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Editors Notes

Editor’s notes



I’m not prone to agreeing with right-wing nuts from Riverside County, but there’s a county supervisor down there named Jeff Stone who has a dandy idea. He wants to secede.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Stone is proposing that 13 counties in the southland and inland empire split off and become their own state, which would be called South California. We’re talking everything south of Madera, with the coastal counties (and Los Angeles) left behind. A real conservative haven of low taxes and limited regulation.

And I say: Go for it, pal. I’m completely with you.

Imagine what would happen if Supervisor Stone got his way. There would be no more budget paralysis in the California Legislature. Democrats would control two-thirds of both houses and could pass a budget that included higher taxes on the rich and big corporations. Candidates for governor wouldn’t have to worry about getting votes from the conservative parts of the state, so they could talk more honestly about the major issues. Same-sex marriage would pass the first week. Pot would be legal. The death penalty would be gone in a year or two.

It might take a while longer to amend Prop. 13, but with the ability to raise revenue instead of just cutting, California could begin to fund the schools adequately, rebuild the state university system, and move forward with projects like high-speed rail.

And let’s remember: those counties that want to leave? They elect representatives who won’t vote for taxes — but they are the biggest beneficiaries of state revenues. The northern and coastal counties, the more liberal ones, pay more in taxes than we get in services. Our taxpayers are subsidizing their tax haters.

So go on — leave. We’ll keep our money here.

Now, just to our south and east would be a train wreck of a state with few public services — but South California would still be part of America, so people could move north without worrying about immigration papers. I’d propose that we set up a state fund to resettle refugees from Republicanland.

And maybe, after a while, the people who have to live with crappy schools and crumbling roads will look across the border and say, Why do they have it so good? And maybe they’ll start to think differently about the role of government.

Editor’s Notes


I had, as they say, a spirited and frank discussion last week with Enrique Pearce, the political consultant working on the Run Ed Run campaign. I chided Pearce, whose firm is called Left Coast Communications, for leading an effort that, at the very least, involves some touchy legal and ethical issues. (After all, the group is raising money for a campaign for a candidate who hasn’t filed as a candidate. There are reasons why federal, state, and local laws mandate that people who are running for office declare that they want the office before they start raising money.)

Pearce insisted he was doing nothing illegal. (Okay, if he says so.) He also argued that his firm is the most progressive consulting operation in the city. (Whatever.) But the real focus of our discussion — and the reason it’s worth talking about — was the question of whether corruption really matters.

I think sleaze — and the appearance of sleaze — is a defining progressive issue. If Pearce agrees, he’s got some ‘splainin’ to do.

Let’s back up here. When Willie Brown was speaker of the state Assembly, he passed some good legislation, and allowed some very bad legislation to become law. But his greatest legacy is term limits — and the terrible public perception of what was once one of the best state legislatures in the nation.

Brown was the epitome of corruption, a guy who actively flouted the notion of honest, open government. Among other things, he had a private law practice on the side — and clients would pay him big money because of his influence on state legislation. Of course, we never knew who the clients were; he wouldn’t release the list.

When he was mayor, his sleazy ways continued — and left even progressive San Franciscans believing that you can’t trust City Hall with your money. Which means, of course, that it’s harder to convince anyone to pay more taxes.

There’s no question that Brown and Chinatown powerbroker Rose Pak (don’t get me started) were key players in putting Mayor Ed Lee in office, and that they’re playing a big role in this new effort. Which means, as far as I’m concerned, that it’s utterly untrustworthy — and that progressives should be miles and miles away.

I’m not arguing that Ed Lee is a bad mayor (he’s way better than the last guy). He might even turn into a good mayor if he runs for a full term. Pearce thinks he’d be better for progressives than state Sen. Leland Yee. We can argue that later.

But as long as his campaign is directly linked to people whose standard practices undermine the heart of the progressive agenda (which depends on a belief that government can be trusted to take on social problems), then you can count me out.

Editor’s notes



I’m not going to tell Ed Lee he can’t run for mayor. I know he promised he wasn’t going to. I know that if he hadn’t made that promise, he wouldn’t have had the six votes to win the office. I think Lee believed at the time that he didn’t want to run in November, and he may believe it now.

But this is still a democracy, and if Lee thinks the situation has changed and he’s the only person who can properly lead the city over the next four years, he ought to put his name forward.

Right now, though, he’s allowing the “draft Ed Lee” movement to get out of control.

Chinatown powerbroker Rose Pak and political consultant Enrique Pierce (who runs the clearly misnamed Left Coast Campaigns and loves to tout his progressive credentials) have set up an office, are raising money, and have hatched this plan to get Lee to agree to put his name on the ballot and not actively campaign.

The operation — which, let’s remember, carries Ed Lee’s name on it — has already run afoul of the law. The Ethics Commission — hardly an aggressive political watchdog — says the campaign had improperly filed as a political action committee. That’s not Lee’s fault — he has nothing to do with this. But it already taints his reputation.

Lee, by all accounts, has done a far better job with the budget than his immediate predecessor. He’s actually been talking to people. He listens; he accepts logic; he tries to make thing work. I admit, the bar is pretty low — Gavin Newsom was a complete asshole. Still: Lee’s a decent guy.

But he has some heavy political baggage — and most of it has to do with his connections to sleazy operators like Pak and Willie Brown. As long as he’s linked to people who treat campaign finance laws, lobbying rules, and political ethics with disdain bordering on hostility, he’s going to have trouble keeping the public trust.

