An Open Letter to the Left

What can we do better?

Urbanist Article February 1, 2003

San Francisco stands out as perhaps the most progressive city in the United States. In this time of war, we have argued that true long-term security can only come from addressing the underlying conditions of poverty, religious fundamentalism, and anger towards America. In this time of Republican ascendancy, we cast more votes for the Green Party candidate for governor than the GOP. In this time when the petroleum-automobile complex seems to dominate domestic and international policy, we have reaffirmed the Transit First ideal.

But when it comes to local governance, San Francisco's left is in trouble. The left has gained power in local races for Supervisor (pitted against a mayor who is, of course, on the left by national standards). Which means that, in contrast to progressives in most of America, the San Francisco left cannot be content to play the role of "critic" or "conscience." In San Francisco, the left has to actually govern.

The results, so far, are a mixed bag. Many ballot measures and pieces of legislation that are emerging from the left display a great deal of intelligence and moral integrity. But unlike our counterparts in other parts of the world, where the left actually has a tradition of governing, and of bearing responsibility for the long-term health of a society, San Francisco's left appears to suffer from one critical pathology: it cannot seem to make peace with the business community.

Virtually every progressive political campaign relies on simplistic attacks against "downtown." Even measures which are clearly in the long-term interest of the business community are promoted as if they would hurt it--the most troubling recent case in point being the November 2002 campaign to increase the real estate transfer tax on property worth more than $1 million. This tax would have been spread across all property sales, not just corporate or downtown property. And unlike the payroll tax, it would not have discouraged job creation. Nevertheless, the "yes" campaign featured pictures of tall buildings--of course, everyone must hate those?--and asked voters to "make downtown pay." Why not appeal to voters to protect important public services? The knee-jerk anti-business attitudes promoted by this campaign helped an important funding measure to lose.

On a deeper level, far more is at stake than simply campaign slogans. The left needs to accept responsibility for the health of the economic base of the city.

Yes, a progressive economic development agenda will have some differences from the agenda promoted by the business community. Progressives will care a lot about the distribution of wealth ("who benefits?") and about the environmental and social consequences of economic activities that take place in San Francisco. But progressives must find a way to work productively with the business community as an ally in the shared project of nurturing a strong economic base for San Francisco that provides both jobs and taxes.

San Franciscans believe in high levels of public services. We want great public transit, health care for all, parks that are a joy to be in. We want the police and firefighters to come when we need them. We want to provide care for the homeless and the mentally ill. We want public buildings that symbolize our high aspirations. We want a school system that gives all residents of the city a good education regardless of how much money they have. In sum, we want a system of government that provides high quality public services to all who need them.

The economist John Kenneth Galbraith once described the contradiction of America as "private affluence, public squalor." The progressive agenda stands for something different: private affluence, shared as broadly as possible, and public affluence, in the sense of a healthy community and strong public sector. The only way we're going to pay for any of this is if we have a strong economic base. That's the ultimate source of wealth that provides the taxes that fund the public sector. A progressive regime cannot exist without a plan for building up the economy. That means we all have to worry about preventing capital flight and making San Francisco an attractive place for businesses to locate jobs.

This is what progressive heroes from around the world who are in positions of power, rather than throwing rocks from the outside, do. The Mayor of London, "Red" Ken Livingston, is pursuing a strong pro-growth policy, coupled with progressive taxation and investments in public infrastructure.

The new president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, leader of the Workers Party, used his inaugural speech to say "creating jobs is going to be my obsession" and appointed a well-respected international banker to run the country's federal reserve bank.

Winning office implies a different set of responsibilities than "speaking truth to power." It means actually creating the conditions for a healthy wsociety, given the realities of our imperfect world.

This doesn't mean it's going to be easy or that the progressive agenda will always dovetail with the business community. Progressives will still have to wage an ongoing struggle for a more equal distribution of wealth. Some corporations will still try to "maximize shareholder value" by externalizing the costs of their activities onto the rest of society or onto future generations. And of course there will continue to be struggles over the "rules of the game" that structure markets at local, national, and international levels.

The left needs to stop demonizing the business community. Instead, it is time to view the business community as an essential ally in creating a more perfect city.

The left needs to develop a set of principles to distinguish economically efficient taxes from taxes that hurt the economy. These principles will not replace other priorities like making the tax system progressive; but greater sophistication about the likely market responses to various tax schemes is essential.

The left needs to care as much or more about the efficiency of services provided by city government as the business community. It should not be up to the business community alone to propose ways to get greater value for the citizenry out of a given funding level of local government--this should be a core, shared priority that progressives and the business community work on together.

The left needs to have a credible plan for attracting capital and jobs to San Francisco, and preventing capital flight. Every progressive "regime" in the world faces this challenge. It's reality.

In sum, the left needs to work towards a social compact with the business community, defined by a strong private economy, a welcoming attitude toward private investment, high taxes tied to high public services, and a commitment to respectful compromise on the hard issues.

It's easy to stop things we don't like. It's harder to get things accomplished.SPUR logo

About the Authors: 

Gabriel Metcalf is deputy director at SPUR.

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