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Mugged By Reality: The Misgovernment of San Francisco

The Inevitable Endpoint of Big-City Liberalism

I have not previously followed the work of San Francisco political reporter Benjamin Wachs of SF Weekly; apparently he’s an increasingly cynical and disenchanted liberal following the ever-appalling doings of San Francisco city government. Thanks to the heads-up from Josh Trevino, it’s worth taking a little time to look over Wachs’ uproariously acid farewell to his beat, which practically defines “going out in a blaze of glory.” Seriously, read the whole thing.

The real meat, though, is in a lengthier article by Wachs and Joe Eskenazi from December on how San Francisco is, in their view, “The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S.”:

It’s time to face facts: San Francisco is spectacularly mismanaged and arguably the worst-run big city in America. This year’s city budget is an astonishing $6.6 billion – more than twice the budget for the entire state of Idaho – for roughly 800,000 residents. Yet despite that stratospheric amount, San Francisco can’t point to progress on many of the social issues it spends liberally to tackle – and no one is made to answer when the city comes up short.

The article is a long one, and filled with horrifying detail of the city’s incompetence and dysfunction, like this one, which manages to combine reckless overspending, bait-and-switches with the voters, and head-poundingly foolish naivete in dealing with dangerous and violent people:

Back in 1999, San Francisco voters were pitched a $299 million bond to “save” Laguna Honda Hospital as a 1,200-bed facility for the city’s frail, elderly population. Who doesn’t want to help the frail and elderly? A decade later, the Department of Public Works project is still incomplete, its price tag has swelled by nearly $200 million, and the hospital is slated to hold only 780 beds – so the city is going massively overbudget to construct a hospital only 65 percent as large as promised, which is four years behind schedule.

Amazingly, this gets worse. After securing the bond funding to save Laguna Honda as a hospital for the elderly, the Department of Public Health began transferring younger, often dangerous and mentally ill patients there and mixing them among the old people. This went about as well as you’d think: A 2006 state and federal licensing survey noted numerous instances of elder abuse, staff abuse, and patients toting drugs, alcohol, and even loaded weapons. One patient was assaulted four times in four months; to address this problem, staff erected signs reading “No Hitting.” (That didn’t work.) To cap it off, elder activists now worry that a 2009 Department of Public Health-commissioned report will pave the way for even more relatively young, mentally ill patients heading to Laguna Honda. The massively overbudget, behind-schedule hospital may not even end up primarily serving the elderly population that voters were promised it would.

The accounts of shreiking outrage from nonprofits and unions at the idea of measuring results or holding people accountable are equally familiar. For all of liberalism’s pretensions to being “reality-based,” the recipients of its largesse are remarkably shy about letting anybody test whether any of their ideas actually work. All of this supports a conclusion that is wearyingly familiar to any observer of American big-city liberalism in action:

The intrusion of politics into government pushes the city to enter long-term labor contracts it obviously can’t afford, and no one is held accountable. A belief that good intentions matter more than results leads to inordinate amounts of government responsibility being shunted to nonprofits whose only documented achievement is to lobby the city for money. Meanwhile, piles of reports on how to remedy these problems go unread. There’s no outrage, and nobody is disciplined, so things don’t get fixed.

Ask residents of Detroit, or Oakland, or Washington DC, or Memphis, or Baltimore, or pre-Giuliani New York, or pre-Katrina New Orleans, or any number of other big American cities, and you’ll hear a similar refrain; San Francisco may well be the worst, but it’s hardly alone. And as Wachs and Eskenazi note, San Francisco can in some ways get away with things other cities with fewer natural advantages can’t (see: Detroit). That said, Wachs and Eskenazi have produced an unusually detailed and comprehensive indictment of their city’s one-party government. Read it and pass it on to anyone you know who hasn’t yet digested why the rest of the country traditionally mistrusts giving more money and power to big-city liberals.

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