City policies are encouraging a new tech boom — but have we learned any lessons from the last one?
In the latest Harper's Magazine cover story, "Killing the Competition: How the new monopolies are destroying open markets," writer Barry Lynn argues that the consolidation of wealth and dismantling of fair trade and pro-labor laws has allowed the Bay Area tech industry to unfairly dominate small competitors and control the labor market.
That trend has been masked by political euphemisms that fool the public. "Corporate monopoly? Let's just call that the 'free market.' The political ravages of corporate power? Those could be recast as the essentially benign workings of 'market forces,'" Lynn wrote.
Donohue has been calling out such rhetoric for decades. He told us the city's economic development policies are mostly a boon to politically connected landlords and investors, and there's been remarkably little discussion at City Hall about gentrification, increased demand for city services, or other problems created by economic bubbles.
"People say it's different this time, but they say that every time. It's not different," Donohue told us. He said economic bubbles usually hurt the poor and working class by driving up the cost of living. And he also said, "Even the most conservative economists don't like the idea of subsidizing businesses because they think it's a distortion of the market."
Yet the "jobs" rhetoric and assumption that government should actively promote and subsidize the private sector has broad support in City Hall these days, even though Donohue said few people are stopping to ask whether a new tech bubble is actually good for the city.
"When you bring a lot of people into an area, you're going to create a demand for public services," Donohue said. "I don't think anyone has done a very good assessment of what this will cost the city."
Donohue worked on a political campaign in the mid-'80s to require a study of the costs to the city of serving commercial growth that was occurring in the Financial District at the time, but he said it was bitterly opposed by then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein and her downtown allies. "Nobody seems to want to know what that figure is," Donohue said. "Nobody at City Hall is even asking the question."
City Economist Ted Egan confirmed that his analysis of the mid-Market tax break and other economic development schemes doesn't include the cost of increased demands on city services. "I've never dealt directly with that argument," Egan told us.
Based on his assumption that Twitter's move to the SF Mart building (owned by the politically connected Shorenstein family) on Market between Ninth and 10th Streets will fill up commercial vacancies throughout the area and generate increased sales, property, and payroll taxes, Egan concluded the city will more than make up for the lost business tax revenue over the long run.
He minimized the importance of costs to the city, such as increased police or sanitation services, and impacts to city infrastructure from water and sewer to roads and public transit. "It can't be that running more transit is bad in a transit-first city," Egan said, noting the relatively fixed cost of operating a Muni station.
Yet Donohue and others say the fact that the city and San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency have huge budget deficits to close every year, even after years of cutting services and raising fees, indicates the city has a structural budget deficit that will only get worse as growth places more demands on government.
"I don't think these things are well-thought-through, ever," Donohue said.
Lee, Kim, and representatives from the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development didn't return our calls, but Chiu did and he said he believes in actively courting the tech industry with public incentives: "My support for these policies is a belief that it will broadly benefit San Franciscans."