San Francisco needs a New Deal

Pub date November 25, 2008
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

By Christopher D. Cook and Eric Quezada

OPINION On the night the voters spoke, word began filtering through Palm Pilots and iPhones about sweeping budget cuts likely to carve a hole in vital city programs. It’s ugly: massive cuts to the Department of Public Health and numerous social service programs. As usual, programs helping those most in need are getting cut the most. Why aren’t we instead raising revenue from those who have the most?

In this year of "change," we need a fundamental shift in our city’s taxing and spending priorities — a bold New Deal for San Francisco that enlarges the public pie that everyone’s scuffling over, and that creates green jobs and new housing opportunities targeting poor neighborhoods and districts.

It’s time to get serious about taxing and redistributing wealth to stimulate new economic opportunities. The passage of Propositions N and Q — expanding real estate transfer and payroll taxes — is a good start. We need to tax wealth in new ways that replenish the local economy, creating green living-wage jobs with health care and opportunities for small businesses and community-serving groups.

City leaders can make San Francisco a model of good sense by demanding that our wealthiest citizens and corporations help fund a program that creates jobs and economic opportunity for the rest of us. Particularly in the city’s eastern neighborhoods, Districts 9, 10, and 11 (and parts of 6), poverty and economic stress are rampant and families are pressed to their limits — unable to afford health care, working multiple jobs, living in overcrowded apartments, and often in shamefully dilapidated housing conditions.

With home prices declining but rents and foreclosures skyrocketing, the city needs to help thousands of working-class residents who provide vital services — teachers, service-industry workers, and cash-poor immigrants — to remain in San Francisco. Now is the time to prioritize production, public infrastructure, education, and cooperation for the common good; our economy needs a stimulus based on solidarity and collective good.

We’re being presented with false scarcity and false choices — do we cut housing or health care to meet the budget? Few are asking the key question: why don’t we have more money to work with, in this vastly wealthy region?

In an earlier New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt imposed a 90 percent tax on upper income brackets — making it virtually illegal for people to earn so much more than others. Locally, city leaders should explore a gross receipts tax on large firms; new taxes on luxury and high-priced items, such as SUVs, second homes, yachts, and other extravagances; perhaps revive the push for a downtown business tax levied on large firms in the financial district; and a truly progressive income tax harnessing revenues from high-income folks.

People can argue over where the money should go. But it’s brutally clear we are in an age of deepening inequality, widening economic stress, and environmental limits. There’s no room for huge disparities — no room to continue allowing extra-wealthy individuals and corporations to consolidate their gains at the expense of the rest of us. We must renew the fight for public wealth — now. *

Journalist and author Christopher D. Cook is a former Guardian city editor, and a local activist. Contact him at Eric Quezada is executive director of Dolores Street Community Services, and was recently a candidate for District 9 supervisor.