All posts by Benjamin

The Forbidden City: How the Happy Meal ban explains San Francisco

(This originally appeared in SF Weekly, co-written with Joe Eskenazi)

In August 2010, San Francisco Supervisor Eric Mar decided that city intervention was needed to help him raise his daughter.

As Mar later told reporters, he was shocked to discover a trove of toys from McDonald’s Happy Meals stashed in her room. Mar was the one taking his daughter to McDonald’s and buying the food — but he said that the “pester power” of a preteen was simply too much for him to withstand on his own. So he proposed that the city ban restaurants from including toys with meals of more than 600 calories that lack agreed-upon amounts of fruits and vegetables.

Mar’s “Healthy Meal Incentive Ordinance” subsequently passed in November by an 8-3 vote in the Board of Supervisors — a veto-proof majority. Barring legal action, the Happy Meal as we know it will be verboten in San Francisco come Dec. 1. Eric Mar’s daughter has been saved.

Both conservative blowhard Bill O’Reilly and left-leaning comedian Lewis Black — and many, many people in-between — were left to wonder “What the hell?” in the wake of San Francisco’s ban. It’s not the first time. In recent years, San Francisco government has passed numerous laws to make us healthier, greener, and — in the city’s eyes — all-around better people. Whether we like it or not. This includes banning the sale of cigarettes in drugstores, and, later, supermarkets; banning plastic bags in large chain stores; banning bottled water in City Hall, and the sale of soft drinks on government property; banning the declawing of cats; making composting mandatory; and forbidding city departments from doing business with companies that were involved in the (pre–Civil War) slave trade, yet haven’t publicly atoned.

The city may yet ban the sale of any pets except fish, and the sale of bottled water during events on public property. Banning foie gras, meanwhile, didn’t catch on, even here. Neither did allowing the city to prosecute anyone who depicts images of animal cruelty if they set foot in San Francisco — essentially the same niche Belgium has carved out for itself with accused war criminals.

San Francisco’s acumen for imposing bans has grown so pronounced that when an anticircumcision zealot began disseminating a petition to criminalize the practice within city limits, observers nationwide didn’t write it off as fringe lunacy but, instead, saw it as just another day at the office in San Francisco.

That ban didn’t make the cut. And San Francisco does not have a monopoly on banning things. But nowhere else can you ban so much with such ease and so little political blowback.

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Let it Bleed (Everything you need to know about San Francisco’s budget problems)

(This originally appeared in the SF Weekly, co-written with Joe Eskenazi)

“Infinite” is not a word you expect to find in a report on municipal spending. It’s more of a science fiction–type term — Tremble, Earthling, before the infinite might of Galaxor! But there it was, in a recent report on San Francisco’s finances: Spending on the city’s employee retirement system in the past decade had grown at an “infinite” rate.

Naturally, that’s an exaggeration. If you do the math, the city’s retirement costs for employees in the past 10 years actually grew only 66,733 percent.

Still, you might call that a Galaxor-sized number.

In fiscal year 1999-2000, the city spent about $300,000 on its retirement system. In fiscal year 2009-10, it was $200.5 million. Benefits alone — not salaries, just benefits — for current and retired employees this year are budgeted at $993 million. Spending on retirees’ health care and pensions is conservatively projected to triple within five years.

And after that? Infinite.

This is not a conspiracy but, rather, a mathematical certainty. It’s also not a surprise. Every San Francisco government official who can do math has known about this calamity for years.

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The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S.

(This originally appeared in the SF Weekly, with Joe Eskenazi as a co-writer)

Despite its good intentions, San Francisco is not leading the country in gay marriage. Despite its good intentions, it is not stopping wars. Despite its spending more money per capita on homelessness than any comparable city, its homeless problem is worse than any comparable city’s. Despite its spending more money per capita, period, than almost any city in the nation, San Francisco has poorly managed, budget-busting capital projects, overlapping social programs no one is certain are working, and a transportation system where the only thing running ahead of schedule is the size of its deficit.

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 city’s ineptitude is no secret. “I have never heard anyone, even among liberals, say, ‘If only [our city] could be run like San Francisco,'” says urbanologist Joel Kotkin. “Even other liberal places wouldn’t put up with the degree of dysfunction they have in San Francisco. In Houston, the exact opposite of San Francisco, I assume you’d get shot.”

Who is to blame for this city’s wretched state of affairs? Yomi Agunbiade, that’s who. Metaphorically, that is.

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Putting the Test to the Test

(This originally appeared in 2003, on the 10 year anniversary of the establishment of the New York State’s mandatory standardized testing regimen, now more commonly known as “the Regents Exams.”)

After almost 10 years of controversy, New York State education officials insist that their new standardized tests have improved classroom teaching and raised the achievement levels of high school graduates.

“Prior to the early 1990s there were no such thing as education standards in New York,” said Deputy Education Commissioner Jim Kadamus. “Under the old system, we had a two-track system: some kids got the Regents, some kids didn’t.”

Yet critics of the state’s program say it may actually be doing more harm than good. And Kadamus and others cite virtually no hard statistical evidence behind most of their claims.

Milton Cofield, a member of the New York State Board of Regents, was asked at a December public meeting in Rochester to name even a single study showing that the Regents exams have been accomplishing everything the state claims.

He couldn’t.

Kadamus himself acknowledged in February that the state actually has no statistical information showing that the Regents exams have worked. Or that they should work.

“The evidence we have right now is anecdotal,” he said.

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