Editor’s Notes

Pub date November 21, 2007
WriterTim Redmond

› tredmond@sfbg.com

Sup. Aaron Peskin hates billboards, and mostly I agree with him — the whole damn world feels like a commercial these days, and it’s nice to be able to walk around a few parts of the city and not be surrounded by giant illuminated ads. But as Election Day approached this fall, I felt like something was missing from San Francisco.

October in this city used to mean brightly colored campaign festoonery on lampposts, utility poles … anywhere anyone could legally stick a sign promoting or attacking a candidate or ballot measure. Yeah, it got a bit ugly, and yeah, it was one more way that people with money were able to get their message out and get a leg up on the people who weren’t well funded. And it was always a mess in late November, when the campaigns conveniently forgot to take their posters down. But it also, I think, served to remind everyone that an election was coming up.

That doesn’t matter so much when the office of the president of the United States is on the ballot, because most people at least know that’s going on. But this year only about 30 percent of voters bothered to go to the polls — and since San Francisco has elections at least twice per year and not all of them feature a high-profile race, it’s not a bad idea to do something festive to get everybody thinking about them.

So while I didn’t oppose Peskin’s ordinance banning campaign signs on public property, I’m thinking maybe we should modify it a bit. I’m not sure exactly how; maybe we set aside a small amount of money from the public campaign fund and give local artists modest grants to come up with wild and colorful posters announcing the election and encouraging people to vote. We let churches and nonprofits hang signs celebrating anniversaries and special events — why not public art celebrating our semiannual bout of obsessive democracy?

Just a thought.

And here’s another:

I have friends who are employed in the world of philanthropy (that is, they either administer grants or seek them), and we were all complaining the other day about how people like Bill Gates get to set international health policy. When Gates decides something’s a problem, it suddenly has vast resources — and his opinion about world health isn’t always shared by experts in the field.

In a better world we would tax Gates and Microsoft at a level that would provide adequate resources for our elected representatives to make choices about global problems, but these days the rich don’t pay taxes yet they can set policy. So I had a suggestion:

What if Gates decided to give, say, a billion dollars to some needy urban public school district? I don’t know — Detroit or Jackson, Miss., … or San Francisco. My friends, who understand how these things work, said I was nuts; much of that money would immediately be lost to corruption.

Maybe — but what if it weren’t a lump sum? What if the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation just doubled the annual budget of the San Francisco Unified School District for the next 10 years? What if the "project," so to speak, was to demonstrate how effective the public sector can be at educating kids if the resources are available?

And maybe after 10 years the Gates folks could do a massive public relations campaign and people would realize that higher taxes for public schools might make for a better society.

Happy Thanksgiving. *