And right now, those same people are raising money — money that is already being spent on a political campaign — and the noncandidate is letting it happen.

Run if you want, Ed. But if you’re going to keep your promise, then it’s time to call Pak, Pierce and company and tell them to quit.

Editor’s notes



I heard Phil Ginsburg, the head of the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks, on KQED’s Forum June 13, talking about the state of the public parks, and he got the usual angry calls. One person wanted to know why it costs so much to play on the city’s ball fields. Another wanted to know why the city is working with a private foundation to put artificial turf and big lights out at the end of Golden Gate Park. (I still don’t understand why the baseball field at Holly Park is always — always — locked and nobody seems to be allowed to play on it at all. Except the people who jump the fence. Not that my kids and I would know anything about that.)

Ginsburg did his best to duck and weave and answer — and portray this as a tough situation with a lack of public resources. But what he didn’t say is that the overall mission of the department has changed over the past few years. Dramatically. And it follows an alarming national trend that, ironically, started right here in San Francisco, with the Presidio National Park.

When the Sixth Army moved out of the Presidio and the land reverted to the National Park Service, Republicans in Congress threatened to sell it off. The NPS was short of money to develop and maintain the place, so Rep. Nancy Pelosi came up with a plan. She turned the park into a semiprivate enclave run by a board of real-estate developers with a mandate to become economically self-sufficient. Step one: give that notable Marin County pauper George Lucas a $50 million tax break to build a commercial office building in the middle of a national park.

It was a terrible precedent. Public parks aren’t supposed to be money-making enterprises. But it took hold — and now Ginsburg is following the same model.

Rec and Parks these days is all about commercialization. The recreation centers are leased to private operations. More and more park space is going to private food vendors. The Stowe Lake concession is set to become an upscale café (run by an out-of-town outfit). The City Fields Foundation, run by the sons of Gap Inc. founder Don Fisher, is taking over soccer fields. It costs money for tourists to visit the arboretum.

I know: there’s no cash, the city’s broke, and Ginsburg says this is the only way to keep the department running. But it’s really dangerous — because once you treat the public commons as a commodity, you’ve crossed a line. And it’s hard to go back.

Editor’s Notes



Three weeks before the June 25-26 Pride Weekend — which is the unofficial opening of the official fall mayoral race — there are two front-runners: state Sen. Leland Yee and Sup. John Avalos.

I’m not saying either is going to win. Things change quickly in this town. We don’t even know for sure if the incumbent, Ed Lee, is going to be in the final scrum.

But here’s what we do know: Yee and Avalos — right now, today — are doing the things they need to do to emerge from a crowded pack. And the others are either hanging back or flailing around.

Avalos had more than 400 people at his kickoff. State Assemblymember Tom Ammiano was there to endorse him. He’s got window signs all over the east side of town. He’s showing momentum, energy; he’s on track to solidify the progressive base and start moving west. He has agreed to cosponsor the mayor’s pension reform plan (but only if SEIU Local 1021 gets the amendments the union wants).

Yee has figured out a very smart strategy: He realizes that he’s already got name recognition and a west-side base, that he’s never going to get the support of the Chinatown establishment (powerbroker Rose Pak hates him), and that he’s one of at least five candidates fighting over the center. So he’s trying to grab a share of the left.

Yee’s people were thrilled that he and Avalos got the Sierra Club. The more groups that endorse the two together (in any order), the more Yee becomes associated with the progressive standard-bearer. And the more second-place votes he gets on the left. (Don’t kid yourself; this race may well come down to who gets second-place votes on the left.)

And Sup. David Chiu just gave Yee a great big gift. Chiu defied every single tenant group in town and became the swing vote in favor of the Parkmerced project. Now the tenants are pissed — and you know Yee is going to try to take advantage of it.

The frustrating part of that scenario is that Yee was never a good tenant vote when he was a supervisor. That’s his Achilles’ heel on the left — but it’s old history, and the anger at Chiu is here today.

Would Chiu be a better mayor for tenants than Yee? Quite possibly. Is any tenant group thinking that right now? No.

Chiu’s in a tricky spot. He’s trying to be the centrist progressive — and that’s a hard thing to sell to either the center (where he’s one of five candidates) or the left (where Yee is edging him out in cozying up to Avalos).

City Attorney Dennis Herrera hasn’t recovered from the political consultant lobbying mess (not a new story, he’s hardly the only, or even remotely, the worst offender, but damn, it makes him look bad). Former Sup. Bevan Dufty’s doing great at the candidate forums but doesn’t have a breakout move. Assessor Phil Ting is awfully quiet.

It’s only June. But it won’t be “only” anything much longer.

Editor’s notes



When Cornel West blasted President Obama May 16 in an interview with the website Truthdig, it set off a pretty wild debate on the left. For the most part, it’s been more heat than light (imagine that happening on the left!), but it raises a crucial question about the role progressives play in the Democratic Party — particularly in the 2012 election season.

