Grading SF Supes – the good, the bought, and the crazy

San Francisco has a very, very extremely left group of people on the Board of Supervisors. And I think in some instances their focus is to not necessarily do what’s best for people in San Francisco, but do what’s best to stay in the good graces of this whole lefty movement.

Mayor London Breed, 11/11/2020

Below I grade San Francisco’s 11 Supervisors as of April, 2022. What makes a good one?

Doing what’s right over virtue signalingThe Cleve Jones case is a perfect example – see Mandelman below for details. The current redistricting mess is another – see Asha Safai below.

Independence from special interests – Supes should accept minimal amounts of money from PACs, unions, and other interest groups that seek to buy them. Individual donations, and SF’s generous 6X matching grants, are plenty of money to fund a campaign.

Awareness of our crime and drug issues – Open drug dealing, and many crimes, from retail theft to car and home break-ins, are a pressing issue city leaders should focus on, not ignore.

Respect for our tax dollars – Given SF’s high levels of spending relative other cities, good Supes should be vigilant about spending our money carefully, be on the lookout for ways to save, and speak out on waste and corruption. Rubber stamping a $14B budget each year, without a second thought, is a red flag. A Supe proposing an expensive new idea should also state how they intend to pay for it.

Minimal levels of crazy – It’s no secret that SF attracts more than its share of America’s nut cases, who often drift here after being rejected by their home communities. Sometimes they slip into government. Extreme views, unprofessional behavior, etc. should be minimized.

None of our Supes is perfect. For example, all of them, including first place finisher Stefani, below, voted to recite a speech about our being on “Ohlone land” at the beginning of every BOS meeting. Here’s how regular voters feel about such nonsense:

And there are other such issues. Still, as we’ll see below, there’s tremendous range in quality between our better Supes, and the deplorables at the bottom of the page.

Catherine Stefani (D2). Grade: B+

Prior career: Deputy District Attorney, legislative aide.

Status: Up for re-election, Nov. 2022.

Stefani is an asset to to BOS. For one thing, she has been by far the most vocal opponent of crime in the city. She’s directly refuted the “crime is down” gaslighting other board members have promoted. And while some city leaders encourage drug use under the guise of “harm reduction”, Stefani has spoken out against this practice .

Stefani is also the only current supervisor who’s tried to bring our oversized city spending in line with normal cities. For example, she refused to support our $13.6 billion 2021 budget, calling it, correctly, “fiscally irresponsible”. She’s may be the only Supe who advocates treating tax dollars with respect.

While continuously engaged with the needs of her district, Stefani has refused to stoop to the performative virtue signaling and identity politics that plague the more radical members of the board. And there’s no evidence of corruption or ownership by special interests.

In short, there’s nothing special about Stefani. In Denver or Charlotte she’d be a typical hardworking city leader. But by SF standards, she’s extraordinary. Keep reading.

Ahsha Safai (D11): Grade: B

Prior career: None known, union director.

Status: Terming out in 2024.

Safai is one of our less prominent Supes, with a Twitter following of only 5,000 or so users, but in many ways he’s better than the extremists on the board. For example, he appears to take crime seriously, especially after viewing this video taken by a quick thinking SF resident. He hasn’t made a career vilifying the police, even partnering with them on occasion.

He’s often on the right side of issues. Consider the 2022 redistricting saga. When radicals didn’t like the new district map, drawn by an independent panel that spent months gathering public input – they attempted to remove 3 members of it and influence the new boundaries. This is deeply troubling, since it allows Supes to subvert the democratic process and choose their own constituents.

Many politicians, including Mayor Breed and our State senator, Scott Wiener, and the media rushed to the aid of the panel and demanded the body be kept independent, as did the more ethical members of the BOS: Safai, Stefani and Mandelman. The deplorables, (see below), including Peskin, Preston, Chan and Haney, attempted to influence the process. Senator Weiner even called out Peskin and Preston by name in a letter.

And Safai has, at times, hinted that he cares about spending your tax dollars.

But he isn’t perfect. Like Haney, Safai appears to be influenced by special interests. His campaign contributions come heavily from construction-related unions and real estate developers. As a result, he’s fought common-sense affordable housing ideas that don’t line his backer’s pockets, such as the modular housing initiative. Still, one of our better Supes.

Rafael Mandelman (D8). Grade: C

Prior career: None known.

Status: Up for re-election: Nov 2022.

Mandelman’s a mixed bag, but let’s start with the good. In some cases, he swats down irresponsible ideas, for example for making Muni free. He’s generally supportive of law enforcement especially after reading my tweets. He behaves professionally, and is not a core member of the band of crazies with failing grades below.

An example of this his good judgement is the implementation of SB 1031 in 2019, which would have required mandatory treatment for some of SF’s mentally ill and drug addicted homeless. Stefani and Mandelman sponsored the legislation, while Ronen, Walton, and Mar managed to kill the bill because, apparently, mandatory treatment for addicts is un-progressive. The bill failed, and the result is the human misery you see on the streets three years later.

Now on to the bad. Mandelman sometimes chooses grandstanding over ethical behavior. Take the case of Cleve Jones. Cleve lost the below-market rent on his apartment when he violated the terms of the contract in all sorts of ways, mainly by moving to Guerneville. In response, the landlord began charging the market rate for the unit, as she’s allowed to.

The adult thing to do here would recognize that rental laws must be followed, or to at least wait and see what the Rent Board (which was currently hearing the case) decided. Instead, Mandelman held a “rally” to support Cleve, and to vilify the landlord. I asked Mandelman if he could clarify who is and is not above the law, but he didn’t respond. Shortly thereafter, Jones admitted defeat and gave up the apartment.

And Mandelman’s got other warts, for example he’s championed friendly-sounding tax increases that distort markets and ultimately drive up prices here. His ideas to provide homes and living expenses for anyone who drifts into SF are misguided. And he’s aligned himself with some of our most radical pols, including Chesa Boudin sidekick David Campos. So not our worst Supe, but certainly not our best.

Shamann Walton (D10). Grade: D

Prior career: None known.

Status: Up for re-election: Nov 2022.

Walton can best be summed up by the Chronicle’s endorsement of him for supervisor. Their best argument? He, uh, “has some good ideas”.

Four years later, there’s still not much you can say about him. When he does speak up, it’s usually about race, or defunding the police, or both. He seems most proud of promoting and passing the KAREN Act, which fines people for calling 911 on Black people. I’m not aware of anyone having been fined since the act was passed.

And he’s got a few other unpleasant ideas, like having SF residents pay Black people “reparations”, despite the fact that there was no slavery in California, or even many Black people in SF before 1940. You can scroll through his press releases here, and see if you think he’s done anything to improve our city.

Walton occasionally brings up important issues, then immediately forgets them. For example, he championed “Vision Zero“, and ambitious plan to end violent crime…for about 5 minutes, until moving on to the Next Important Thing.

Regarding spending taxpayer money carefully, I see no evidence Walton cares. As far as I can tell, he’s never questioned our budget, or looked for ways to bring it in line with other cities, other than defunding the police, of course. Walton just kind of is.

Myrna Melgar (D7). Grade: D

Prior career: Murky. Some non-profit and city work.

Status: Up for re-election, Nov 2024.

I looked for positive things to say about each of our Supes, and with Melgar, came up empty.

Breaking news! I found something good to say. Melgar declined to vote with the deplorable Supes on SF Prop C, which would have made it practically impossible to recall elected officials, moving her up in the rankings:

And now the bad stuff: She’s aligned with some of the darker forces in local politics. She doesn’t seem to care much about the serious problems plaguing our city. She’s never mentioned our city budget, or spending taxpayer money with care. Crime? Drugs and drug dealers? The sideshows taking over her district some nights? Melgar evades questions about them.

So, what does she care about? Drawings, apparently. Melgar exposed herself as a virtue signaling opportunist by taking part in the recent “Chesa as Mao” non-issue, whereby a picture of DA Chesa Boudin in a Chairman Mao jacket brought crocodile tears to progressive eyes. The adult thing to do would have been to ignore this non-event, and focus on the city’s serious problems, which, as we’ve seen, Melgar just doesn’t seem to care about.

She tends to be slippery, rather than forthright. When asked a direct question, for example, about her advocacy of abolishing the police, she’s refused to answer. She’s also been unprofessional at times, tweeting sarcastically about other supervisors who care about law enforcement.

I’m also concerned she may be, um, storing her account passwords on twitter? Hmmm…..

Gordon Mar (D4). Grade: D

Prior career: None known, former Director of the “Chinese Progressive Association”.

Status: Up for re-election, Nov 2022.

Gordon Mar is a generic, cookie cutter, me-too progressive. He’s a big supporter of radicals like David Campos, Dean Preston and Chesa Boudin. He routinely attacks, rather than supports, law enforcement. When I asked him about his support for the DA recall recently, he again blamed the police for crime, not the consequence-free environment progressives have created here.

He’s never seen a tax increase he didn’t like. He doesn’t seem to care about the drugs and crime plaguing SF, unless they can be used for identity politics and virtue signaling ends.

He’s been head of the BOS Budget Committee, but has said not a word about finding efficiencies or bringing spending in line with other cities. Like Walton, he supports the popular cause of the moment, promptly forgetting about it when the next one comes along.

