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Fear, Loathing, and Non Sequiturs at Chico State 

Or, how humanoids, hemp, and Ralph Nader will save us from Propositions I, L, and M

Wednesday, Nov 1 2000
It was 9 a.m. on a Monday, I'd been up all night, and I knew that if I closed my eyelids, they'd scrape painful grooves down the panes of my eyeballs. So I stared blankly northward. I was shivering in the warmth of the SF Weekly Enterprises building, thinking bad thoughts about San Francisco's political season, knowing that, somehow, I had to get out of this place. Then it hit me: I could go upstate, where the breeze is dry, the fields are blond, and my clogged-up nose couldn't detect the sour-liquor fumes wafting from San Francisco's small-town, big-city, pre-election borrachera.

You know what I mean: The city was enthralled by a fleet of inane, ignorant, destructive ballot propositions that had somehow been passed off as spaceships to Valhalla. A new, district-by-district system of selecting municipal supervisors promised to turn San Francisco into a Balkan zone of NIMBY warfare. State ballot propositions -- faux-campaign finance reform, big-business scams to scuttle regulatory fees, and so forth -- threatened to squash forever the Hiram Johnson dream of curbing special interests. The country at large, meanwhile, had been forced to suffer the presidential aspirations of a lethal-inject-'em-or-pollute-'em moron from Texas and The Nihilist From Tennessee.

It all stank; it made my eyes hurt; I couldn't sleep. The smell was worst here in San Francisco: The saccharine odor of old wood and wet carpet wafted out of the Mission District social halls where small groups of "progressives" had assembled their ludicrous no-growth ballot proposition, L. The soft-leather and room-freshener stench seeped from the 23rd-floor corporate suites where financial chieftains brokered the unfair tax break for themselves known as Proposition I. There was the acid smell of bogusness surrounding a host of other measures, including the Proposition M "taxi reform" measure.

And there was the reek of dozens of muddy shoes on thousands of living room floors where supervisorial candidates had carried the collective district-election message: Power to the mean-spirited. NIMBY neighbors forever!

I needed to hit the road, go statewide.

Butte County, Tehama County, Shasta County -- God's Country, that's where I was headed. I rented a 168-horsepower, overhead-cam, V-6 Chrysler Sirrus (0-60 in 10 seconds, 60-90 in five more). I paid my toll at the Carquinez Bridge, pressed the accelerator, felt my head yank backward, and soared; through Woodland's fallow tomato fields, the puddled rice paddies of Sutter County, past Marysville and Yuba City, gunning the car along olive-tree-lined Highway 99 as if this two-lane road were the back way out of a bar fight.

I didn't want to traverse this territory alone, of course. It's hard to cleanse oneself of the fetid bacon drippings of politics without help, so I figured I'd hook up in Chico with a thin, slightly wall-eyed guy I know. The thin man had been on the road for a long time now, trying to escape the coarse reality of the 2000 election. He'd know what we should do, where to go.

Now, though, there was driving to do: I passed pine-post and cardboard election signs sprouting from the roadside. Squinting, I imagined these local, Butte County political strivers -- Chuck Epp, a Gridley, Calif., maker of motorized duck decoys, and Wally Herger, a Mormon rice export advocate from Chico -- to be of a better, more wholesome stock than our San Francisco breed. "They had to be better in Gridley, Calif.," I was thinking, and just then I saw flashing lights in my rearview mirror, followed by the smiling fresh face of a Gridley, Calif., cop.

It turns out they've got a 45 mph zone a mile out of town. I was going 55. As the cop was writing the ticket, Gridley seemed less and less inviting. In fact, I decided, those Gridleyites were a bunch of conniving scammeurs.

Hardly any better, in fact, than the charlatans who fancy themselves wholesome in San Francisco: the no-growth harpies.

The harpies had managed to qualify an anti-office-development ballot initiative that just made me burn. According to their logic, if builders would only quit making so many new offices, commercial rents would decline, housing would become affordable, nonprofits would be saved, traffic problems would cease, and San Francisco's 1950s role as a manufacturing center could be reasserted.

These professors of anti-economics argued that scarcity doesn't drive up the price of real estate, "gentrification" does. Their reasoning was as tangled as a box of phone cords, and the measure itself had been financed by a millionaire real estate speculator who would see his holdings increase in value if it succeeded. Still, the Prop. L spiel ("people, not profits") seemed to be having an effect on voters, who, polls said, were more or less split on whether this proposition should pass. And that burned me up.

Three years ago, I moved to San Francisco, after spending most of the previous 13 years in the developing world. My first few months back in the Bay Area seemed a wonderland of First World delights: drinkable tap water, smooth streets, reliable phone service. Soon, though, I began to see that the locals cherished a different First World luxury: the privilege of engaging in escapist economic fantasy.

America is so rich and so big and so powerful that the people who live in it almost never feel the effects of real economic trauma. A Guatemalan or Thai shopkeeper, on the other hand, intimately understands the behavior of exchange rates, the link between inflation, interest rates, and the balance of trade, and the interaction between scarcity and price. He has to. He's seen his own national economy collapse repeatedly.

In San Francisco, however, amazing levels of wealth have made the notion of economic forces seem abstract. This city, so eager to identify with the plight of the developing world, finds itself reveling in perhaps the most arrogant of First World conceits: that basic economic principles don't actually work. And this arrogance could pass Proposition L, and hurt the least fortunate in the name of saving them.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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