The best analysis so far comes from Robert Cruikshank, who writes for the blog Calitics. In a May 23 piece, he noted that the right keeps winning battles because the conservatives know how to play coalition politics:

“Conservative communication discipline is enabled only by the fact that everyone in the coalition knows they will get something for their participation…. Everyone knows they will get their turn. Why would someone who is primarily motivated by a desire to outlaw abortion support an oil company that wants to drill offshore? Because the anti-choicers know that in a few weeks, the rest of the coalition will unite to defund Planned Parenthood. And a few weeks after that, everyone will come together to appease Wall Street and the billionaires by fighting Elizabeth Warren. And then they’ll all appease the U.S. Chamber by fighting to break a union.”

Not so with the Democratic Party under Obama. The Wall Street Democrats (the neoliberals, the DLC types, and the power-at-any-price folks) get their way all the time. And those us of who consider ourselves part of the economic left (also known as progressives) not only get thrown under the bus — we see our existing gains rolled back, in exchange for nothing.

Sure, we all agree on a lot of social issues. The neolibs and the progressives support abortion rights and gays in the military and, for the most part, same-sex marriage. We agree that evolution is science and creation is religion.

But on basic economic issues — who pays the taxes, who gets the money, military spending vs. education spending, radical inequality, concentration of wealth, corporate power — we might as well be on different political planets. And while we’re the most active, hard-working members of the Democratic coalition, we get completely ignored on national policy.

Obama ought to be worried — not just by West’s criticism (any president ought to expect some allies to be pissed off) but by the fact that he has created an unsustainable coalition. And some of the San Francisco politicians who call themselves progressives ought to be paying attention too: When your political partners get nothing, they eventually walk. 


Editor’s notes



When California Senate President Darrel Steinberg introduced a bill this spring that would allow local government agencies to impose a wide range of new taxes, I didn’t think anyone would take it seriously (including the author). It seemed, unfortunately, to be a piece of political theater and possibly some high-stakes poker. With a simple majority vote, the Democrats could infuriate Republicans by finding a back-door way to raise taxes. Maybe that would bring the recalcitrant, obstructionist GOP to the budget table.

Instead, an amazing thing has happened: SB653 is moving forward, and community groups, politicians, and the news media are all getting involved in a critical debate: how should a state with almost 40 million people whose representatives can’t even agree on a basic vision for anything be managed and governed?

Gov. Jerry Brown, in one of his populist streaks, says he wants government to be closer to the people — that is, let local agencies run things. That runs counter to the liberal agenda of the past half-century or so, a time when the federal government stepped in to ensure civil rights in the South, the state government stepped in to mandate educational equality, and all of us wanted to be sure that poor areas got their share of the social wealth. Segregationists wanted “states rights.” Rich conservatives wanted local control over school funding.

But the world goes around and around, and the reality on the ground and in the political air changes, and these days the crucial issue, the defining issue, in the United States is wealth inequality and taxation — and the hard-right GOP has a stranglehold on both Washington and Sacramento. Meanwhile, cities are leading the way on civil rights issues — San Francisco, for example, defied both state and federal law to allow same-sex marriage and continues to fight for a saner immigration policy, even if that means opting out of a federal law-enforcement program.

The San Francisco Chronicle ran an editorial May 15 opposing SB653, arguing that it will benefit wealthier counties (which, oddly enough these days, elect pro-tax Democrats) at the expense of poorer counties (which elect conservative Republicans). That may be true, but there’s another way to look at it.

I’m not suggesting that the state cut spending in rural and low-income areas, and neither is Steinberg. The idea is that the state’s support for local government should be a floor — a solid floor — but not a ceiling. I’m fine with some of my tax money going to areas with a lower tax base and serious economic problems, even if the people who live there elect Neanderthals to the state Legislature. But if those of us in more liberal communities want to pay more for better services, why shouldn’t we have that option?

And if some of us think this state is too big to govern anymore and ought to be split up anyway, this seems an excellent way to start having that discussion. 


Editor’s notes



I’m tired of stories about poor San Francisco landlords. Because residential landlords in San Francisco have a great gig — and almost none have any right to complain about it.

The latest tale appeared in The New York Times May 1, with a longer version in the Bay Citizen the same day. It involves Wayne Koniuk, who owns a building on Divisadero Street. He has a shop where he makes prosthetic devices and two units upstairs.

Koniuk inherited the building from his father. He cleared out one of the units and moved in one of his sons. Now he wants to evict the tenant in the remaining unit — Robert Murphy, a senior citizen and retired union worker living on a fixed income — so he can move in his other son. Turns out that’s not easy. Koniuk is upset, and the Times presents his case: after all, Koniuk owns the building. Why can’t his children live there?

It’s an interesting question that drives a lot of passions in this town (the Bay Citizen has almost 100 comments on the story; my blog post on the subject has 65). And it gets to the heart of what rent control and regulations on property and land use are about.

See, by law — and public policy — the fact that Koniuk owns the building and Murphy rents is largely irrelevant. A long-term tenant in a protected class (in this case, someone over 60) who pays the rent on time every month and has created no nuisance has a right to stay there, except in limited circumstances. Yes, that’s an infringement on the “ownership” right of the landlord — but those rights are already strictly limited. I own a house — but not the right to demolish it, or the right to build a second unit in the basement and rent it out, or the right to add three stories to the top, or the right to turn it into a gas station or a Burger King. I knew those things when I bought the place — and if I didn’t, I should have. In San Francisco — a dense city with tight zoning laws and a legally certified housing crisis — property owners have limited rights.

They also have low property taxes (under Prop. 13), and the value of their investments keeps rising. Not a bad deal at all.