On the other hand, Mar can be found on the right side of certain issues. He called for school board member Allison Collins to resign over her clearly racists comments (perhaps AAPI virtue signaling, but we’ll give him credit). He’s also called for investigations into SF’s ubiquitous corruption. In terms of professionalism, he’s a step up from, say, Connie Chan, below.

Is a D a passing grade?

Matt Haney (D6). Grade: D-

Prior career: None, maybe a couple of year’s teaching.

Status: In state assembly runoff. His seat is up for re-election Nov, 2022.

I’ve written extensively about Matt here, so I won’t repeat myself, but to summarize: he’s a friendly fellow with bad ideas, who’s largely owned by special interests. He’s done a terrible job managing the Tenderloin, being far more concerned with his career than, for example, fighting for consequences for drug dealers there.

Still, Haney didn’t quite land an F grade. You’ve got to do more than be merely a far-left careerist, corrupted by special interest money, to earn such a rating. You’ve got to be really atrocious (keep reading).

Connie Chan (D2). Grade: F

Prior Career: City worker, Peskin’s legislative aide.

Status: Up for re-election, Nov 2024.

Connie, bless her heart, isn’t the brightest bulb in the tulip garden. And from this undersized brain comes some interesting thoughts….

…and a weird obsession with plastic bottles. But the endless bleats of racism are what makes her truly unqualified to lead our city. She speaks forcefully against crime…as long as the victim is Asian. The banking system? Racist. Small business issues? That’s racism too.

She’s a big supporter of Chesa Boudin, and, true to form, took the “Chesa as Mao” (see Melgar above) incident to absurd theatrical heights, actually sponsoring a pointless BOS resolution to “condemn anti-Asian imagery”. I suppose political cartoons will be banned in “Women Land”. When I called Connie out on this stupidity, she, shockingly turned to the darkest internet trolls, who spend their days harassing anyone they disagree with.

Otherwise, she’s the typical me-too progressive with no real values, for example, siding with the police when they’re popular, vilifying them when the mob does.

When an unhinged Hillary Ronen posted and offensive tweet that was condemned by virtually everyone, Connie defended her. She’s endorsed by Jane Kim, and others on the far left. In terms of financial stewardship, Connie doesn’t care much about the $14 billion the city spends per year, unless more of if goes to Asians. For a while she wrote a column for the SF Examiner. The column name, unsurprisingly, was Politically Asian.

I could give Connie a D for dumb, but I think she’s earned our first F grade.

Hillary Ronen (D9). Grade: F

Prior Career: Attorney at non-profit, legislative aide.

Status: Up for re-election, Nov 2024.

Where to begin with this wild-eyed progressive? Ronen’s judgement is atrocious. Take for example, a 75 unit apartment building providing new housing to the Mission. Instead of encouraging its development, Ronen did everything she could to stall the project, eventually claiming a laundromat in the building it would replace was a “historic business“. Her reasoning for battling this new housing? She believed it would “gentrify” the neighborhood.

Another example: It was clear to anyone living in SF that crime was increasing during 2020, but Hillary insisted it was down (she’s flanked here by fellow radicals Dean Preston and Chesa Boudin).

For a taste Hillary’s unique brand of crazy, watch this clip. Here’s another favorite.

Do you think reciting a speech about San Francisco residents trespassing on “unceeded Ohlone Indian Land” at the beginning of each Board of Supervisors’ meeting is a good use of time? If so, Ronen, and fellow deplorable Peskin, see below, may be the city leaders you’re looking for.

Ronen could care less about victims of crime (especially drug dealing) in our city, but she’s on a lifelong vendetta against the police. Defunding and demoralizing SFPD seems to be about the only thing she cares about. When it comes to city budgets, cutting the police is her only goal.

If an issue exists, Ronen’s on the wrong side of it, from making everything free to taxing empty homes. She promotes the worst in identity politics, failing to support London Breed for Mayor because she was supported by “rich, white men“.

Another prime example of how Ronen weakens our city: Mayor Breed’s original Emergency Declaration to reduce drugs and crime in the Tenderloin, actually had some teeth, as it relied on a greater police presence there. But Ronen prevented this:

“Between now and January, if they use a cent to increase [the San Francisco Police Department budget], we can cancel this order on the spot,” Ronen said. “I’m going to vote to approve this order today, but I’m going to watch this thing like a hawk.”

Hillary Ronen, 12/23/21

Each time I think Ronen has achieved peak crazy, she outdoes herself. What a mess.

Dean Preston (D5). Grade: F

Prior Career: Generally none. A few years working for a law firm long ago.

Status: Up for re-election, Nov 2024.

To call Preston crazy would libel the insane. Where to begin? He’s is not a Republican or Democrat, but a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, a fringe group which, among much other madness, vilifies NATO countries like the US. A taste of his value system:

Preston literally, seriously, wants to eliminate law enforcement in America. No police, no prisons, no consequences for raping a child, or robbing a bank. Think about that.

As the tweet above alludes to, Preston’s in favor of socialist revolution, not improving things via current democratic institutions. He calls government takeover of the private sector “municipalization“. Far from handling citizens’ money with care, Preston finds joy in new taxes of every variety. His wild ideas, like “cancelling rent“, are fortunately not taken seriously by the adults in the room.

Dean’s unique in that he sometimes manages to be on *both* wrong sides of an issue. For example, he demanded for a “vacancy tax” on unoccupied homes, then called the perfectly legal actions by Cleve Jones’ landlords to raise his rent when he left his apartment unoccupied “outrageous“.

Dean’s rich (via other people’s money), lives in a $4M mansion, and likes to trade tech stocks. But he vilifies investors like himself as “speculators“. With a straight face.

Preston’s divided the world into good and evil, with landlords being evil. He advocates for making everything “free“, failing to point out that there is no such thing – somebody has to pay.

Apparently unsure how the law works, Preston’s plan to stop legal evictions was to declare his district an “eviction free zone“.

Bizarrely, while tweeting endlessly about the need for housing (“social housing” in most cases, a code word for government-owned), Preston has done more than anyone to prevent new housing in SF.

Dean’s the king of complaining about current events, without offering solutions. A classic example here, or here, where he promotes “solutions to crime that work” without stating what those might be. Unsurprisingly, he’s on an endless jihad against SFPD, seeking to defund and demoralize them at every turn.

People have had enough of Dean’s schtick, and as I like to say, a rabid racoon could beat him in 2024. But that feels like a long time away.

Aaron Peskin (D3). Grade: F

Prior Career: None known. Former “Environmental Activist“.

Status: Terms out (again), Nov 2024.

Peskin embodies the worst of San Francisco, and humanity generally. He’s a bully. Both on the internet:

And in real life.

Peskin’s also a sleazy double dealer, as this article notes.

After coming to work drunk and abusing his colleagues, you’d think Peskin might understand the need to recall malfunctioning elected officials from time to time. Quite the opposite – he’s created and championed legislation that would make it effectively impossible to recall politicians – denying voters a key element of control over bad actors like him.

I’m in D3, so I admit this one’s personal, but I’ve never seen someone lie like Peskin. I was involved in an attempt to get a lower cost grocery store, a Whole Foods 365, in the old Lombardi Sports building. Polls showed 85% of the neighborhood was in favor of it, but Peskin battled hard to not only to prevent the store, but ban all “chain stores” on Polk St. generally. Here’s what he said on the topic:

“Whole Foods has spent a ridiculous amount of money going door-to-door organizing residents and creating a huge astroturf movement in their favor,” said Peskin.

SF Chronicle, 6/1/2016

The problem is, this was all a lie. A complete fabrication. I was in touch with Whole Foods VP Rob Twyman, who lead the process to get this store approved. No Whole Foods representative went door to door, or spent even a dollar with organizing or “astroturfing”. Peskin wasn’t merely exaggerating here, he was pulling whole narratives out of thin air.

Helped by a radical Planning Commission board that demanded affordable housing in the store, Peskin won, voters lost, and five years later, the building sits empty, decaying, frequently vandalized and broken into.

Peskin shouldn’t be a Supervisor at all – they’re supposed to only server 2 terms, and this is his third, exploiting a loophole that the two terms only had to be “consecutive”. I hope D3’s next Supe is a decent, honest person. Peskin’s set the bar so low that it shouldn’t be a hard thing to accomplish.

Who is the SF DCCC?

And, why are there so many ‘Cs’?

While there are many informal Democratic party clubs in SF, there’s only one official party branch here, the SFDP. The SFDP holds meetings, raises funds, endorses candidates, etc.

The SFPD is controlled by the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee (SF DCCC). While SF city elections are non-partisan, a stamp of approval by the party may offer a boost to some political campaigns, as local pol Nancy Tung explains here.

The DCCC is so powerful because it’s able to skirt campaign finance laws that constrain candidates for government office:

Thus, a city or state candidate running for DCCC can collect unlimited amounts from wealthy individuals or corporations – and spend that money to raise his or her profile against opponents for a city or state office who are constrained by limits on the size or source of donations.

SF Chronicle, 4/8/2016

The DCCC has no ethical problem working around these laws. In fact, it appears to have no ethics at all. Consider the flyer it printed below, during the June 2022 election:

You have to look hard to figure out that voting No on Proposition H has nothing to do with Republicans or abortion. It’s to recall SF’s radical District Attorney, Chesa Boudin. It’s clearly meant to deceive, and one can assume that if this is how the DCCCC operates in small matters, it probably behaves the same way in larger ones.

