns to reforming the City Charter to end our strong mayor form of government, from his appointments to commissions and elective offices to the unchecked power that he has to control the spending of public money.

If we want to woo voters back to the polls, we need to give them something to vote for, and a package of political reforms would be a good place to start.

UPDATE: This editorial was corrected to fix a misspelling of Katy Tang’s last name. 

 

Lessons of the BART standoff

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EDITORIAL BART and its unions reached a tentative deal on new contracts late Monday (10/21) night, the next day restoring service that had been disrupted by the second four-day strike this year. Now, it’s time for everyone to move on from this impasse — and the ugly demonization of workers that accompanied it — and try to heal the damage that was done.

Sadly, it appears to have taken the senseless deaths of two BART employees on Oct. 19 to reinforce the safety concerns that unions have raised from the beginning, undermine critics’ belittling claims that “the trains run themselves” and don’t need trained workers, and back the district down from its aggressive brinksmanship and preparations to run limited service during what could have been a long strike.

There are still many questions to be answered. Was the district forcing a strike with its “final offer” and last minute decision to seek more authority over work rules? Would it really have offered service to the public using scab drivers? Was the driver training that was happening on that ill-fated train a factor in the tragedy?

We may not have a definitive answer to that last question for quite awhile, but we already learned from the NTSB that BART officials were deceiving the general public when they claimed the train was simply on a maintenance run to remove graffiti and when they offered misleading answers to the Guardian’s direct questions about whether driver training was being done.

Unfortunately, that was just the latest example of a pattern of behavior unbefitting of officials in a public agency. It began with the decision to pay almost $400,000 to a notoriously anti-union contract negotiator. It continued through stall tactics and an aggressive public relations strategy. And it culminated with seeking sweeping authority over work rules at the 11th hour and following up with training new drivers as soon as a strike was underway, apparently hoping to run enough service that the unions would be forced to accept a bad contract.

None of that should have happened, and it was only possible because the financially healthy district played off of the conservative campaigns against public employee unions of recent years to undermine the public image of their workers and deny them reasonable raises and safety improvements.

The media is also culpable, particularly the editorial writers at the San Francisco Chronicle and Bay Area News Group, which ran vitriolic and false rants condemning workers and unions, even supporting Republican calls to outlaw strikes by transportation workers.

Only in the funhouse mirror they created was it possible to credibly push the ridiculous claim that unions were striking because they were afraid of using email. It’s not necessary to dehumanize and demean our adversaries. We in the progressive Bay Area are better than that, and maybe now we can act like it.