This city, which is nothing if not novel in its nonchalance about mere morals, is pioneering a stern new style of governance. It is the art of liberal governance in a conservative era. It does not involve government spending for social ends, but government causing private-sector spending. It is a reverberation of Proposition 13, the 1978 measure that curtailed local taxation in California.
San Francisco's Board of Supervisors has declared that downtown developers must pay a one-time fee of $1 per square foot of floor space to finance on- site child-care facilities or as a contribution to a child-care fund to be allocated by the political system. This fee is piled on top of other fees for transportation, housing and "open space" for parks. There's even a fee of 1 percent of construction costs to purchase art.
This last means that a developer of a $100 million high-rise must pay $1 million for art. Now, if the supervisors, having legislated a monetary demand, can just legislate a supply of good art. . . . It is odd: the sort of people passing and applauding such fees are not worshipers of market forces. But unless they believe that the demand for art will magically produce a supply of good art, the fee is a windfall for lousy artists and a way to litter public spaces with eyesores.
Regarding child care, a need of sorts exists. Nationally, 51 percent of mothers of children under 5 work outside the home. Supervisor Nancy Walker, sponsor of the child-care fee, notes projections that in the next 15 years 100,000 new jobs will be created in downtown San Francisco. It is possible to argue that child care is a "social cost" of development and therefore developers ought to pay for it. But such an argument is problematic in the idea of "social costs" and in the false clarity regarding who actually pays.
Child day care is a desire of a certain category of workers. Should not the cost of it be borne by those who desire it? But developers are an inviting target on which to displace the burden. However, if the Board of Supervisors wants to closely associate costs and benefits for services, they should become really rigorous in imposing user fees: parents should be made to pay the full cost of education, riders the cost of public transportation, etc.
Because such services are understood to benefit the community generally, they are usually considered services to be paid for, at least in part, by the community through its collective enterprise: government. But in explaining the resort to fees, political philosophy is less relevant than a political fact: Proposition 13. It limited the ability of local governments to impose taxes. It did not limit the public's desire for services or the desire of the political class to distribute benefits.
So, here is a paradox. Proposition 13 was produced by anger about the taxation dimension of "big government." Now it is producing a new mode of governance that is aggressively intrusive and blurs the costs of government action.
The fees levied on developers will mean higher rents, and then higher prices for the goods and services provided by the businesses that rent space from the developers. Furthermore, San Francisco's fees may help the toiling masses -- in Oakland. Businesses may have their headquarters in San Francisco but their labor concentrations across the bay.
Bubbling behind San Francisco's government-by-regulation is northern California leftism. It is an amalgam of anti-growth, anti-business, peace-posing and eco-battiness.
There is an ordinance that no new building shall cast a shadow on a public park between one hour after sunup and one hour before sunset. If shadows are awful, why not cut down the trees? But, then, if people do not like the attributes of cities -- density, tall buildings -- the supervisors might do better by buying them bus tickets to Montana.
The supervisors recently voted official support for the grape boycott. It was an action of no measurable value to the grape pickers, but was demonstrably detrimental to the 60,000 persons (disproportionately minorities) who work in the convention industry. Several agribusiness organizations have moved their meetings elsewhere.
The supervisors voted against San Francisco's being home for the battleship Missouri. The vote was without force, and the Navy ignored it. The supervisors' rationale was that the ship might cause the Soviets to make the bay area a military target. Presumably the Soviets have not noticed the various bay-area military installations, or the Livermore lab. Surprisingly, the supervisors did not impose a fee on the ship -- compensation for wear-and-tear on the water -- with the money to be spent at the discretion of the supervisors.