Nationwide, only 29% of people identify as Democrats. Among those with known political affiliations, however, San Francisco voters are overwhelmingly Democrats:

With this wide a swath of voters, it’s worth asking if the SF DCCC represents the city as a whole. Let’s start with the DCCC Executive Committee, which currently consists of eight people. Here are their backgrounds, from their LinkedIn profiles and online bios:

SF DCCC leadership

PersonHistory/Occupation
Honey Mahogany (chair)Drag performer, social worker, community organizer
Leah LaCroixBar Association of SF, BOS clerk, City of SF (former)
Keith BarakaFirefighter, City of SF
Li Miao LovettLegislative Aide, City of SF
Carolina Morales“Strategist” for Chesa Boudin, District Attorney’s office, City of SF
Janice LiCommunity organizer, BART director
Anabel IbanezPolitical Director, United Educators of SF (teacher’s union)

The committee is the rounded out by 22 non-executive members (bottom of page), in which you can find most of SF’s far-left politicians, from Jane Kim (formerly of the Green Party) to David Campos to Hillary Ronen to Faauuga Moliga (recently recalled from the School Board). The rest, like the executive committee, are mostly city employees and union or community organizers.

What jumps out at you? For me, it’s the fact that none of these folks work in the private sector, unlike most Americans. While the world certainly needs government clerks and firefighters, these people, without exception, are the ones who win when taxes go up. Unions and city workers are well represented. But many groups aren’t, from retail store workers to business owners to software engineers to mechanics to doctors and nurses to many industries.

And so, unsurprisingly, the the SF DCCC is out of touch with most SF. Take the recent school board recall. Not only did the SF DCCC vote to oppose it, they actually wrote the defense of that opposition that appeared in voter guides. And voters ignored them, in a landslide.

Similarly, they’ve been strong supporters of our radical District Attorney, Chesa Boudin, who is likely to be recalled by voters on June 7.

If the Democratic Party in SF were a fringe group, like the Green Party or the Libertarians, I wouldn’t expect their membership to reflect the city as a whole. But 86% of voters with a known political affiliation here are Democrats, I’m surprised at how much it doesn’t.

For an idea of how Democratic Party leadership looks in a normal city, consider Denver. Local DP leadership consists of a city employee and a life long activist, sure, but also James Reyes, a gay Latino software engineer, and Adrian Felix, also gay and minority, who works in the communications industry.

Does the SFDP, or SF DCCC matter? An increasing number of voters are foregoing party affiliation, with 135,000 voters not registering for one with the city. So the answer is probably “less every year”. However, it is a good idea to be aware of who they are, and, when voting, whether local Democrats represent you.

The case against Matt Haney

Matt Haney, currently SF District 6 Supervisor, is running for CAs’s District 17 assembly seat. As a career politician, you’ll likely see his name on future ballots as well. In this post I explain why I’ll never vote for him, and why you shouldn’t either. But let’s start with the positives.

Matt is a fresh-faced, Bay Area kid with a law degree from Stanford. He projects a wholesome image of kittens, baseball, and mom, though his aggressive history of deleting tweets and friends when they threaten his political ambitions suggests this is carefully groomed. Still, he seems like a friendly and approachable guy, offering to meet anyone for coffee, for example.

But Matt’s radical, irresponsible views, his capture by special interests, and his history of misguided political actions make him a dangerous liability for San Francisco. Let’s look at a few.

Matt’s leadership of District 6 has been a disaster

Under Matt’s watch, District 6, home of the Tenderloin, has devolved from merely bad, to a crime-ridden hell on earth in parts. Much of that is due to drugs, with dealers selling death in plain sight.

Narcotics dealers, most from Honduras, work openly in Matt’s district

No less than 1,310 people have died of overdoses, mostly in Matt’s district, in 2020-21. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that Mayor Breed has had to declare a state of emergency in Matt’s district.

But Matt’s far-left political views on crime have been an obstacle to cleaning up D6. For example, far from demanding jail time for the dealers above, Matt actually wants those already incarcerated back on the streets!

He’s got an endless stream of tweets like this. There’s no evidence his views have changed recently.

One of the key drivers of increasing crime was the passage of Prop 47, which essentially ends criminal prosecution for thefts under $950. Living in a high crime area, you’d think Matt might have opposed this unfortunate measure. But he gave it his full support.

What accounts for Matt’s views here? You can probably thank his radical father Craig Haney, a psychology professor at UC Santa Cruz who’s devoted his life to fighting against incarceration for law breakers. Like Matt, he never quite explains the deterrent for criminal behavior in a post-prison world.

Matt will argue that much of the decline of his district is out of his control. While that may be true, he does have control over his Twitter account, which he can use to influence policy. And his Tweet history shows a disregard for the rising problems in D6. It’s not what’s there, necessary, it’s what’s missing. While other politicians talk in no uncertain terms about the dire state of his district, Matt blames things like systemic racism and offers no ideas for improving it.

I did uncover a rare statement from Matt accepting the unfortunate state of D6:

That was two years ago. How have things progressed since? Before voting for Matt, head over Larkin and Turk streets, and see what he’s done to the place. Should we elect a politician who wants to fail up?

Matt created SF’s school renaming debacle – a global embarassment

As I type, SF is in the midst of recalling three radical school board members, and one of the main reasons is an expensive effort to rename many of our schools. But it wasn’t the current board who decided to cancel history. It was Matt Haney.

In 2016, Matt decided George Washington High had to be renamed. Sure, Washington had won the Revolutionary War and led the founding of America, but what had he done for us lately? Matt was out having beers with the bros when he decided Washington should be written out of history, for having owned slaves.

Of course, once you burn one witch at the stake, you start to see witches everywhere. Matt decided it was time to rename more schools, and in 2018 co-authored a resolution to decide who to cancel next.

And so began a disastrous effort to rename as many as 40 of SF’s schools that made SF a global laughingstock, culminating in an attempt to cancel even Barbara Boxer, our liberal US Senator until 2016.

Matt is owned by special interests

Over half of Matt’s campaign contributions have come from interest groups:

Much of this is organized labor money. While unions themselves aren’t necessarily bad things, politicians who are bought and paid for by them are. Organized labor is no different from other interest groups – they attempt to influence public officials to direct more resources from the general population to them.

A picture’s worth a thousand words here:

I go into more detail on this topic here, so I won’t repeat myself, but look at the image above and ask yourself – if elected, will Matt be acting in the interests of all his constituents, or of the groups above?

A fine example of the corruption that occurs with this brand of politics: Matt accepted, then had to return, three large political donations from builders with business pending by the city. Vote for pols that avoid capture by these groups.

Matt has no real life experience, and seems to hate people who have

Your elected leaders aren’t going to fight for you if they can’t relate to what you’re going through. But Matt hasn’t had many core life experiences – kids, life, a career – and this results in poor values and decision making.

Take careers, for example. Matt’s never had a job in the real world – he’s always been a taker, never a maker. And he despises anyone who’s done otherwise:

There’s just so much that’s reckless and wrong here. First, most of those evil “millionaires” are older folks who’ve saved money while working, and have no way of earning more.

Second, CA’s top tax rate is 12.3% – already the highest in the country. Tripling that would create a combined state and federal income tax burden of 75%, and that’s before the many other taxes – property, sales, etc. – and fees the government charges. It would hollow out California of the entrepreneurs, entertainment and industry leaders, etc. that drive its growth. Matt imagines that high earners would remain selflessly in California to provide their “billions to unemployed people”. In fact, folks are already leaving for lower tax states.

Matt has no understanding of tax burdens, since he’s never really had to pay them. Compare to Bilal Mahmood, who’s running against him for the AD 17 seat as I write. Some of Mahmood’s ideas are just as unpleasant as Matt’s, but at least he’s achieved real-world success as an entrepreneur and scientist.

The result? Matt refers to Mammood, derisively, as “the millionaire”:

Matt deleted his tweet here (from 2/4/22 at 9PM), after I replied to it, but it was about Bilal bringing up, correctly, Matt’s capture by special interests.

Who does Matt blame for SF’s out of control crime? It’s those awful millionaires again:

Owning a home is another example of Matt’s distain for those with experience. If you’ve ever had to battle to save for a down payment, or accept the adult risks and responsibilities of homeownership, you’re likely going to have a more complete view of life than someone who never has.

Matt, again, doesn’t have this experience – he’s always been a renter. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you respect those who do have it. But Matt sees this inexperience as a badge of pride:

Why? What insight does not having ever owned property buy you? Whereas most people tout their real world achievements, Matt seems to glorify in his lack of them. This inexperience doesn’t make him a better politician – it just gives him an incomplete view of his constituents’ lives.

Matt lacks the balanced views every politician should have

Liberal or conservative, good politicians understand that government is about tradeoffs. Spending has to be balanced against tax burden. The cost of incarceration has to be balanced against the cost of crime. Regulation has to be balanced against the economic dynamism that creates wealth and jobs. Inequality has to be balanced against incentives to excel.