When you buy, or inherit, a building with a tenant who qualifies for protection under the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance, you don’t have the right to raise the rent more than a certain percentage every year. And you don’t have the right to evict the person, except for what the law calls just cause. (Just cause, by the way, typically does allow eviction to move in a relative — but it’s harder if you’ve already done one such eviction and if the tenant is a senior or disabled.)

Koniuk has a place to live (in Belmont); both his sons have places to live. They are, by definition, better off than Murphy, who is facing the prospect of no place to live at all. I’m not shedding any tears for the poor landlord. 


Editor’s notes



I heard a retired Army officer, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, on the radio May 2 talking about the death of Osama bin Laden. Great news, he said, with all sincerity; now we can end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, stop wasting all this money, and bring the troops home.

That would nice, wouldn’t it?

But don’t start counting on an end to the wars, an end to the deaths of U.S. troops, or an end to an $881 billion defense budget (up from $300 billion in 1980 and $311 billion in 2000) or a significant change in our national priorities.

The truth is, Osama bin Laden wasn’t a factor in the invasion of Iraq. He wasn’t there; Saddam Hussein didn’t like him anyway. He was probably in Afghanistan for a while, but by the time we got mired in that quagmire, he’d moved on to Pakistan, which is supposedly our ally in the war on terror. That’s where he was running his operations, and that’s where he died.

The invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with terrorism. The war in Afghanistan might at some point have been related, but it’s not any more. The U.S. did the exact worst thing you can do in a military adventure: sent in troops with no way out.

Maybe Obama will now find the courage to say what he should have said the day he took office: we no longer have any strategic or national security interest in occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. Time to cut our losses, bring the troops home, put some of that money into the civilian economy, and deal with the real threat to American democracy — the horribly uneven distribution of wealth and power in this country.

Maybe the Democrats in Washington will show some backbone and start cutting the defense budget. Let the Republicans justify a continued war that their guy, Bush the Younger, insisted was about al Qaeda. Let them explain why we have to keep troops on the ground now that the head of al Qaeda’s gone. Let them explain why that’s more important than Medicare and Social Security.

But I’m not placing any bets.

I was a strong supporter of Obama. But when I saw hundreds of people partying and dancing in the middle of Valencia Street on election night, I had a bad feeling that this was going to end with an ugly hangover.

So I’m not dancing in the streets about the death of Osama bin Laden. I’ll save that for the day when the last American soldiers leave Iraq and Afghanistan and the military budget comes back to earth.

Editor’s notes



The candidates for mayor of San Francisco are already lining up endorsements — the Sierra Club held its interviews April 23, which seems awfully early to me, since some of the most interesting contenders in this town (Tom Ammiano, Matt Gonzalez) have a tendency to jump in at the last minute. And the filing deadline isn’t until August.

But the sooner the big names and organizations are lined up and the money is locked in, the harder it will be for anyone to pull off an August surprise. So unless the redistricting commission seriously messes with Mark Leno’s state Senate seat or Ed Lee bows to the pressure from Willie Brown, Rose Pak, and their allies and decides to go back on his promise and seek a full term, we’re probably looking at a rough approximation of what the voters will face in November.

With John Avalos in the race, the ballot’s become a lot more attractive to progressives. It’s not as if the other major candidates don’t have a lot to offer, and in some cases, they have a lot to offer to the left. There are smart, experienced, qualified people running.

But let’s be honest here: David Chiu, Dennis Herrera, Phil Ting, Leland Yee, and Bevan Dufty all operate somewhere in the squishy political center, a place where tax breaks for corporations are okay, where “homeownership opportunities” tend to trump the needs of tenants, where deals with big private developers are sculpted around the edges but never rejected outright, and where cuts in services are a larger part of the budget solution than taxes on the rich.

Michela Alioto-Pier is off on the far right of the San Francisco political world, and if she looks at all credible and gets any significant traction (and that’s a big if) she’ll be downtown’s favorite candidate. But until now, there was nobody holding the solid progressive banner.

I don’t think that means Avalos’ appeal is limited to the left; he’s in a swing district, and he’s very popular there, and he can talk about small business and community development and open, honest government. He doesn’t sound like a crazy radical; he’s polite and respectful and listens to people.

But I’m glad we have a candidate who won’t try to argue that 25 percent affordable housing at Treasure Island is something to be proud of, or that the Twitter tax break will create jobs, or that social inequality can’t be addressed through local policy. I’m glad there’s someone who can push the discussion and debate out of the middle, can force some of the others who want progressive support to take strong stands, and can liven things up a bit. Because without him, all of the candidates were sounding a lot alike — and I really don’t want to be bored this fall.

Editor’s notes



You lose a lot on the left. We all get used to it; we’re fighting against a rich, entrenched power structure and the rules of the game are rigged against us. For people in the labor movement, it’s been a particularly bad year; all over the country, politicians are looking for ways to undermine collective bargaining rights.

So it’s nice to win one every now and then — and it’s nice to be able to say that labor, progressive labor, just won a major victory in San Francisco. But it’s no surprise that the San Francisco Chronicle got the story wrong.

