San Francisco has no excuses for not solving its problems

Some politicians talk about a “city on a hill” as an example to others; San Francisco is a city on many gorgeous hills, but few cities could emulate its success. photo: fred hsu

A company I know of recently moved into smaller office space. Through a Byzantine process of internal politics and negotiation and grandstanding, most departments ended up with less space, fewer offices, and more shared space. But one department, headed by a friend of mine, got bigger space, more offices, and even where its members had to share space, they got prime locations with bigger desks. Despite all of that, not everything was to his liking; but I stopped my friend early on when he was complaining. I told him that everyone else is worse off than his department, and it behooves him to recognize that no one will sympathize with his complaints. No one will care that the butler failed to properly iron your newspaper this morning.

On an urban scale, think about this city in which we live. It is — no boosterism intended here — an amazing place. Beautiful location. Great weather. Booming economy. Well-educated population. Vibrant cultural and artistic life. A large and growing city budget, with generous social welfare and arts programs. Yet your 15-minute commute home took 90 minutes yesterday because Muni’s trains are too few, too crowded, and the one in the tube ahead of yours broke down so you had to switch to an above-ground bus, which took forever because everyone else had the same idea and the buses were timed 30 minutes apart. Your car windows were smashed by some criminal who couldn’t live without the 2009 iPod you accidentally left in the back seat, and the meth addict who slept on your front porch thanked you by throwing up in your mailbox.

Don’t complain about those shortcomings to people from elsewhere. Just don’t. Because most of the rest of the country has it a lot worse, beginning with digging out from under three feet of snow or dodging bullets on Chicago’s streets or having police departments laid off because of lack of funds.

When it comes to solving San Francisco’s problems, no help will come from elsewhere. It shouldn’t. Our leaders have all of the tools they need at their disposal. In fact, it might never be better times for a city than San Francisco has it today.

Imagine if you just became the prime minister of Greece. Your country’s debt is 176 percent of its GDP, and no one realistically expects you to pay it off. Unemployment is 25 percent. Your country’s finances are closely monitored by international agencies that don’t trust you, with frankly good reason. And you don’t trust your own businesses or citizens to pay taxes. Even at the best of times, your economic foundation is limited, overly reliant on a few industries. Right-wing and left-wing extremism and attacks on foreigners have grown.

Or pretend that you are the mayor of Detroit. From 2000 to 2010, your city lost a quarter of its population; fully 60 percent of your population fled from 1950 to 2010. Major industries migrated to the suburbs decades ago. In 2013, your city filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, and you were forced to endure outside control of the city’s finances. Forbes magazine called it the most dangerous U.S. city in 2012 – for the fourth year in a row.

If you were that prime minister or that mayor, you would look at San Franciscans’ complaints and say, “Cry me a river.” Even places in less stress than Detroit and Greece simply don’t have the resources that the City by the Bay has.

Now imagine that you have become mayor or a supervisor of San Francisco. San Francisco’s budget is more than $8 billion a year (about the same as that for the much-bigger Los Angeles). The city’s population is booming and expected to continue booming for decades, bringing in tens of thousands of new people and therefore tax dollars and new businesses. Many businesses are booming. The political establishment is almost totally Democratic; there is no vicious inter-party warfare like in Washington — instead, there are only Democrat-on-

Democrat attacks.

What this means is that you are a leader in a city that has resources and opportunities like almost no other city ever before. You have funds — $8 billions-worth of them — to solve problems, you have a relatively unified political establishment and voter base behind you, and you have smart and talented people to work on any project, whether it be homelessness or crime or technology utilization or poverty reduction.

The fact that you have a very large budget and still have to do hard bargaining to get it to fit within the constraints of a mere $8 billion is cause for concern. The fact that property crime is growing is another concern. NIMBYs are rampant, small retail businesses are suffering, the transportation system is overloaded, no one is calling the public education system a model, and nonprofits and moderate-income residents are fleeing to lower-cost communities.

Voters shouldn’t tune out of politics because things seem to be going well. Because if we can’t solve these problems with all of the resources and the advantages of living in this golden city at this golden time, then heaven help us when things go bad.

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