Perhaps Matt’s defining characteristic is his lack of this balance, more than any other politician I can think of. His economic platform is to spend and spend and spend some more, with never a tweet about the cost of these programs. When you do that, you wind up with six million dollar/year toilets, one of Matt’s signature achievements. Here’s another example:

Doesn’t this sound nice? In fact, despite spending more than twice as much per pupil as normal school districts, SFUSD is in a severe financial crisis. Feel good, irresponsible thoughts like this are not what you want to see in elected officials.

Similarly, Matt insists on making everything free, free, free, without noting the cost to citizens. Whether this is a cynical ploy for votes, as he kind of admits here, or he if really feels this way, it’s again an irresponsible way to promote government programs.

When it comes to crime, as I’ve noted above, he takes the same half-blind view of the world. Crime is never the criminal’s fault. It’s always society, or meanie millionaires, or the Easter Bunny, but personal accountability doesn’t exist in MattWorld. There’s no balance, no shades of grey. Someone else is to blame for that bank you robbed. Period.

Matt hasn’t cared about the jobs he’s run for

To outsiders, it may have seemed odd for Matt to run for SF School Board in 2012. He wasn’t a product of SF schools, and he didn’t have kids. But locals understood – he was mainly using SFUSD as a jumping off point for a political career.

And so, between 2012 to 2018, Matt tweeted dutifully about students in SF, as if he actually cared. But the minute he was elected to D6, these tweets stopped.

Maybe things would be different with his election to the Board of Supervisors. Maybe Matt truly cared about improving D6. But skeptics were proven right when, halfway into his term, he attempted to jump ship, for a vacant state CA assembly seat.

To an extent, there’s nothing wrong with political ambition. But few local pols have used elected positions this blatantly as temporary stops toward something else. What job will he be looking for as he serves in state assembly?

It’s time to hold Matt responsible.

Let’s look one more time at that tweet above. Matt’s asked us to hold him responsible for the state of District 6:

It’s time to do just that. In the Feb 15, 2022 special election and on future ballots, give Matt Haney a pass, and focus on candidates with mature, responsible ideas, who aren’t captured by special interests.

How Unions Prevent Affordable Housing In San Francisco

Building houses in SF – actually apartments, since there’s no more room for actual houses – is a key goal of local politicians. In fact, they often seem to be in competition to see who can commit to building the most units.

But it’s an odd goal, if you think about it. Unlike schools or public safety, attracting thousands of new residents to your city doesn’t improve the quality of life of existing ones – in fact, it reduces the amount of land, roads, water, electricity, etc. available per person.

While some pols may be motivated by a genuine, heartfelt desire to “house the world”, I’d like to suggest a different explanation – that their goal isn’t to build housing at all, but to benefit the special interests that fund their elections and keep them in power. There’s plenty of evidence that this is the case. The special interests in question are organized labor.

Mayor Breed, for example, was elected only with the help of SF’s unions, which in turn rewarded her with money and votes. And the 2022 State Assembly special election has been a battle of unions, with the two main candidates, Matt Haney and David Campos, proudly advertising the influence organized labor has over them.

With this in mind, let’s look at a tweet from Haney about those 100,000 housing units he claims he wants to build:

Is the goal more homes, or funding organized labor?

One answer might be “both” – isn’t building housing while employing folks a win/win? Aren’t jobs at good wages a positive thing?

Well, jobs at fair wages certainly are. But, arguably, unions have taken wages far beyond fair here. For example, a New York Times article titled “Why Does It Cost $750,000 to Build Affordable Housing in San Francisco?“, found that construction workers here earn $90 per hour – $200k/year with a little overtime. That’s about the same as the average physician.

Not only do high labor costs reduce affordability, they prevent some projects from being built at all. Read this article: Bay Area’s largest housing development appears dead. What killed this project? Greedy developers? Zoning laws? City bureaucracy? Nope.

Lennar had run into strong opposition from building trades after refusing to sign a project-wide labor agreement that would have made it an all-union development. The Contra Costa Building Trades Council sought an agreement that was consistent with the city’s Concord First policy, which requires that developers hire 40% Concord residents, pay prevailing wages, hire and train veterans, and commit to approved apprenticeship programs.

The cost of union labor?

The developers said that agreeing to an all-union job site would make the project infeasible, raising construction costs by $542 million and cutting the project’s profit margin from 17% to a loss.

So much for increasing housing stock.

For another example, listen to Michael Cheng, who, in 2017, was building a high rise in San Jose. The total cost of the building, without high end finishes, was $80M. Building somewhere less expensive than San Jose might decrease labor costs by $20-30M, but building in San Francisco would increase them by the same amount. So an $80M San Jose building would cost as little as $50M to construct in a less expensive area, and at least double that in SF, mainly due to labor.

To build homes with inflated labor costs, housing must often be subsidized by taxpayers. Pols have a friendly name for this, “affordable housing“, but there’s nothing affordable about it. It’s simply paid for by increased taxes and enormous amounts of borrowing, benefiting a lucky few lottery winners who get sweetheart deals. Affordable housing is, in effect, a transfer of funds from taxpayers like you to unions and their workers.

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You know more than most people about why housing is so expensive. Let’s test your knowledge with a headline from Heather Knight’s column in today’s Chronicle:

A new S.F. housing complex for homeless people was faster, cheaper to build. So why isn’t it being replicated?

What do you think happened here? If you said: “Someone found a way to build housing with less labor, but the unions are preventing more from being built”, you’re right! From the article:

Another big key to making Tahanan less expensive and faster to build is that it’s composed of modular units crafted at a factory in Vallejo, trucked over the Bay Bridge and assembled like a big Lego project. The factory is unionized, but San Francisco building and trades groups don’t like the building method because it leaves them out. That’s prompted many members of the Board of Supervisors to be leery about approving future modular projects… 

The building was built with union labor, it just didn’t line the right pockets, turning off city leaders. Do they really care about housing affordability? If there’s a more blatant example of how special interests control city government, I don’t know it.

Next time you hear a local pol say, “Let’s create more housing!”, keep in mind that houses don’t get politicians elected in San Francisco – unions do.

Should we buy the Hammer Killer a home in SF?

San Francisco spends a fortune on “homeless services”. It’s worth asking how this money is being spent, and on whom. We got a sliver of insight into that today due to the opening of a new “Linkage Center” in the Tenderloin, which will provide an array of services – food, beverages, showers, help with finding housing – to the homeless.

Local TV station KTVU did a piece on the opening, featuring 65 year old Ivan Von Staich, who wasn’t happy with the services offered:

On the first morning the facility opened its doors, people filtered in and out. Ivan Von Staich said he’s frustrated because he’s ineligible for housing because technically he has friends he can stay with. “They need to get more housing support for these people and get them off the streets, that’s what I’m trying to do,” said Von Staich. “That’s why I went in there. I’m 65 years old, I’m a senior citizen, so, I’m trying to get some assistance.”

Who is Ivan Von Staich, and does San Francisco owe him a house? We might consider a few factors here: Did he grow up in SF? What circumstances caused him to be homeless? How did he contribute to society during his 65 years?

A little googling answers those questions. Von Staich’s name, age, and circumstances match that of the “Hammer Killer”, who in 1983 beat and shot a man to death while attempting to kill his wife. He also threatened the life of the judge who sentenced him.

San Quentin prison. Von Staich’s home for the past few years.

In 2012 the OC Register quoted Deputy District Attorney Ray Armstrong as saying:

[The crimes] Von Staich committed in Orange County were “carried out in a particularly heinous and cruel manner,” and that Von Staich continues to blame others for his actions, “undermining his alleged feelings of remorse and acceptance of full responsibility.”

Von Staich remained incarcerated until 2021, when he was released from San Quentin, and apparently drifted to where the services were – San Francisco.

Von Staich has done his time, apparently, and may no longer be a danger to society. But he has no connection with San Francisco, and made life choices that left him without savings or a career. Is it reasonable to ask our city to support him for the next 30 years? It’s hard to imagine why.

Libraries & SF’s Out of Control City Spending

With some expenses, it’s easy to tell if you’re being ripped off- you just shop around. If one gas station is charging $20 for a gallon of gas, vs $5 elsewhere, it’s clearly offering a raw deal.

But what about city government? For example, how do you know if the San Francisco Public Library system’s $172M FY 20-21 budget is too high, or too low? If your tax dollars are being treated with respect, or if waste and maybe even corruption are likely at play? Is there a way to “comparison shop”?

Happily, San Francisco has an almost direct equivalent. San Jose, just 30 miles south, mirrors SF in all respects that might influence the cost of its libraries. Some examples:

(2021 figures)San FranciscoSan Jose
Population.9M1M
Average household Income$96,925$96,662
Median Home Sales Price$1,285,000$1,250,000

With labor, real estate, geography, and every other factor that might influence library system cost identical, you’d think system budgets would be about the same as well. But they’re shockingly different:

San Jose’s budget is only $49M, less than 1/3 of SF’s. And when you compare these numbers to other, more moderate cities, things only get worse.

Take Houston. With a population of 2.3M, its FY 2020 library system budget was $42M. Let’s compare the per-citizen library spending of each city:

Rich, liberal, high-tax San Jose, and moderate, lower tax Houston seem to present a reasonable range of library spending: about $20 to $50 per person, per year. SF’s $200 cost is an extreme outlier.