For several years now, the owners of the Fairmont Hotel have wanted to tear down a tower built in the 1960s, eliminate 226 hotel rooms, and build about 160 luxury condos instead. The hotel workers union, not surprisingly, worried about a loss of jobs; condo owners don’t use housekeeping. But it’s a larger issue than that: people who buy hotel condos don’t live there much. Most of the rooms that have been converted nationwide become pieds à terre for very wealthy people. They spend a few nights a year in their units; the rest of the time, the places are empty. Nobody there to shop, eat, or get entertained in SF; nobody spending money here.

So it’s a nice little bit of class warfare: The city loses hotel and restaurant jobs — and part of the city’s tourist infrastructure — so that the owners (including a Saudi prince and Oakland A’s owner Lou Wolff) can make a fast windfall profit. (Think $1 million to $2 million each for 160 condos and you get the picture.)

The owners hired Willie Brown to make their case at City hall; Mayor Ed Lee quickly introduced legislation that would allow the conversion. The Chron picked up the ownership line: only condos can save the Fairmont. “The business has migrated downhill to new hotels near the Moscone Convention Center south of Market,” the paper lamented in an April 17 editorial. Done deal, right?

Well, no. Local 2, the hotel workers union, did an amazing job of organizing, working with Nob Hill neighbors and, by the way, pointing out the facts — the Fairmont has outperformed the SoMa hotels during 10 of the past 11 years, has enviable occupancy rates and stands to reap the benefits of the America’s Cup. Facing a possible strike and a battle royal at City Hall, the Fairmont blinked. The condo plan is dead. Good work, my friends. 


Editor’s notes



Does anybody else feel as if the whole country is collapsing around us?

I mean, I’m not an apocalypse fan. I remember when Ronald Reagan was elected and we had a big meeting at the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, where I worked, and a lot of people were on the edge of a serious panic, and Miles Rapoport, the staff director, told us all to calm down: the organization, and our work, would survive. So would the nation. I spent a lot of time with serious anarchist types in the 1980s, and I never really bought the notion that the revolution was at hand (alas, it was not) or that the United States of America and the corporate world order were on the brink of collapse (alas, again).

I think I slept through the great Harmonic Convergence on Aug. 17, 1987 (“the point at which the counterspin of history finally comes to a momentary halt”) and I’m not terribly concerned about the Mayan calendar.

But I’m getting so I wake up every morning these days asking myself exactly what the fuck is going on.

I called my old friend Calvin Welch the other day to talk about the San Francisco mayor’s race, and when I asked him how he was doing, he told me: “Well, other than the fact that America is falling apart everywhere I look, I’m doing fine.” And he’s not any crazier than me.

It’s funny. I never felt as nervous about the state of the nation under Reagan or Bush as I’m feeling right now under President Obama. And I wasn’t as scared about California when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor as I am now, with Jerry Brown in charge.

Not that Reagan and Bush weren’t far, far worse, or that Brown isn’t doing a decent job, all thing considered. But when our folks are in charge — decent, smart folks who, for all their flaws, have essentially decent ideas about politics and humanity — and they can’t seem to make anything better … I guess that’s when I start to wonder if anyone can.

I’m not one to make sweeping generalizations (well, not usually), but in 2011, the country, and the state, are being run by a handful of bullies. They’re wrecking the economy, wrecking the schools, wrecking the future — and nobody seems to be able to stand up to them. And even this diehard optimist is starting to wonder when it will ever end.

Editor’s notes



The American environmental movement emerged out of the late 1800s, when a few visionaries like Gifford Pinchot, John Muir, and Teddy Roosevelt decided that America’s mad rush to tame the wilderness and conquer the continent from sea to shining sea had gone too far. They weren’t always in synch, the early conservationists — Muir thought wilderness should be left alone, and Pinchot, the first director of the National Forest Service, thought forests should be managed to improve the lives of people. But the early battles all followed a basic underlying theme: it was about taking land out of private hands and putting it into the public sector.

They didn’t always talk about it that way, but when you follow the great philosophical and political arguments of the day, that’s what it came down to. The mining, logging, and ranching interests (and land speculators, like Pinchot’s father) wanted the federal government to keep its nose out of the great forests, plains, mountains, and deserts. Roosevelt realized that the only way the land would be preserved for future generations was to nationalize it — and he fought mightily to do it. (In 1907, Roosevelt designated 16 million acres of land as national forests minutes before Congress voted to suspend all future acquisitions.)

That’s something the modern environmental movement has lost sight of in the past couple of decades. Some major enviro groups in California supported energy deregulation in the 1990s, arguing that the private sector could do a better job of managing sustainable electricity generation (that worked out well). Respected green leaders like Adam Werbach argue that they can convince giant corporations to make the planet more sustainable. When you hear about solar energy projects at the governmental level these days, the discussion is all about public-private partnerships.

Now, I’m not going to argue that all business is evil, or that there’s no way to combine profit and environmental consciousness. But in the end, economist Robert Reich is correct: private corporations are accountable to their shareholders and the bottom line — not to the public good. That’s how it’s always going to be.

Which means that, in the end, saving the planet is going to be a public-sector responsibility. It’s going to be about strict regulations, about public control of essential resources, about changing the way we think about energy (it’s now a commodity to be sold instead of a public service), and about maintaining and increasing the amount of land that’s permanently owned and operated by the public.

That’s my message for Earth Day 2011.


Editor’s Notes



The San Francisco City Planning Department is revising its housing plan, and there’s a lot of indignation on the west side of town. See, the Housing Element of the city’s General Plan calls for a little bit of increased density in some of the neighborhoods that have fought density for years.

