One of the first blog posts I ever did was about ‘Skybox Politics’ (I have it archived, but the Armed Liberal site isn’t up…) – I wrote about a bunch of lefty UC Berkeley student government types who wanted to close a cooperatively-owned bicycle shop in the student union so they could put a small electronics store in instead and raise the rent – so they could fund more progressive activism. I called them ‘Skybox Liberals.’
California is full of them, and we’re seeing the result in the disaster that is our state’s government. Note that to me this isn’t an indictment of liberalism = the folks running the bicycle co-op were admirable liberals of a type we need a lot more of these days. It’s an indictment of a certain mindset.
Well, I ran into a terrific indictment of that mindset – one that boiled it, skinned it, and nails it to the wall – in the SFGate, where Benjamin Wachs and Joe Eskenazi just get out the big hammer and lay into San Francisco’s government. They open:
Despite its good intentions, San Francisco is not leading the country in gay marriage. Despite its good intentions, it is not stopping wars. Despite its spending more money per capita on homelessness than any comparable city, its homeless problem is worse than any comparable city’s. Despite its spending more money per capita, period, than almost any city in the nation, San Francisco has poorly managed, budget-busting capital projects, overlapping social programs no one is certain are working, and a transportation system where the only thing running ahead of schedule is the size of its deficit.
It’s time to face facts: San Francisco is spectacularly mismanaged and arguably the worst-run big city in America. This year’s city budget is an astonishing $6.6 billion – more than twice the budget for the entire state of Idaho – for roughly 800,000 residents. Yet despite that stratospheric amount, San Francisco can’t point to progress on many of the social issues it spends liberally to tackle – and no one is made to answer when the city comes up short.
Because it’s only superficially about good intentions. At root, it’s about power and money. The nomenklatura get the power…
This city is a mecca for people in search of a government handout that they can hand out. According to a 2009 analysis, San Francisco spends around 41 percent of its discretionary budget – about half a billion dollars – on nonprofits, mostly to provide social services for the poor, homeless, elderly, and others.
Many cities contract with nonprofits because it’s cheaper than using city workers. Government is now paying the tab for services that used to be undertaken by families, churches – or, frankly, no one. But a 2009 University of San Francisco study notes that this city is to nonprofits what New York is to big musicals: “Per capita expenditures by operating nonprofits in San Francisco are almost double that of the rest of the Bay Area, and more than twice that found in Los Angeles or [the whole of] California.”
We want the services. We’re willing to pay for them, if they lead to good results. Yet whether our gargantuan investment is paying off is a question no one has an answer to. Hardly anyone even bothers to check. As far as much of the city is concerned, ignorance is bliss.
In 2007, the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) held a seminar for the nonprofits vying for a piece of $78 million in funding. Grant seekers were told that in the next funding cycle, they would be required – for the first time – to provide quantifiable proof their programs were accomplishing something.
The room exploded with outrage. This wasn’t fair. “What if we can bring in a family we’ve helped?” one nonprofit asked. Another offered: “We can tell you stories about the good work we do!” Not every organization is capable of demonstrating results, a nonprofit CEO complained. He suggested the city’s funding process should actually penalize nonprofits able to measure results, so as to put everyone on an even footing. Heads nodded: This was a popular idea.
There are two lessons here. First, many San Francisco nonprofits believe they’re entitled to money without having to prove that their programs work. Second, until 2007, the city agreed.
…and the politically omnipotent public sector unions get the money…
The then-president of the Board of Supervisors had proposed sweeping Muni reforms to get the transit system running on time and on budget. National transit experts said Peskin’s proposal was solid; it was later approved by the voters in 2007 as Proposition A. Since then, Muni has slashed services and raised fares, and is facing a bigger budget crisis. That shouldn’t have been a surprise – Muni reform started unraveling on that June day, when dozens of transit union workers “testified” in front of the Rules Committee.
Job protection for even the most obviously unfit Muni workers is among the strongest in the city. Peskin had proposed increasing the percentage of employees who could be fired for incompetence from 1.5 to 10 percent. But if that provision were included in the measure, union reps said, they would flood the “No on A” campaign with money and volunteers. “This is a union town,” one transit worker warned. “And we expect it to stay that way.”
Peskin caved. He had to. This is a union town. You can’t reform the city charter without winning an election; winning an election requires union support; and unions – almost by definition – don’t want major reform. It would be a paradox – but that would contravene a number of union bylaws.
Now what this represents – written small – is the process that’s going on in government throughout the country. We’re looting the money we should be spending on core services – infrastructure, libraries, schools – and spending it on a political class and their dependents.
In 2002, the San Francisco Chronicle revealed that the city had, for decades, been siphoning nearly $700 million from its Hetch Hetchy water system into the San Francisco General Fund instead of maintaining the aging aqueduct. Several mayors and boards of supervisors used that money to fund pet causes, and the Public Utilities Commission didn’t say no. Unfortunately, spending maintenance money elsewhere doesn’t diminish the need for maintenance. By 2002, the water system was in such desperate condition that voters were asked to pass a $3.6 billion bond measure to make overdue fixes. Obligingly, they did – who doesn’t like water? Since then, the projected costs have swelled by $1 billion. So far.
We’ve chronically underfunded maintenance on infrastructure in order to pay exorbitant public-sector salaries, high costs for nonprofits and costs for NGO’s who are great at manipulating funding systems, and possibly less great at actually delivering the services they are contracted for.
Who gets screwed in this?
Well, the taxpayers, obviously. That’s why we’re having tea parties, and why the independent cube-dwelling middle class is so pissed off. The roads are falling apart, the schools are overcrowded and in disrepair, the water systems are failing – and yet the high taxes they pay aren’t ever enough and we need to borrow and tax more.
And – especially galling for me – the poor and dependent, who really should be getting services, who really do need libraries and transit services and good social services.
And that’s what pisses me off. Because what we’re doing is essentially stealing from the defenseless; and worse what we’re doing is discrediting al government spending – making it impossible for even necessary and legitimate government services to argue for funds.
Look, I’m fully aware of “don’t tax you, don’t tax me, let’s tax the fellow over behind the tree” and the problem it presents.
But those of us who argue that government has an important role need – at some point – to break through this and make it clear that government can deliver the goods to those who are supposed to get them – not just to those whose hands they pass through.