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Thursday, January 7, 2010

I'll Surrender My Snark If the Guardian Loses its Condescension: One More Look at the Numbers

Posted By on Thu, Jan 7, 2010 at 10:15 AM

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Tim Redmond thinks our debate on Forum tomorrow should be "fun." But I'm bored with his line of argument already. Because the truth is that we're reached a point in the "how much does San Francisco spend per capita?" debate where reasonable people can disagree. And at that point, debating the numbers instead of San Francisco's urgent governmental needs is letting the city get off easy.

We're not arguing about facts so much as what is appropriate to put in or out of the equation ... and there's no definitive answer to that question, nor will there be. It's still a decent subject for a debate, but it's a sidebar that's obscuring the larger discussion, the one we really want to have, about why this city is so horribly mismanaged (hint: Joe Eskenazi and I wrote 5,000 words about its entrenched culture of unaccountability). I know that for Joe and me, any discussion of "Worst-Run City" that doesn't center on unaccountability is missing the point.

So at the risk of making everyone roll their eyes and link to a sexy slide show or an article about pot, l'm going to go over the Guardian's arguments while acting on the assumption that they are making a good-faith effort to get at the real answer, and explain -- in a snark-free way -- why we disagree, hopefully clearing the way for a discussion about how we can actually make this city better.

The first point to realize is that the chart we included in the "Worst-Run City" article (adjusting Philadelphia's budget) was accurate: the raw numbers -- total city budget, population, and per-capita spending based on those numbers -- do show that San Francisco spends more money per person than other cities. The Guardian isn't contesting that. They can't.

What they are saying is that:

1) The raw budget numbers aren't really representative of the situations in those cities;

2) We need to take into account the fact that cities spend their money on different things; and

3) There are mitigating factors that should be taken into account when calculating what cities "really" spend.

Our response to these comments can be summarized this way:

1) They're close enough

2) Cities choose to spend their money on different things -- that's kind of the point.

3) Cities have some control over those mitigating factors, which means they're not really mitigating.

In essence, the Guardian is making a kind of affirmative-action argument for cities: each city's test score needs to be adjusted to reflect the different circumstances they find themselves in. Joe Eskenazi and I believe that (in this case) they don't: Cities have a great deal of power to determine their own outcomes. They have, over the years, made decisions that have resulted in the circumstances they're in. So adjusting the numbers here makes the comparison less useful, not more.

While this debate is about numbers, there isn't a mathematical way to settle it. We're arguing about the ground rules. I suspect we're never going to agree: I'd like to think we can agree to disagree, but that's probably wildly optimistic.

Still, here's how this dynamic plays out.

First, the Guardian says that a better approach to comparing budgets is to look at the cities' general funds, rather than their total budgets -- since some cities have spun certain kinds of services off into separate entities that don't appear on their final balance sheet.

A case can be made for this approach, although I'm not convinced. Since not all cities do this the same way, or to the same extent, I don't think it makes the comparison any more accurate. However, even when you do this, San Francisco's per capita spending is still easily the highest.

Next, the Guardian "adjusted" the budget numbers to reflect the fact that San Francisco pays for things -- like a hospital or a city-wide public transit system -- that not all comparison cities do. This is tricky, because you'll never make the same adjustments for each city, but it is one way of trying to address a basic problem: How can you compare city spending when one city pays for a bunch of stuff that the others all don't?

Here's where the philosophical differences come in. For us, the fact that San Francisco pays for a bunch of stuff other municipalities don't is the point. Other cities could have these things -- Philadelphia could have a city-based transit system, Indianapolis a county-funded hospital -- if they wanted them enough to pay for them. They don't. The choices a city has made over time impact what it offers and how much it spends.

This is sometimes mitigated by the fact that spending can be mandated by the state or federal government, but in general cities pay for what they want and don't pay for what they don't. This isn't a judgment about the value of those choices: I for one am glad San Francisco has Muni. The Guardian's right to say that Indianapolis' transit system is seriously inferior to San Francisco's (I can vouch for that personally). But the fact is, the municipalities made their choices: I don't see any reason why that shouldn't be taken into account when we tally up their spending. The Guardian does.

Even so, however, using this set of "adjusted" numbers, San Francisco is still spending the most per capita. No question. And, as we noted before, The Guardian doesn't even attempt to factor in the things other cities do pay for and San Francisco doesn't.

Next, the Guardian says that we compared San Francisco to the wrong cities anyway: They rule out New York because it's just too big and complicated. Fair enough -- But San Francisco compares itself to New York so much already that we might as well throw it in there.

Then they claim that San Francisco is less like Denver, Nashville, and Indianapolis -- which are all city-counties -- and more like Los Angeles and Chicago.

There are reasons for doing that: Los Angeles and Chicago are big metropolitan cities with expansive social services and a diverse population. But I still find it highly questionable. San Francisco's population is 808,976. Compare that to these populations:

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Benjamin Wachs

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