The unwritten law of San Francisco housing politics is that you don’t even talk about density west of 19th Avenue, and it’s pretty hard to talk about it anywhere beyond the western borders of Districts 3, 5, 8 and 11. So all the new housing gets pushed into the eastern neighborhoods — and all the rational planning people agree that the other side of town should absorb at least some of it. Density doesn’t always mean big, tall buildings, by the way — legalizing in-law units would create more housing, and more density, in single-family-home areas. But you run into the problem of everyone wanting a car — and turning garages into apartments means more cars fighting for that almighty parking space. Housing cars in this town sometimes seems more important than housing people.

So we’re going to hear some squawking — and a lot of it’s going to be misplaced. Because the real issue in the Housing Element isn’t density — it’s affordability.

The city acknowledges, in its own documents, that based on local needs, more than 60 percent of the new housing in the city has to be available at below-market-rate prices. The planners also admit they have no idea how to make that happen:

“The city will not likely see the development 31,000 new units, particularly its affordability goals of creating over 12,000 units affordable to low and very low income levels projected by the [city’s needs assessment] … [But] realizing the city’s housing targets requires tremendous public and private financing, [which] given the state and local economy and private finance conditions, is not likely to be available during the period of this Housing Element.”

Translation: we can’t afford to do what everyone agrees we have to do.

San Francisco city planning has been driven for decades by the needs of the private sector. It’s made good money for the developers (building housing in SF is still highly lucrative). But as public policy, the model has failed.

Until we set clear policies saying that the needs of local residents come first — and that high-end housing isn’t meeting those needs — we’re going to keep living with a serious disconnect.

Editor’s Notes



Calling for painful spending cuts, it turns out, is the easy part. Calling for relatively painless tax increases requires real political courage.

— The New York Times, March 13

The Times is hardly a crazy socialist rag; it’s always been the voice of the establishment, more Democrat than Republican but never even close to radical. The Gray Lady certainly can’t be accused of fomenting class warfare.

But in a calm, measured tone this week, the paper made the exact point about New York State that some of us whose politics lean a bit more to the left have been making about San Francisco.

The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, has presented the state Legislature with an all-cuts budget. The Times suggests that the wealthier residents of the state should share just a small amount of the economic pain. Extending a surtax on high earners would be more than tolerable, the paper notes:

“A couple with $350,000 in taxable income would simply continue to pay an extra $3,500; a couple with taxable income of $1.5 million would continue to pay $31,800 more. Those payments would be more than offset by the federal tax breaks those same taxpayers got with the recent renewal of the Bush-era tax cuts.”

Of course, in New York, as here, those state tax payments are deductible from the already-too-low federal income taxes the rich are paying.

It’s too much to ask that the San Francisco Chronicle pick up that line; the Chron, out here on the Left Coast, is far more conservative than the stodgy old Times. But you’d think that in a city where Republican voter registration is below 10 percent, that local officials — including a mayor who calls himself “progressive” — would be able to go at least as far as a moderate national newspaper.

Because the argument is pretty simple and basic.

Cuts in public services fall hardest on the poor and middle class. Families that can afford to join a private club don’t have to worry when hours at the city pools are cut back; their kids learn to swim anyway. People with good health insurance can try to ignore the conditions at San Francisco General Hospital. Private school parents think the size of classrooms in the public schools isn’t a big factor in their lives.

But it all comes back to haunt us, every one of us, in this city. When the number of beds in General’s psych ward is cut from 80 to 20, more people with severe mental illness are out on the streets. Cutting public schools not only makes class divisions more deeply entrenched, it damages the city’s economy.

As the Times says, painful cuts are easy. Taxing the rich never seems to be on the table

Editor’s Notes



Back in the early 1990s, when the city was hurting for money even more than usual, Sue Hestor, the environmental lawyer who is always full of good ideas, called me up and suggested that the city start charging banks a fee for every storefront ATM. "They have turned the public sidewalks into their bank lobbies," she said. ATMs can lead to congestion and are magnets for crime; why shouldn’t the banks (which made a lot of money replacing human tellers with machines and costly private space with public property) help pay for some of those impacts? After all, banks escaped most local business taxes.

I ran that one up the old flagpole, and got nowhere. Back then, the city attorney was Louise Renne, who wasn’t known for aggressive approaches to revenue generation; she immediately told me it wasn’t legal. Back then, at least nine of the 11 supervisors were guaranteed to vote against anything that would offend big business.

A few years later, Tom Ammiano, who had become the only supervisor serious about brining in new money for San Francisco, suggested that the city put a tiny tax on transactions at the Pacific Stock Exchange. A similar tax in New York City had brought in millions. The exchange quickly marched up to Sacramento and got the state to outlaw the idea.

Down in Los Angeles, they’re trying to put a severance tax on oil production. Great idea. Too bad (not really) we have no oil wells here.

Lots of good ideas. It’s time for some more.

Things in San Francisco are really, really dire, and the district-elected supervisors are far more open to progressive approaches to the budget crisis. And if you’re willing to stipulate — as I am — that San Francisco has a revenue problem as much as a spending problem, and that the rich and big businesses are radically undertaxed, then its time for a comprehensive look at the ways this city might bring in some more money.