Moreover, libraries are in decline, with fewer and fewer people visiting each year. It should be obvious that the internet has replaced much of their two reasons to exist: information and entertainment. SF’s main branch has become more a homeless shelter than a functioning library in recent years, as evidenced by this video. Despite this, the SFPL system budget has exploded, from $62M in 2007 to more than triple that today.

Proponents of SFPL’s enormous budgets will respond with all the wonderful things the system does, from author events to workshops on writing college essays. But does your library system really need Drag Queen Story Hour? Or Lion Dances? Other cities seem to agree that such things are a waste of taxpayer funds. As far a corruption, I know of no cases where the SFPL has used their budgets illegally. But we’ve seen enough illegal activity in other city departments to give me a preference toward keeping spending in line with those of other cities.

I don’t have a grudge against libraries. They’re just a visible, easy to understand example of SF’s poor financial management. The extra $150/year you’re paying for unneeded library services is repeated over many departments, resulting in SF’s enormous $14B/year budget, the most per capita of any city in the world.

Why San Francisco Can’t Be Fixed

The era of big government is over.

Bill Clinton, 1996 State of the Union address

Big government may have been over at the federal level in the 1990s, but in San Francisco, it was just getting started.

Over the last 25 years, SF’s city budget has mushroomed from $3 billion to $14 billion. Much of that money has flowed not just to city operations, but into the private and non-profit sectors. The problem: so many organizations are getting a cut of that money that reforming the system – for example, bringing spending in line with other cities – is probably impossible. Attempt any change, and those feeding off the gravy train will use their money, votes and influence to neutralize you.

Who are these interests? Let’s take look at a few.

The Media

It’s a stretch to say SF owns the local print media, but it’s less of a stretch every year. Since 1994, the city has allocated money for ads to newspapers around the city. This was only a small portion of a paper’s revenue during the glory days of print media, but with the decline of subscriptions and other ad revenue, city money has become increasingly important. Along with policies like requiring fictitious business notices (see pages 13 and 14 here) local government is keeping local papers afloat.

A ad paid for by the city in the Aug 21 SF Examiner

As a result, most media in the city tows the party line, rarely criticizing elected officials. To see why, consider the case of the Marina Times, which does excellent reporting on corruption in our city. As you can see by flipping its pages, the city is also the paper’s largest advertiser. So it was only a matter of time before some supervisors hatched a plan to eliminate funding for it.

Happily, The Times had enough allies on the Board that the effort failed, but not every publication is so lucky. So don’t expect much criticism from these outlets on the city or its leaders. And if you run for office on a platform of smaller government, expect to be crucified in the local print media.

Small Businesses

When Mayor Ed Lee died in 2017, the Chronicle published a heart warming piece on his love of local restaurants:

In 2012, Brenda Buenviaje of Brenda’s French Soul Food received a grant from the Mayor’s Office to upgrade the facade of her business. When the work was completed, Lee held a press conference at the restaurant to highlight the money being invested by the city to improve the Tenderloin neighborhood.

A mayor’s office handing out cash payments to businesses is hugely problematic. For one thing, it disadvantages competitors that don’t get funds. For another, it invites corruption. The mayor funnels money to your business, and at election time, you return the favor.

And the grants keep coming – Mayor Breed created $11 million more of them just last week. While these may fall under the label of “covid relief”, the conflicts of interest are there all the same.

It gets worse. Designating your company a “legacy business” means you get cash payments from the city forever. Step back and ask yourself – how could giving a taxi company this designation possibly be in the public interest? There’s no benefit, and endless scope for corruption.

Not only does the legacy business get $500 per employee per year of city funds, the landlord that leases space to them gets a payoff of $4.50 per square foot. According to the city, 7,500 businesses qualify for the subsidy, not including their landlords. Imagine running for city office on a platform to end this graft. Your opponent is sure to be flooded with votes and donations from those who benefit.

Money comes in the form of loans as well as grants. Take Yoshi’s, a branch of the famous Oakland jazz club that opened here in 2008. By 2009:

Things looked pretty bleak until last month, when the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency gave Yoshi’s – a centerpiece of the city’s ambitious plan to revive the once-swinging Fillmore District – a $1.5 million emergency loan. It came on top of a $1.3 million loan the agency gave the club in September, and the original $4.4 million long-term loan it provided to Yoshi’s to develop the 28,000-square-foot space on the ground floor of the Fillmore Heritage Center, a 12-story condo tower that also houses the 1300 on Fillmore restaurant and a small jazz museum.

SF Chronicle, Jan 10, 2009
Yoshi’s San Francisco. Now closed.

Eight million dollars. For one business! Yoshi’s went bust in 2014, and these loans were never repaid. The SFRA was actually funded by the state in this case, but the SF Board of Supervisors made the deal and authorized the funds.

Nonprofit Organizations

Donors of all gifts accepted by the City should be disclosed, and consistent with existing law, anonymous donations should be prohibited.

Sept 24, 2020 Office of the Controller report on nonprofit gifts to city employees

The city bankrolls hundreds of nonprofit organizations in what amounts to a second, shadow government. These corporations do everything from managing city-run housing to “homeless services” (a lot of those), running youth centers, managing museums, etc.

While many of these organizations may do good work, financial transparency rules for them are weaker than for the city itself, which makes them ripe for corruption. Take the nonprofit, city funded “San Francisco Parks Alliance”, for example. While it was supposed to be using city funds for services within our parks, in reality, the Department of Public Works head Mohammed Nuru used it as his personal piggy bank. This case only came to light due to a Federal investigation – local city leaders, including the mayor, who accepted a $5,600 gift from Nuru, don’t look too hard at nonprofit spending.

The point here again, is that any politician hoping to reign in these expenses is certain to be opposed by the thousands of people these entities employ.

Taxis

The City – your tax dollars – owns the taxi industry at this point. It will spend a stunning $39,300,000 on taxi services in 2021, up from $32,300,000 just 3 years before, according to the newest SFMTA budget:

I’ve written much more on the many ways the city keeps taxis afloat in the era of ride sharing. Once again, imagine you’re a politician who runs on a platform of cleaning up the MTA by getting out of the taxi business. Your opponent will quickly be awash in union money and votes.

Unions

With city leaders funnelling money to so many aspects of our city, it’s worth wondering who’s controlling them. And it’s no exaggeration to say that many of our local pols are bought and paid for by Big Labor. Take this campaign ad from District 6 supervisor Matt Haney, for example:

In return, unions often control the debate at City Hall. Here’s an older but still relevant example:

Unions and their front groups wrote the bill, massaged politicians and rallied supporters for the benefit of Big Labor. 

SF Examiner, San Francisco: City government by and for unions, 2014

Imagine, again, trying to reform the system. Look at the sheer number of icons in Matt Haney’s ad above. Or, look at who’s financing Dean Preston, SF’s District 5 Supervisor:

Union’s aren’t inherently good or bad; like any special interest they merely pit a small group of society against the greater good. For an example of union power, read this Chronicle article on the failure of the Bay Area’s largest housing development. The problem? Developers were forced to usse union labor, which demanded too much money to get the project built.

Conclusion

As well as the interests above, anyone wanting to reform city government will be battling the city’s 40,000 well paid workers. Reform may not be impossible, but it would take a concerted effort by more people than benefit from the endless tributaries of city money flowing from its coffers.

Trouble In Taxi Town

The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is the San Francisco city department that handles parking and transportation. It’s all municipal stuff – buses, light rail, parking enforcement, with one curious private sector exception – taxis.

Take a look at this screen grab from its website:

SFMTA website, 7/31/2021

A “taxi town”?

What?!

But the city’s relationship with taxis goes much deeper. Taxis enjoy benefits their competitors, such as Uber and Lyft, can’t partake in, like dedicated stands, special airport access and, most importantly, exclusive lanes on streets shared only with buses.

You can’t use this lane. Neither can your Uber driver. But taxis can.

In fact, city money – your tax dollars – seem to be single-handedly keeping the taxi industry afloat. The MTA’s 2020 operating budget spends $39,300,000 on them.

And city leaders clearly favor taxis over competitors. Consider this article, written by Supervisor Matt Haney, attacking Uber and Lyft for hiring drivers as independent contractors. Notice that taxis aren’t mentioned, despite many having been ICs for decades. Or this one by Mayor London Breed, defending taxis and suggesting competitors face higher taxes.

It gets weirder. Luxor Cab has been hailed (no pun intended) a “legacy business“, meaning it gets 500 of your tax dollars per year for every person it employs, just for being awesome.

I can think of better uses for my tax dollars.

Despite all the favoritism, taxi industry in SF is a big, corrupt mess, thanks to both its own practices, and those of the city. Let’s take a look at what’s broken, and how to fix it.

A new way to get around town changes everything

Call it the Revolution of ’09. A few years into the new century, a better type of shared transport swept into San Francisco, seemingly overnight. Instead of waiting for Muni, residents now could cheaply be driven in private vehicles wherever they wanted to go. And they could summon these cars with their finger. The public loved it.

