Last week, the Chronicle ran a hit piece about the Our City, Our Home ballot measure, headed for November’s ballot thanks to a heroic volunteer army of socialists. The measure would levy a small increase on the gross receipts tax for businesses earning over $50 million to finally make a significant dent in homelessness by funding to scale The City’s already-established goals.
Homelessness, we are relentlessly reminded, is the most urgent of The City’s woes.
While the Chronicle quoted supporters of the initiative, its frame was alarmism about raising the gross receipts tax, beginning with the headline, “SF business tax measure could result in middle class job flight.” The headline relied on a memo from the Office of Economic and Workforce Development suggesting the measure could lead to job loss, and then a catechism from Jim Lazarus of the Chamber of Commerce that big companies might relocate because of the new tax.
Except the article oversold the memo’s contents.
The memo wasn’t public, so readers have to trust the reporting. Fortunately, it was sent to me. Normally, a thorough analysis of policy would come in a published study from the controller, the legislative analyst, the chief economist, or maybe a consultant, but not OEWD.
It turns out, the Chronicle misrepresented an internal memo as analysis. It was an analysis like Uber is public transit—only if you redefine the terms. There was no methodology. It’s more casual speculation about possible effects. What passes for “methods” at OEWD is comparing business taxes in various cities to demonstrate how much more taxed is San Francisco, since clearly San Francisco is a flailing economic backwater.
The memo’s findings are equivocal. It only contemplates potential employment losses on businesses subject to the tax without mentioning that the measure brings needed new revenue to homeless services, which create middle-class jobs. In public policy, the question is net job loss or gain. If we, theoretically, lost office jobs and gained even more social worker jobs, that’s not necessarily bad.
We’ve been treated to a parade of articles about how homelessness is bad for business. Homelessness scares away tourists. Homelessness makes people hide in their homes and forces them, unwillingly, into tech company cafeterias. Yet, a significant reduction in homelessness is not worth analyzing for potential positive effects on business.
The memo estimates the higher gross receipts tax would affect only 5 percent of businesses, mostly huge corporations headquartered here. The memo concludes that moving a headquarters is resource intensive, so corporations MIGHT relocate jobs away from The City gradually OVER DECADES. The Chronicle didn’t mention in its repeated invocations of the memo in two articles this week that the memo itself only speculates that any job loss would be potential and occur slowly if at all.
The Chamber of Commerce has literally been wrong in every prediction they’ve made in history, since 1846 when they foretold a looming Feldspar Rush. Jim Lazarus warned that The City would lose jobs by raising the minimum wage in 2003, by creating Healthy San Francisco, by closing the loophole in funding Healthy San Francisco, by mandating paid sick days, and by increasing the real estate transfer tax. How many times can someone’s predictions be wrong before reporters have an obligation to say so?
The Chronicle could accurately report, “Jim Lazarus, who has been wrong every time he’s warned that reducing inequality would drive business away, spouted yet more unsubstantiated nonsense.” Or, “The Chamber of Commerce claims to be profoundly concerned about homelessness, as long as they don’t have to pay to fix it.”
The chamber’s astroturf group is called “Right Priority, Wrong Approach.” Since they don’t want to pay to solve homelessness, we must conclude that the chamber thinks the right approach is maintaining the current failed policy in which police arrest and harass homeless people at great taxpayer expense with no discernible positive effect.
I prefer something that would work.
Nato Green is a comedian and writer. He’ll be making fun of “Flashdance” with Natasha Muse at Riffer’s Delight on Monday August 27 at the Alamo Drafthouse.