Editor’s Notes

Pub date December 10, 2008
WriterTim Redmond

› Tredmond@sfbg.com

Muni is heading for a hiring freeze and delaying system improvements at the same time that Mayor Gavin Newsom says this is "not a time to raise fees and taxes on business." The head of the California High-Speed Rail Authority is fighting with the head of the Transbay Terminal project over money to extend train tracks downtown. The United States of America is bailing out car companies that have been fighting for years against tougher emissions standards and still can’t seem to make fuel-efficient vehicles. And we’re all worried about global warming and a deepening recession.

I’m not getting this.

Historians and economists can argue forever about the causes of the Great Depression, but most people agree about what brought it to an end: massive, over-the-top levels of public spending. Huge investments in infrastructure. Huge investments in employment programs.

Tax cuts didn’t end the Depression. Government layoffs and belt-tightening didn’t end the Depression. Under President Roosevelt, the government taxed and spent, borrowed and spent — and spent and spent and spent — starting with the New Deal and continuing through the gigantic reindustrialization of America known as World War II. And money went into things that actually created jobs — in many cases, public-sector jobs.

So now we’re in a period where San Francisco, California, and the nation desperately need new infrastructure . We need to shift, fairly radically, away from a car-based transportation system to one based on energy-efficient transit, particularly trains. We need to profoundly shift the electricity grid, away from nuclear and fossil fuels (and away from private control). All these things create jobs. It’s kind of a no-brainer.

California just approved $9.9 billion in bonds for a high-speed rail system between San Francisco and Los Angeles. But even that money isn’t going to be enough, and progress is going to be slow. Take 1/10th of the $800 billion the federal government is putting into propping up big banks and spend it on an emergency plan to build high-speed rail all the way from Seattle to San Diego, and imagine how many jobs that would produce. Jobs for planners, engineers, accountants, office-support people, steel fabrication, construction work, heavy equipment operators … jobs for college grads, jobs for high school grads, union jobs, steady jobs, jobs that train people for other jobs –tens of thousands of them.

Take another 10 percent of that and spend it building solar panels on every public building on the West Coast. Again: jobs of every sort, at every level. Mandate that all the work gets done in America, and you’ll develop an entire new industry or two (we don’t build trains in this country much, but we could, and we already have auto workers and factories that are about to be idled).

I hear some talk about this from the Obama administration, but I also hear some caution and some discussion about budget deficits and keeping the financial sector happy. Fact: the financial sector will be happy when a few million more people are working and spending money. That’s where the economy starts.

I just watched all 34 minutes of the economic segment of Newsom’s state-of-the-city YouTube extravaganza. In and around the rhetoric, he devoted a few moments to the city’s budget deficit and how he was going to institute a hiring freeze, lay off workers and consolidate departments. All wrong.

In fact, this is an excellent time to raise taxes and fees — on the rich, the well-off commuters, the big businesses, the billionaires … Shifting wealth from the top to the bottom, creating public sector jobs in the process, is an fine recipe for economic stimulus. At every level of government.