There are some nice concepts floating around. David Chiu, the Board of Supervisors president, is talking about reforming the city’s business tax. Sup. John Avalos tried to put a nickel-a-drink impact fee on alcohol wholesalers. Sup. David Campos thinks downtown should help pay for Muni service. I still like the notion of a city income tax.

But what we need is a long list of options — a complete guide to how a charter city and county in California in 2011 is legally allowed to raise money.

Dennis Herrera, the city attorney, is a smart guy; he’s figured out all kinds of ways to use his office to go after polluters, scam artists, and crooks. I suspect that with a bit of a nudge, he could help develop a few dozen legally sound ways to tax the wealthy individuals and institutions. That ought to be priority one for the Budget Committee.

I’m not sure what would work best, and nobody else is either. But we ought to have all the options.

Editor’s Notes



I’ve been trying to think of a good metaphor for the public-employee pension story, a way to explain what’s going on without making it so complicated that it becomes a battle of political slogans. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

Imagine you and your friends all work at a resort hotel, and you’ve been there a while, and you approach the boss and say it’s expensive to live in the area and you want a raise. But your boss isn’t handing out any more cash — he wants to hire his girlfriend for a cush job, and he wants a promotion in the resort chain, so he has to keep the bottom line tight.

But he can’t afford to lose the group of you, so he offers a deal: no raise, but you and your coworkers can eat lunch free at the resort restaurant. It’s a painless offer for him; the restaurant is booming, so much cash coming in that nobody will notice a few free meals. Still, it’s a benefit you didn’t have, so you accept.

Then a year passes, and resort traffic drops off, and the price of lunch food goes way up, and the guy who handles the books at the restaurant has been skimming and pocketing a big chunk of the proceeds — and suddenly, the free meals aren’t so free for your boss. So he starts pointing fingers at you, telling all the other diners that it’s unfair you get to eat free. The cry goes out: “No free lunch!” He starts to demand that you pay “your fair share.”

Now: you realize like everyone else that the resort is in financial trouble, and you’ve already accepted unpaid overtime and fewer work days. You also realize that a couple of your greedier friends have been taking extra sandwiches home in their pockets and they need to knock it off.

But the huge chain that owns the resort is still doing fine; the percentage profits off the top never change. No cuts there. And your free lunch isn’t “free”; it’s part of your pay. And you suspect that at some point, the economy will pick up and the restaurant will be flush again — and if you give up your benefit now, you’ll wind up with no raise and no lunch either.

But somehow, it’s all your fault. You are the ones bleeding the resort dry.

Look at it that way, and the picture is a little different.

Editor’s Notes



In a heartwarming Valentine’s Day blog, Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, talks about an old cartoon that ran in the 1980s showing Democrats trying to develop a centrist economic policy that cut spending on social programs. “How is this different from Republicans?” one Democrat asks. The answer: “We care about the victims of our policies.”

That, Krugman says, “is pretty much my reaction to the Obama budget.” The president talks about how awful the cuts will be, how programs he cares about will have to go, how painful this all is for him. Not that he’s going to miss any meals or wind up homeless, but whatever: we can all feel his pain.

It’s also pretty much my reaction to The Bay Citizen report that ran in The New York Times Feb. 13 on the pension reform negotiations going on at City Hall and in the office of billionaire financier Warren Hellman.

Hellman, Mayor Ed Lee, Sup. Sean Elsbernd, and some labor leaders are talking about how to avoid another bruising ballot measure fight this fall. Hellman backed off from supporting Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s Proposition B last year after some labor folks convinced him they could come up with a better plan.

Hellman’s new bottom line: the group needs to find between $300 million and $400 million in savings. He is quoted as saying: “I hate that it comes out of the hide” of city workers. “It is going to be really painful.”

Warren Hellman’s not a bad guy. I’ve met him, he’s polite and friendly, sometimes even almost sort of a liberal on some issues, and I think he does feel bad about cutting the pensions of low-level city employees. I even agree with him that the pension system needs reform.

But here’s the problem: nothing ever comes out of the hides of the rich.

Over the past five years, San Francisco has cut hundreds of millions in city spending. City employees have given back many millions more in concessions. Nonprofits have cut back services to the poor, the disabled, the sick.

But we haven’t asked big business and wealthy people to give up anything. Hellman hasn’t had to tighten his belt. Corporate executives in the city still make huge salaries. They’re not closing the swimming pool at the Olympic Club.

I could support pension reform — if Hellman, Elsbernd, and Lee would support tax reform. Then we can all feel each other’s pain. For once.

Editor’s Notes



I had fun with the state budget the other day. The Sacramento Bee has a pretty good online simulation that lets you pick programs to cut and revenues to raise to see if you can get rid of a $26.4 billion deficit, and I gave it a shot. It took me exactly seven minutes to turn the red ink into a $2.1 billion surplus.

See, it’s not that hard. Extend the 2009 tax increases, as Gov. Jerry Brown has suggested. Force multistate corporations to pay taxes based on sales in California. Increase the corporate income tax rate to the same level as the personal income tax rate. Eliminate the Prop. 13 loophole for nonresidential property. Pass an oil severance tax. A few more mouse clicks and bingo: I’ve got $28 billion, without cutting much of anything. (Well, I cut prison spending.)

The lesson you get from playing, of course, is that cuts alone will never do the job; there’s not enough left to cut.

When I finished, I called the office of Asemblymember Connie Conway (R-Tulare). She chairs the Republican Caucus gave the formal GOP response to Brown’s State of the State speech and insisted that new taxes were not acceptable.

