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Friday, December 25, 2009

Year in Review: What Did We Learn in 2009?

Posted By on Fri, Dec 25, 2009 at 5:01 AM


It's been a fascinating year in San Francisco, full of such deep revelations. I think we've all learned a lot, and at this time of year, when we reflect on how our lives went so horribly wrong, I think it's good to take stock of the wisdom we've gained from the story of our fair city. 

      Lesson 1: the worse a crisis gets, the less likely something gets done about it.

San Francisco's current financial crisis could be seen from so far away that the ancient Mayans put in on their calendar. For all our talk about environmentalism and sustainability, it simply hasn't penetrated that the way we run our city is obviously unsustainable.

We haven't just been ignoring the obvious, we've been defriending it and deleting its contact information from our phones. This is why we're constantly lurching from budget crisis to budget crisis for the same damn reasons every year.

Just now, near the end of 2009, some baby steps are being taken to put San Francisco back on an even keel. A serious look at ongoing budget cuts is being presented (at least at the moment) by Mayor Gavin Newsom, and a serious look at pension reform is being proposed (at least at the moment) by Supervisor Sean Elsbernd.

It's an ironic fact of life that two of the least likable people in City Hall are two of the people proposing some of the most serious attempts to get our budget back on track. I think there's something about being unpleasant that lends itself to effectiveness - but that's just a theory.

The fact is that while these are noble efforts, they're too little too late. For San Francisco to thrive we can't just cut our budget or raise our taxes ... we have to reinvent government from top to bottom so that it functions better, and smarter, for less. Right now San Francisco's government has the IQ of an especially engaging squash ... the kind of squash that made Einstein say "This looks delicious!" ... and spending cuts and pension reform don't change that.

Nothing's happening because the size of the task is daunting and the people whose toes would be stepped on to reinvent city government are scary. But there's always an excuse. While we're happy to tell America what to do about its economy, and the world how to save its environment, we'll do anything to avoid even the simplest real solutions to local government if they might impact our own city. The bigger the crisis, the less gets done - often for the smallest reasons.

Lesson 2: he who lives by Twitter dies by Twitter.

 There's something appropriate about Gavin Newsom, a virtual mayor if ever there was one, running a virtual campaign for governor. One can't help but think, watching him on YouTube, that the medium truly is the message in a way even Marshall McLuhan never intended. Yes, Gavin talks about policies, but he talks about them the way other actors hold a cigarette: the point isn't his policies, the point is that he's on YouTube. And Twitter. And FaceBook.

What did he want to do differently as governor, anyway? If there was one central idea being promoted by the Newsom campaign (aside from "I'm young!") it wasn't a policy stand, it was: "Follow me on Twitter!"

And people did. More than a million of them.

It's not that they didn't like what they saw - but "followers" are a lot less valuable in the digital age than they have been at any other time in history. There is no gravitas on Facebook, or leadership: there are only trends and friends.

The Newsom campaign is the most solid experimental proof we have that when you mix the digital world with the political, the rules of the digerati drive the laws of politics off a cliff.

The lesson for politicians is that "followers" and "friends" - another term that has lost significant value in the information age - do not translate into votes. The principle ... that human dynamics do not survive digitalization intact ... is one we should all take to heart.

      Lesson 3: on the job training doesn't make for good governing.

 I criticize the government a lot, so it behooves me to admit at least once a year: I know this stuff ain't easy. Governing is hard.

Even in the best of circumstances, elected officials are trying to balance interests that won't balance on the basis of incomplete information in order to run a civic body with a lot of moving parts. In the world we actually live in, it's hard to pay much attention to governing when your paycheck depends on politics.

This doesn't mean we should keep our standards for government low, but it does mean that we need to understand that even for smart, capable, people the learning curve is steep: rare is the person who can just step into government and be good at it.

That was proven again this year when the Progressive faction, which controls the Board of Supervisors, appointed freshman legislators to the two most powerful positions on the board: President, and Chairman of the Budget Committee.

They appointed two good people. There's a growing political consensus that Board President David Chiu has no soul - but no one doubts that he's a very capable individual. Likewise, much of the San Francisco chattering class is coming to the conclusion that Budget Committee Chairman John Avalos is kind of a pushover - but everyone agrees that he knows his budgets backwards and forwards.

Chiu, then, has the potential to be a very good board president, and Avalos has the stuff of greatness in him as a Budget Committee Chair - but their inexperience as elected officials dulled their virtues and blunted their effectiveness. Their need for on the job training hurt their agenda.

What, after all, did the progressives really accomplish this year on a practical level? Certainly they had the deck stacked against them ... with a hostile mayor, a wafer thin majority, and a fiscal crisis the size of the San Andreas fault: but the answer is still "nothing." Perhaps they kept certain things from happening, and other things from getting worse, but they didn't lay a single footprint down towards their ambitious agenda.

That's not their fault per se: like I said, governing is tough and the deck was stacked against them. But during crucial moments, they stumbled: David Chiu was never able to hold together a coalition of progressives and moderates to make important practical decisions (such as on MUNI's budget), and Avalos got rolled by the Mayor's office when he tried to put progressive priorities into the budget: Avalos knew the budget perfectly, but the Mayor's staff have been doing this for years.

These were not stumbles due to a lack of capacity - they were rookie mistakes ... the kind rookies usually make however good they are. The loss of institutional experience on the board - especially Tom Ammiano and Aaron Peskin - hurt the progressives more than they thought it would.


      Lesson 4: comebacks happen.

 I could just say two words, "Jerry Brown," and leave it at that. But it's worth noting that other politicians have emerged from the ashes on a smaller yet still significant scale.

Chris Daly has fallen to rise again so many times you'd think he's a circus acrobat; Gavin Newsom fell, and fell, and fell this year - yet as the year ends, he appears poised to claw his way back into relevance. His recent public appearances have been (by all accounts) good; his last rounds of decisions made him look relevant and in charge; he's managed to restrict his YouTube habit to 12 minute chunks, which, while boring, aren't so boring; and in suddenly giving a shout-out to Beth Spotswood he demonstrated more sense of humor about himself in 30 seconds than we've seen in the last three years. If he learns from that, he could be formidable again.

Could this be a new Gavin Newsom? It's early yet, and my inclination is to say no, but I wouldn't bet on it: comebacks happen.

There are other lessons from the year, of course, but our fifth lesson "Boredom sets in quickly," prevents me from listing any others.

If you have any good ideas for lessons learned from 2009, however, please leave them in the comments section: let me learn from you.

There are no more meetings, and I'll be taking a break until the Supervisors return in 2010.

All my best, and thanks for reading.
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Benjamin Wachs


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