I’m talking, of course, about the taxi revolution of 1909. That was the year taxis arrived in SF and exploded in popularity. Here’s how Fay Beal, an early taxi entrepreneur, described them:

There are no longer any such things as lost trains and lateness at appointments. There are taxicabs everywhere, and the raising of a finger brings one of them to one’s side. Their charges are so reasonable that they can be used by almost anyone…

SF Chronicle, April 4, 1909

As much as people loved this new means of transport, problems quickly arose. Cabbies drove like mad men, and the papers contained almost daily stories of accidents. An especially fun one, from the Oct 1, 1909 Chron:

Best. Headline. Ever.

Beyond erratic driving, cabbies were a rough and tumble lot, and were accused of overcharging customers and other shady activities. So, in the same year they arrived in SF, city leaders began regulating them.

Before we go on, you should know that cities, as a rule, are really bad at regulating taxis. For example, this white paper analyzing America’s largest taxi markets found that:

All 44 cities studied regulate taxis tightly, adopting five of 10 major regulatory provisions on average, but the specific regulations they use vary widely. This suggests cities are making taxi policy absent a common understanding of what regulatory provisions, if any, are necessary to protect consumers.

Regulatory Overdrive – Taxi Regulations, Market Concentration and Service Availability, 2018

SF’s attempt at regulation was even messier, because it mixed laws to protect riders with labor demands (like setting taxi meter rates and maximum hours worked) and traffic law enforcement generally, which hadn’t been addressed before taxis came along.

Around 1930 SF began issuing a fixed number of taxi permits, or “medallions”, which allowed a taxi to operate. Medallions were issued to taxi companies, and could be bought and sold. These medallions are at the center of today’s tale.

Regulation didn’t do much to clean up the taxi trade. An example from this excellent page on local history:

Between 1934 and 1936, the [taxi] drivers’ union underwent a period of internal strife marked by beatings, shootings and the burning of vehicles.

What regulation – allowing the government to largely determine the revenues and profits of the industry – did do was invite corruption. For much of the 20th century, a single company, Yellow Cab had a virtual taxi monopoly. It purchased and hoarded medallions to limit competition, and kept city leaders in its glove box:

Yellow dominated the local taxi business for the last 44 years, not only by providing the most taxi service, but by continued munificence to public officials: Campaign donations, Christmas gifts of taxi scrip and other favors.

SF Examiner, Dec 7, 1976

And Yellow got some sweet perks for its troubles. It had a monopoly on airport access, and many prime taxi stands in the city were Yellow-only. The result:

San Francisco taxi rates are already the highest in the world. And with taxi permits sharply limited in number, cab licenses here are worth $20,000 and upward. But only – be it added – so long as Big Yellow clings to it 503 transferable permits and does not bottom the market by dumping same.

Dick Nolan, SF Examiner, Feb 7, 1972

Until 1976, everything was humming along in true SF style – “Big Yellow” made a lot of money, politicians got their share, and citizens were left holding the bag. Then the system hit a speed bump – Yellow Cab turned out to be run by criminals. When it was abruptly shut down, the city found itself with a serious taxi shortage. The result was 1978’s Prop K, which began allocating non-transferrable medallions directly to drivers, not taxi firms.

Today, the industry is still prone to fraud. Hop in a cab at Fisherman’s Wharf, ask to be taken to your hotel, and risk a circuitous tour of the city. And while there are plenty of honest drivers, many aren’t the kind of folks you’d take home to mom.

Spend some time scrutinizing San Francisco’s taxi trade, where thousands of drivers toiling for 34 companies compete for cash, and you’ll find a business where laws are routinely flouted and dubious behavior abounds.

SF Weekly, 2/14/07

So, arguably, the industry continues to require some type of regulation. And by 2006, SF had plenty of that:

Regulating the San Francisco taxi industry currently involves no fewer than 11 separate city departments, and further subdivision within department divisions for a total of 17 total entities.

5/6/06 SFMTA report

It’s good to be a taxi.

Some of this regulation was good (checking meters for fairness), and some probably bad (setting prices and limiting the number of drivers). This is as true today as it was in 1984, when the Federal Trade Commission reported:

The taxicab industry is heavily regulated, mainly by local governments. Entry, fares, services, and quality are restricted in a substantial majority of large urban areas…

The principal conclusion of this report is that no persuasive economic rationale is available for some of the most important regulations. Restrictions on the total number of firms and vehicles and on minimum fares waste resources and impose a disproportionate burden on low income people.

With the city constricting the supply of taxis, the wait for new medallions was in the decades. This created a chronic shortage of drivers, which is just how the existing ones liked it. As long-time Bay Area journalist C.W. Nevius put it in 2008:

Who hasn’t experienced the problem of trying to find a cab on a Saturday night? If the cabbies hadn’t bitterly fought all efforts to increase the number of taxi permits – known as medallions – this wouldn’t be a problem.

Excessive regulation also meant that competition and innovation – the stuff that keeps industries efficient and healthy – were stifled. For example, with too few taxis to serve the city, airport shuttles and town cars rolled in to fill the void. But SF’s regulatory maze couldn’t accommodate them. According to a member of the city’s own regulatory staff:

“In other cities,” Heinicke said, “town cars and cabs are regulated by the same entity, which makes a lot more sense. I think we could also streamline enforcement so it was more administrative than courtroom.”

And as the city over-regulated, it also under-enforced. For example, Prop K specified that medallions could only be used by their owners, who were supposed to be full time cabbies. In practice, owners sold or rented medallions to unlicensed drivers, who forged the signatures of the actual owners on their “waybills”, or road logs. And the city looked the other way.

Consider this man, who made a lot of money off both our city and its regulator:

Then there’s Eugene Shu, an engineer with the city Water Department, who earns a $71,000 yearly salary and owns an $850,000 home and roughly $30,000 in securities, according to public records. Shu also claims to be a full-time cabbie.

SF Weekly, 2/14/02

By 2008, the system was unfair to most drivers:

Currently, cab companies, medallion holders, and rank and file drivers essentially function as a feudal system, with the serfs driving San Franciscans around in vehicles usually owned by the lording cab companies and permitted by older drivers who hold the coveted medallions.

SF Bay Guardian, 11/19/2008

As the guy making all that money off Luxor’s “legacy business” status noted regarding the SF taxi racket:

There’s corruption all over the place.

Luxor Cab President John Lazar, 2/14/2007

Nobody at City Hall wanted to deal with it. A 2005 editorial in the Chronicle described taxi permitting as a “failed” system, opening the piece with:

Approach any City Hall denizen and mention taxi permit reform and you’re likely to witness a grimace and a hasty retreat.

SF Chronicle, 3/29/2005

And all this takes us back to that website image at top. In 2008, the city hatched a plan to fold taxi regulation into the MTA. But there was a problem. The MTA, which also included our public transit (Muni) budget, was starved for cash.

Taxi drivers, the serfs of the industry, do not have high hopes about the merger. “If the merger happens, the MTA [officials] will be able to do whatever they please,” Williams said. “Everyone knows MTA is always in need of money … they don’t care about drivers or improving industry, only their budget.”

SF Bay Guardian, 11/19/2008

But the city assured everyone that no such plan was in play:

MTA spokesperson Judson True told us, “We have no intention of looking to taxi revenue to supplement existing Muni operations.”

SF Bay Guardian, 11/19/2008

Trust us.

2009 – the city breaks the industry (and ride sharing fixes it)

In 2009, to fill a gaping hole in Muni’s budget, the MTA began selling formerly free taxi medallions for $250k each. But only for new drivers. Existing drivers didn’t have to pay.

By 2018, about 40% of drivers had purchased the medallions, often going deep into debt to come up with the funds. This created at least six classes of taxi drivers making wildly varying amounts of money, according to this 2017 study:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is driver-rev.jpg

As you can see, only a minority of medallion owners are actual drivers. This is, again, illegal, but the MTA does not enforce the laws.

The city attempted to give drivers with purchased medallions a break, with yet more rules – it created a scheme of preferential treatment for post-2010 drivers for airport pickups. The other drivers naturally sued. The value of the medallions dropped in value. More lawsuits. No new medallions have been purchased since 2016, and many drivers have defaulted on their loans, leading to, you guessed it, more litigation. There’s a reason our city requires armies of lawyers.

If fairly regulating taxi competitors was tough before, it was impossible now that the city had handicapped some drivers with $250k of debt. But there really wasn’t much competition, was there?

Enter ride sharing in 2010.

Companies like Uber and Lyft eliminated the deceptive practices and need for heavy regulation of the taxi industry. With a corporate backer and phone app, there was no way for fraudulent drivers to participate. With fixed rates and predefined routes, there was no incentive for overcharging. There weren’t even any meters to check. Seemingly overnight, a dirty industry had found a clean solution.

People loved it. I could get across town for $10 less, or to the airport for $20.

So did drivers, who came from all over California to make big money in SF. I sat next to a woman at lunch in Chinatown in 2017 who said she made $300 per day driving. The deficiencies of the taxi game were lain bare. Some studies show app based ride sharing even saves lives.

None of this is to say ridesharing is perfect, or that it doesn’t need some regulation, for example around paratransit (making sure rides are available to disabled people). But the opportunities for fraud are much lower. People quickly switched from taxis to ridesharing for some very good reasons.

As ridesharing exploded, SF’s elected officials stood around awkwardly and wondered what to do. Both Uber and Lyft had been founded in SF and employed hundreds of people here. Mayor Ed Lee, a political moderate, even proclaimed July 13th “Lyft Day” in 2013.