Her press spokesperson, Sabrina Lockhart, was very friendly and nice. I told her about the Bee game and asked: If you don’t like Brown’s taxes, what specifically should the state cut?

Lockhart’s response: “Our focus has been on creating jobs to bring in new revenue.”

Okay, I’m for that, too, but let’s be real. Even if 1 million new jobs materialized tomorrow, that wouldn’t bring in enough money this year to balance the budget. Brown’s proposing $12 billion in cuts. If that’s not enough, what else do the Republicans think should go?

Lockhart: “The Republicans are engaged in the subcommittee process and will be reviewing the governor’s proposals.”

But your boss said no taxes, I told her. There are really only two options; taxes or more cuts, right? Am I missing something here?

Lockhart hemmed and hawed for a moment. “That’s why we think job creation has to be a part of this,” she finally said.

Well, I do, too, but it’s just not that simple. If the Republicans don’t want taxes, why won’t they tell us what they want to cut instead? Seriously, what Brown is offering is brutal, bloody — what else would the GOP members put on the chopping block?

Answer: They have no proposals. Nothing at all. Just no new taxes. If I were Jerry Brown, I’d be drinking heavily.

Editor’s Notes


You want a really bleak picture of the politics of California today? Check out the recent comments of Dan Schnur, GOP political consultant and director of the Jesse Unrush Institute for Politics at the University of Southern California.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Schnur discussed the disconnect between image and reality in this state: "Cut $1 billion out of Medi-Cal and most voters won’t notice," he said. "Take away some cell phones and make legislators sit on a picnic bench, and they pay attention."

Yeah, he’s a Republican who worked for the likes of George W. Bush and John McCain, but his point, while politically sick and wrong, is also sadly accurate. How much money will the state save by getting rid of 48,000 cell phones? About $20 million a year. That’s 0.08 percent of the state’s budget shortfall. What did Brown save by replacing a boardroom-style conference table in his office with a glorified picnic table? Probably a few thousand dollars. How much does the state continue to lose every year to the utter waste of corporate tax breaks? How much could we bring in with an oil-severance tax? Well into the multiple billions.

What got all the press? Jerry’s picnic table and cell phone crackdown.

I’m not against either of those moves. In tough times, it’s important to set the standards at the top, and living cheap and avoiding the imperial trappings of public office is a great way to instill voter confidence. And anything Brown can do to convince the voters that he’s serious about cutting waste — and that they can trust him enough with their money that they should vote yes on his tax plan — can only be good.

But it all seems so silly and shallow.

The truth is, when you cut Medi-Cal, people die. You can’t prove that any specific cut killed any individual, and most of them are poor anyway and the major media don’t make a big fuss every time a poor person dies. It’s not as sexy as some Caltrans worker having to give up a cell phone.

I think I’m going to throw up now.

Editor’s Notes



This is how strange things are in the world:

I read a piece on SFGate Jan. 21, by an editor named David Curran, who claimed (in that kind of “wow-I’m-funny” tone) that young people should stop trying to be doctors and college professors. Instead, he says, he wants to “quietly sneak our kids into some midlevel bureaucrat position where they can hang out for decades, get decent vacation, loads of holidays, and, yes, face a few pay cuts and furlough days because in the end they hit the pension jackpot!” Of course, those jobs are easy, since all public employees are stupid and lame: “Whenever the kids take forever to set the table, I get a little angry and they reply, ‘But dad, we’re just getting ready for our future job at the DMV!'”

Three days later, I picked up the Jan. 22 edition of The Economist and read a flattering profile about a group called Tiger 21 — “A self-help group for rich people.”

“Only those with more than $10 million of investable assets are eligible for membership, so no one assumes that, just because you have truckloads of cash, your problems are trivial. Whether you are worried that your kids might turn out like Paris Hilton, or fed up with your brother in law who wants to borrow money for the umpteenth time, someone in the room has faced a similar problem before.”

And The Economist writer wasn’t joking.

I worry so much about the poor rich. I’ve read all those stories about lottery winners who are suddenly miserable, and I think, nah. Long-term unemployment makes you miserable. The prospect of reaching old age in poverty makes you miserable. Being forced into a Medicare nursing home because the visiting nurse who allowed you to be independent lost his job in budget cuts makes you miserable. Dealing with too much money? It’s not the same. It’s really not.

The very rich have problems too, I’m sure — but if I had to choose between cat food and Paris Hilton, I think I could handle Paris just fine.

Or I could just blame all of society’s problems on the folks who work at Caltrans and the DMV. After all, middle class people with pensions that give them a decent retirement are such a burden on society. And such a waste! People who work for the government can’t do anything right. When’s the last time you had a good experience registering your car?

Well, I’ve waited in line at the DMV, and I’ve waited on hold with those efficient private-sector tech companies, and I’ll take the DMV any day. My son just bought a computer game that didn’t load; at 4:02 in the afternoon, I called Electronic Arts tech support, which was supposedly open until 5. At 4:05, I was fifth in the queue; at 4:56, I was second in the queue. At 4:59:57, the line went dead. Sorry, sucker — we close at five.

Comcast: efficient private sector. The wait to exchange your cable box when it doesn’t work is far, far worse than anything any government bureaucracy has ever thrown at me.

Somehow, somebody’s missing the point here.