Liberals — Except When it Comes Home


My old boss, Bruce Brugmann, who ran the Bay Guardian, told me early on in my career that you could tell the real politics of a big-city newspaper by the person they endorse for mayor.

Nice liberal outfits like the New York Times support Democrats for president and (typically) governor and US Senate. The SF Chronicle doesn’t endorse many Republicans any more. But when it comes to the local stuff, the decisions on who should run the city where they live and operate and connect with the power structure, the truth comes out.

The Times loved Ed Koch and backed Michael Bloomberg. The paper didn’t endorse Bill DeBlasio in the Democratic primary. The Chron backed Dianne Feinstein, John Molinari, Willie Brown, Gavin Newsom, and Ed Lee.

There’s a perception that cities like SF, because they tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, and send Democrats to the state Legislature and Congress, are by nature progressive communities. And that all breaks down when it comes to local issues, particularly when they involve real estate.

The biggest Democratic Party donors in SF in the 1980 and 1990s were the members of the Shorenstein family, who hosted Bill Clinton at their home. They were also big downtown developers who spent that same Democratic money blocking any attempts to development limits.

Our Democratic member of Congress, Nancy Pelosi, is either missing or on the wrong side on pretty much every land-use and development issue back at home.

Gavin Newsom, who wants to be the next governor of California, got his start in local politics attacking homeless people.

In other words, the gentrification and displacement in San Francisco is happening despite, and I could argue with the concurrence of, some of those “liberal” Democrats who, from a distance, seem much more progressive than they are when you look at their records right here at home.

So we get what I call the David Chiu phenomenon – a person who pushed and promoted legislation backed by and in part written by Airbnb, which has driven thousands of housing units off the market, gets seen as a San Francisco progressive when he’s away in Sacramento.

You can tell what a newspaper really thinks by its endorsement for mayor. And you can tell what a politician really thinks by what they do on the local issues that pit the power structure (in this case, tech, real estate, and the mayor) against the rest of the community.

Which brings me, more or less, to Paul Krugman, the great liberal economist of the New York Times.

Krugman is great on a lot of big national economic issues. He’s terrible when it comes to cities.

The guy famously came out against rent control years ago, when any urban economist with any sense knows that rent control is one of the most powerful tools agaist displacement. It’s what makes an urban middle class possible in a city like San Francisco.

And now he’s saying that cities need to reduce zoning rules and allow more housing, or any height, pretty much anywhere. He praises the idea that NY Mayor DeBlasio is pushing, which is similar to what SF Mayor Lee is pushing, which in essence cedes to the private market the responsibility to provide affordable housing and assumes that some modest percentage of “affordable” units in luxury towers that are geared to the same crooks and despots now in the news will be a real solution to the urban housing crisis.

I shouldn’t have to keep saying this, but I will: You need to build at least 30 percent affordable housing in every luxury project just to stay even, and not make things worse. Which means if you want to add to the stock of affordable housing, you have to force developers to build 40, 50, 60 percent of the units for people of more modest means.

That’s not even on the agenda in SF or NYC.

If we took Krugman’s national approach – the rich ought to pay more taxes to pay for investment in the nation’s service and infrastructure – and applied it to cities, you’d get a very different approach. Urban developer profits have created great fortunes (Shorenstein, Trump); to a great extent, local governments have failed to tax those profits at a level that’s necessary to mitigate the impacts of their projects.

Krugman ought to know that the middle class in an American city is not a natural consequence of capitalism. It requires strict regulations and controls. It means, sometimes, slowing down the booms that make a few rich so that the rest of us have a chance, too.

That’s perfect liberalism, in the old school. Except that these great scholars and writers (and politicians) don’t seem to want to bring those policies back home.

Author Tim Redmond, the former longtime editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, edits the online San Francisco publication 48 hills.

This piece originally appeared at

By Prolineserver (Own work) [GFDL 1.2], via Wikimedia Commons

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"All economics is local"

It seems to me that both liberals and conservatives moderate their ideology when assigned responsibility for working solutions.

In our county alone, we have seen conservative Republicans support living wages, tax increases, and numerous social programs, simply because the problem is visible from the office window.

Similarly, Liberal Democrats in our area have voted against everything from mandatory paid leave to union pension plans, usually because the bills were due.

Paul Krugman doesn't understand rent control for the same reason that Greg Mankiw doesn't. Both of them have plenty of paycheck left after paying rent, and neither one is going to get fired if their columns (or textbooks) are unworkable.