Mostly though, the city’s current crop of anti-corporate leaders has taken an critical stance toward taxi competitors, chipping away at ride sharing at every turn. I guess they feel bad for making such a mess of the taxi trade. Maybe that’s why they’ve dubbed us “A Taxi Town”.

How do we solve this mess? First, our city needs to give up on the $250k medallion scheme, and refund money to drivers who’ve purchased them on a depreciating basis. There are only a few hundred, and the medallion game is dead – a medallion worth $700k in Boston in 2014, for example, was worth $40k in 2018.

Most importantly, taxis, town cars, and ride sharing companies need to compete, as closely as possible with the same rules, in the same lanes, and with the same taxes and fees. In 2016, California attempted just this, with bill AB 650, which would have moved taxi regulation from cities to the same state agency that regulates ride sharing companies. The bill passed both houses of the state legislature, but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it. Ironically, the bill would have reformed taxi regulation in all cities and towns in California except one, which they decided was too big a mess to touch. Can you guess which one?

Even if taxi regulation remains at the local level, we must push for the type of deregulation that’s happening in other cities.

While price regulation was relevant in the days when taxis had a virtual monopoly over private car transportation, technology has changed this market. As has occurred in a variety of markets including airlines and telecommunications, it’s time for governments to deregulate the prices of taxis to generate fair competition and truly allow the best service win.

Rafi Mohammad, Harvard Business Review, 7/9/2014

Finally, no for-profit company should receive cash payments from taxpayers, or free advertising on the city websites, especially those of regulatory agencies. That just invites corruption. We’re not a “taxi town”, or an “Uber town”, we’re a citizen town, and city policies should reflect that.

On a more general note, as San Francisco’s far-left leaders expand further into the private sector with, for example, a public bank, the taxi mess provides a fair warning of why local government should probably stick to traditional services like public safety.

As legendary SF journalist Phil Matier noted, regarding proposed taxes on ride shares:

it will probably be the passengers — not the companies — who pay the new tax.

SF Chronicle, 3/16/2019

And that’s the ultimate rub. It’s not city leaders who bear the cost of a disorganized local government that reshuffles its priorities with each election. It’s you and I, with higher costs and lower standards of living.

Appendix

If you’re not sick of taxis yet, this 1983 Examiner article is a greatest hits of taxi industry woes – corruption, misregulation, litigation, you name it.

Travels with Chesa

My parents were all dedicated to fighting U.S. imperialism around the world. I’m dedicated to the same thing.”

Chesa Boudin, New York Times, 12/9/2002

I recognized there there are cases for where armed struggle is a legitimate tool for social and political change in the face of much greater, more highly organized force.

Chesa Boudin, Gringo, 2009

But far from avoiding the legacy of his parents, Boudin embraces it. It is impossible to understand him, the author says, without understanding the strong impression that their politics made on his own.

James Kirchick, The New Republic, Fall 2009

Petition to recall Chesa Boudin: https://recallchesaboudin.org/

As members of the Weather Underground, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s biological parents bombed a number of buildings in an attempt to overthrow the United States. After killing a few innocent people, they were jailed in 1981, and a one-year-old Chesa was adopted.

You might have hoped that Chesa’s adoptive parents would have been less radical. No such luck. Not only were Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dorhn members of the Weather Underground – they were the founders of the movement. On the run from the government for years after committing a series of felonies, they only escaped serious jail time because some of the evidence against them turned out to have been illegally obtained.

Meet the parents:

Given these two fine sets of folks, it’s worth asking how much daylight there is between Chesa’s value system and those of his murderous moms and dads.

And we’ve got plenty of information here, thanks to Chesa’s 2009 autobiography “Gringo”, which, as the name implies, reflects mainly his experiences in Latin America. Reviewing the book, The New York Times rolled its eyes at Chesa’s insipid observations and stilted writing:

There is no wit in “Gringo,” no humor, no sharp observations, no strange or thrilling adventures. 

New York Times, 4/16/2009

No, there isn’t. But “Gringo” has plenty of a few other things, including a burning hatred for America, a desire for radical socialist revolution, and the promotion of Venezuela as a model civilization. Let’s move through each country Chesa visits, and learn about the man as we go.

The book begins with his trip to a Spanish immersion program in Guatemala during high school. Newly arrived in the country, he walks past a factory and logs:

The sweatshops I saw that day…were one of the faces of neoliberalism that defined the economic landscape I was travelling through. Guatemala, like many countries across the global south at the time, was part of the “Washington Consensus”, a partnership with American-based financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund…this resulted in such disastrous economic performance that the 1980s became known as the “lost decade” in Latin America.

A few points here. First, his views parrot exactly those of his terrorist parents. The Weather Underground was founded to fight against so called “American Imperialism“. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Second, as their names imply, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are not American institutions, but global organizations with the majority of the world’s countries as members.

Third, the “disastrous economic performance” in Latin America in the 1980s was due mostly to local governments’ behavior in the 1970s. Here’s how former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke, who has just slightly more economic expertise than Chesa, explains it:

[Latin American] Governments had run up large amounts of external debt in the 1970s in an attempt to maintain growth in the face of oil price shocks and macroeconomic mismanagement at home. But in 1982, during a period of high real interest rates and slow growth around the globe, Mexico briefly defaulted on its debt, an event that marked the beginning of the debt crisis of the 1980s. The crisis effectively closed off the region’s access to international credit.

In reality, bad luck, poor management, and too much debt lead to this “lost decade”. In Chesaworld, it was all the America’s fault.

What else in Guatemala is America to blame for? Well, pretty much everything.

You might find it a stretch to blame the bad teeth people in poor countries like Guatemala have on America, but Chesa finds away. The culprits? Pepsi and Coke. Chesa sees ads for these in the country, and surmises omnisciently that these imperialist companies have “left even young children’s teeth rotten, while adults had more metal caps than I’d seen anywhere outside rap videos.”

Chesa moves in with his host local family, and immediately begins indoctrinating them on the evils of the US, boring them to tears:

I regularly sought conversation about the tragic history that decades of brutal civil war, unleashed by a United State-supported coup, had visited on the country. But whenever I tried initiating a discussion about President Jacobo Arbenz and the role of the CIA in overthrowing him back in 1954, my host family and their friends seemed uninterested.

Really, Chesa? Nobody cared about a rich teenager, lucky enough to have been born in the US, slumming it with a poor host family while espousing anti-American theories? No irony there. I bet you were fun at parties.

In Chesaworld, every shortcoming in Guatemala can be tied back to the US. Poor diet and environmental damage? Yup, America’s fault:

High-quality meat was being produced locally, often on land that had been cleared of jungle using slash-and-burn techniques, with all the attendant environmental problems. But this was too expensive for locals and was shipped to Guatemala City – or more often to the United States.

So, what do we know so far? That Chesa, just like his four parents, really doesn’t like the US.

Having diagnosed the ills of Guatemala, Chesa returns to Chicago, and heads off to college, where he does a study abroad program in Chile.

Terroist leanings in Chile

Chesa visits Chile in 2001. He spends his time there feeling guilty for being American:

Many Chilean military officials implicated in the [1973 Pinochet] coup, torture, and human rights abuses were trained the US….Even though I wasn’t born at the time of the atrocities, I felt connected to them, and somehow implicated.

And:

Pinochet’s coup and the downfall of Chile’s democratic socialist experiment had represented a victory for United States imperialism and corporate profits. It was hard not to feel a sense of shame for the role the US government and the CIA played in supporting the Pinochet dictatorship….

Here, stunningly, Chesa praises his parents’ terrorist activities in the US:

But I took solace in the fact that my family, unlike other study abroad students I knew in Chile, had taken action in support of Chilean democracy, against the coup and their own government’s disgraceful role in it.

What actions is Chesa praising here? It was around this time that his parents’ terrorist organization was bombing both the US Capitol and the Pentagon, Osama Bin Laden-style. And it’s here that he gives us the quote at the top of this post, about the benefits of armed struggle.

For the record, the US had no direct role in the Pinochet coup, though it did support elements against Marxist Salvadore Allende, after he joined forces with the USSR and threatened to nationalize US companies operating legally there.

What we learned: America does horrible things, and violent responses, like those of his parents, are probably ok.

Venezuela: The Promised Land

I’ll spare you quotes from Chesa’s travels through Argentina, but suffice to say the US, the CIA, and the IMF and really, really, bad actors responsible for every malady in the country.

In his next adventure, worthy of a brief mention, Chesa travels to Brazil in 2003, thrilled at the election of Socialist President Luiz Lula.

I was excited by the prospect of a country as powerful as Brazil having a progressive, working class president.

Unfortunately, Lula didn’t ultimately seem radical enough for Chesa’s tastes:

Lula would ultimately disappoint many of those on the traditional Brazil left with conservative economic policies and good relations with Washington…

Ask yourself: which parts of the global community see good relations with America as a bad thing? Yet these are the people Chesa aligns himself with repeatedly in the book.

Lula, incidentally, was later sentenced to 10 years in prison for corruption and money laundering.

Finally, in 2006, Chesa lands in Venezuela, then in the process of transforming its country from a market economy into the type of socialist paradise Chesa admires so much.

