I know San Franciscans wonder what the rest of the country is smoking this election season. But let's take a moment to remember that people who live in glass houses shouldn't get stoned.
With two months to go, our local election hypocrisy already matches anything John McCain and "lipstick" have come up with. . .and they're running a national campaign to convince 300 million people that Alaska is our last, best line of defense against the Red Menace.
It was never possible for San Franciscans to sit down and have a rational discussion about ballot initiatives. I know, rationality is for people who Just Don't Get It. But the hysteria surrounding two of this year's initiatives - Prop H, the "public power" initiative, and Prop K, the "progressives for prostitutes" initiative – have got half the city foaming at the mouth.
These initiatives don't deserve it. One is a no-brainer, the other a puzzler, and both require an electorate capable of taking a deep breath.
The latest Prop H hysteria comes from the Guardian, whose cover story this week promises that passing the initiative will do everything short of curing baldness.
I can't really blame them, though, since if the Guardian's been hysterical, PG&E has been truly despicable. Prop H is going to raise our utility bills by $400? Mandate massive deficit spending? Kill all our firstborn sons? They'll clearly say anything. At least the Guardian has some documentation.
In fact, Prop H will do neither what PG&E nor the Guardian is saying. The actual text of the charter amendment is convoluted, but the outcome is pretty basic: the city will conduct an evaluation of what its best power options are for going green, and then be empowered to do what it needs to do to implement the best option. That's it.
Why does this even need to be on the ballot? How does the city need the voter's permission to come up with a good plan? And why would anyone say they can't do it? Would PG&E rather we have a bad plan? Or no plan at all?
The city has the right -even the duty- to plan responsibly for its future, and then follow-up. Prop H shouldn't even need to be on the ballot, it should be standard practice. Yes, let us evaluate our options and pick the best one. I wish the city would run its economy, law enforcement, and housing offices the same way. To be clear: anyone who is against Prop H isn't against public ownership of utilities - they're against planning.
If PG&E thinks they can be the best solution for municipal green power they should, I don't know, make that happen, instead of trying to block the city from even asking the question.
The Guardian shouldn't exaggerate either, but I see their point.
Now Prop K is a little more complicated. And by "a little" I mean "a lot." And by "a lot" I mean "probably insolvably so."
If Prop H takes a simple good idea and blows it up into a convoluted ballot initiative, Prop K takes a hugely complicated and convoluted set of arguments regarding how we want to view human dignity, what the costs and benefits are of various legal approaches to prostitution, and whose fault is it when bad things happen, and squeezes them into a "yes or no" vote.
The advocates for this measure talk a big – but superficial – game about how much better decriminalizing prostitution will make life for everybody. We will be sooooooo sexy! Blow jobs for all!
But the record is far more complicated. Isn't it always?
The evidence that decriminalizing or legalizing prostitution actually helps women (or male prostitutes), let alone reduces human trafficking and organized crime is extremely weak – and is often contradicted. So much so that the Netherlands has actually significantly curtailed its legal red light districts in recent years precisely because they found that even in the best of circumstances, prostitution on any kind of large scale invites human trafficking, organized crime, and dangerous working conditions. Other European countries have had similar disappointing results from experiments with legalized or decriminalized prostitution.
(The New York Times’ Nick Kristof has written about this issue, here and here and here. Bob Herbert has written about it here, and when the Scottish Parliament was considering new approaches to prostitution, it evaluated the success of other countries’ efforts here).
But in fact surprisingly little solid research on the impact of decriminalization has been conducted. Bottom line: limited evidence from law enforcement suggests it’s a bad idea, but we really don’t know, and anybody who tells you otherwise has an agenda.
But then, agendas are what Prop K is all about. Its proponents don’t just want San Francisco’s working girls to have a healthy work environment – they want more working girls. Prop K isn’t a public health initiative, it’s a pro-prostitution initiative.
That’s clear from the public statements made by supports of Prop K, and hilariously obvious from the text of the resolution itself, which includes gems like:
“The police department target massage parlor workers and management in numerous sting operations, which result in the loss of economic independence for those workers.”
“The San Francisco Police Department … shall not subject sex-workers to life long economic discrimination associated with having a criminal records.”
This is why Prop K supporters turn down their noses at the most effective prostitution laws in the world, those in Sweden, which decriminalize the selling of sex but put severe penalties on the purchase of it. As a result, prostitutes are not afraid to approach police when they’ve been attacked by a John, or to go to public health clinics, or tell their doctor what they do...but police retain an effective weapon against human traffickers and other human predators. It’s arguable the best of both worlds, but it also reduces prostitution, so Prop K supporters don’t support it.
It’s also, not coincidentally, one of the approaches San Francisco takes, with its First Offender Prostitution Program – which a recent 2-year Department of Justice funded study lauded as being humane, effective, and fiscally sound (the city doesn’t pay a dime for it). FOPP would be effectively banned if Prop K passes.
All of which is to say that, if people in SF want to have a real discussion about the pros and cons of legal prostitution, OK we can have that. There’s certainly a real conversation to be had, with good and bad arguments on both sides.
But Prop K is built on a fundamental dishonesty just as sure as the campaign against Prop H is...and dishonesty is always served by hysteria.
And as long as we’re voting based on thoroughly dishonest propaganda, I’d just like to say that Prop E (whatever it is) will end famine, while Prop F will hurt puppies.