Chesa isn’t one to let ignorance stop him, as long as radical politics are on the menu:

I knew almost noting about the Chavez government except that it purported to represent power to the people, wealth redistribution, and anti-imperialist global south regionalism, which sounded like worthy goals to me.

What could possibly go wrong?

Chesa gets caught up in Chavez destructively unique brand of socialism:

One of Chavez’s central themes was that to end poverty, power had to be given to the poor. That simple concept made sense in a revolutionary kind of way, and I wondered why I hadn’t heard it articulated so concisely before.

Before long, he actually joins the Chavez administration as a translator. He realizes, to his delight, that he’s playing an active role in the type of socialist revolution his parents could only dream (or perhaps bomb) about:

I had heard plenty of of criticisms of export-oriented neoliberal economies before…rarely had they put forward alternative models on a national scale, and the had never, to my knowledge, been seriously debated within the inner circles of a head of state….Venezuela seemed like the perfect country to try and imagine and implement an alternative system.

These must have been heady times for our young radical:

I took to signing my emails to friends and family “in the belly of the revolution”

While the Chavez administration was typically suspicious of Americans, Chesa had the ultimate revolutionary pedigree.

I had found one of the few places on the planet where having parents in prison in the United States for politically motivated crimes actually opened doors rather than closed them.

Tip: when you find yourself working for any organization that glorifies Americans in jail for murder, it may be time to seek other employment.

Chesa believed so deeply in the socialist revolution in Venezuela that he co-authored a book on the subject:

And translated another of Chavez’s speeches:

The results of Chesa and Chavez’s radical socialist policies were predictable and depressing. Paragraph 3 of his Wikipedia article says it all.

What we learned: Chesa loves the radical socialism of Chavez’s Venezuela.

Colombia, and wrapping up

A couple of years later, Chesa heads down to Colombia, to survey the awful damage the US has wrought on the country:

President Uribe, a darling of the US State Department, has a sordid history. His popularity in Washington as a conservative, pro-United States neoliberal….

That association with America, the Great Satan, is all Chesa needs to know to condemn him. In a meeting in Colombia, Chesa condemns the US in sweeping terms:

I was self-conscious of our position as the only two representatives from the United States, a country that, directly or indirectly, had fueled the violence in all of the Latin American countries represented in our solemn gathering.

Who makes such statements, besides terrorists and deeply misguided radicals? Chesa is one of the two.

The book continues in the same way. His next trip is to Ecuador, where, of course:

United States oriented economic policies, particularity the dollarization of the economy, had totally undermined the area’s traditional sustenance farming economy.

Probably not a bad thing – “sustenance farming” doesn’t seem like much of a life. But Chesa can’t resist a dig at the US.

Back in Venezuela in 2006, Chesa continues with his now-familiar tirades against the US. Just one example, which succinctly sums up Chesa’s world view:

Maybe if we “estadounidenses” [Americans] did a better job of making sure our tax dollars didn’t go toward undermining democratic experiments or overthrowing or destabilizing governments unwilling to adhere to US policy imperatives, people in countries like Venezuela could do a better job resolving their own internal problems.

You get the idea. No shortcoming of any country is anyone’s fault but ours.

At the end of the book, a 28 year old Chesa is living in New York City, but keeps a close eye on his hero down south:

I followed from afar as Chavez introduced a new currency, removed price controls on milk, and successfully brokered the release of hostages held for years in Columbia.

What we learned: The usual. America, Bad. Venezuela, Good.

“Gringo” gives us plenty of insights into the mind of a young, revolutionary radical. Will Chesa take up bombing government buildings in the hopes of destroying the “Imperialist America” he despises? It’s hard to say, but the fact that we even have to consider the question makes you wonder if Chesa Boudin is the right person to head criminal prosecutions, acting on behalf of the government, in San Francisco.

Caltrain: 77 Miles of Track

Each day, a shrinking (see below) number of Bay Area workers endure two-plus hour daily commutes to and from San Francisco on Caltrain. A typical commute involves driving to a train station, parking, waiting for the train, riding, then walking from the Caltrain terminal to their jobs. After work, they perform this same lengthy maneuver in reverse.

But Caltrain isn’t just unpleasant for its riders. The tax subsidies required to keep the line afloat, especially after the passage of Measure RR in November 2020, place an enormous financial burden on society, far in excess of any reasonable benefit the small number of mostly wealthy Caltrain riders receive from being able to work far from their homes.

A system of bottomless subsidies

A round trip ticket on Caltrain between, say, Santa Clara and San Francisco costs $20. If you buy a monthly pass, that amount drops to $15, assuming 20 days of commuting per month. That’s not to say commuters actually pay that much, but we’ll get to that later. Let’s first answer the question: how much does a single daily commute actually cost society?

Public transit, like most organizations, has two types of expenses, operating and capital. Operating expenses are the daily cost of running the train – salaries, utilities, etc. Capital expenses are fixed, long term outlays, like a new train car, or upgrades to existing systems, like the electrification of the Caltrain track.

Public transit advocates like to ignore capital expenses when looking at the true cost of transit. Their favored metric is the “farebox recovery ratio“, the percentage of operating expenses met by fares paid. But it’s an irrelevant number, as it only includes one of the two expense types.

Note: Caltrain’s fiscal or reporting year is from June to June, so “FY 2020” below, for example, refers to July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020.

In FY 2019, Caltrain collected $112M in fares (and other things like parking), and had $147M in operating expenses. Looking at operating expenses alone, it appears taxpayers only have to cover 35% of the total Caltrain fare, meaning that that a $15 round trip actually costs about $21, with tax payers picking up the remaining $6. This doesn’t include capital expenses, but then, how much of these can 77 miles of track really have?

The answer is, when it comes to Caltrain, a truly unbelievable amount. In 2019, capital expenses were $405M, almost four times fares collected. All in, that $21 Caltrain ticket actually cost $73 in 2019. That’s almost $18,000 per year!

Back to that $15 per day, or $300 per month, commuter fare. No one actually pays that much out of pocket. San Francisco actually requires employers to provide a credit of the cost of a Muni A Pass ($98), and, further, provide an employee tax deduction for up to $270 (the federal limit) for money spent on public transit. Assuming a 40% state and federal tax rate, our commuter only paid the equivalent of $121 per month to ride Caltrain.

Let’s put it all together:

Who’s really paying for that ride? Mostly, taxpayers. The annual amount we spend allowing a single lucky commuter a year of long, sweaty commutes is enough, for example, to send 500 kids to a year of elementary school in a developing country. In the US, $14k/year pays the mortgage on an $300k house! The average home price in the US is around $200k.

Transit advocates have two, mostly bad, responses to these facts. The first is: “But roads are subsidized too!” In fact, the opposite is true, at least in California. In 2018, for example, our state received $16 billion (!) in gas tax revenues alone. This was so much more than was needed to maintain our roads that most of the money went to (surprise!) public transit subsidies, law enforcement, the “Department of Food”, Parks and Recreation, and other non-road related budgets. Drivers here provide subsidies – they don’t benefit from them.

The second response from transit advocates is: “But think of all the auto vehicle pollution we’re saving”! But that’s a false choice. It’s true that, absent Caltrain, some people might drive to work instead. But many others would move nearer their job, or telecommute. In fact, telecommuting is an option of such growing importance that the Metropolitan Transit Commission, which regulates transit in the Bay Area, recently proposed that 60% of commuters be working remotely by 2050 to reduce climate change. Once transit systems got wind of this, they quickly flexed their political muscle to get the project killed, which tells you a lot about their priorities.

And all that auto pollution? California is already phasing out gas vehicles, and many people – especially wealthy commuters – drive electric vehicles already.

Where do these phenomenal capital expenses come from? Caltrain’s electrification project alone, first conceived in 1921, is now projected to cost $3.2 billion, up from an initial estimate of $800 million. That’s 30 years of passenger revenue, for a single project, which will result in Caltrain having to increase its operating expenses by 33%. And there are a constant stream of smaller capital projects, from new control systems to bridge replacements. Maintaining Caltrain is very, very expensive.

Caltrain receives money from county, state and the federal governments, but in 2020 even those weren’t enough to cover the subsidies required to fund it. Enter Measure RR, a regressive 1/8-cent sales tax increase that is expected to provide around $100M in tax funds per year for the next 30 years.

The irony is that most Caltrain riders earn more than enough to pay the full cost of the fare. Former Foster City mayor Jim Lawrence, in speaking out against Measure RR, notes that 80% of Caltrain riders have household incomes over $200,000 per year!

A system in decline

Given the incredible subsidies commuters receive to take Caltrain, you might think people would be lining up to ride. After all, if you could get something – a car, or a vacation – that costs $18,000, for just $1,450 per year, you’d probably take it.

The problem is, more and more people are saying No to nightmare commutes, at any cost (source):

Even before covid-19, ridership had dropped over 20% from its peak in 2016. And that’s despite a booming economy and growing Bay Area population. The 2020 number there ends in June, so it does include 3-4 months of post-covid ridership data, but it’s clear where the numbers are headed.

Lower ridership, of course, brings the need for yet more subsidies. When you see the next proposed tax increase to subsidize a small number of rich people, think carefully before voting.