Fear, Loathing, and Non Sequiturs at Chico State

Or, how humanoids, hemp, and Ralph Nader will save us from Propositions I, L, and M

America is so rich and so big and so powerful that the people who live in it almost never feel the effects of real economic trauma. A Guatemalan or Thai shopkeeper, on the other hand, intimately understands the behavior of exchange rates, the link between inflation, interest rates, and the balance of trade, and the interaction between scarcity and price. He has to. He's seen his own national economy collapse repeatedly.

In San Francisco, however, amazing levels of wealth have made the notion of economic forces seem abstract. This city, so eager to identify with the plight of the developing world, finds itself reveling in perhaps the most arrogant of First World conceits: that basic economic principles don't actually work. And this arrogance could pass Proposition L, and hurt the least fortunate in the name of saving them.

And that's why my eyes hurt and my nostrils stung, and why, as soon as the cop quit writing, I was driving northward again. Fast, toward Chico. Playing the radio really, really loud.

I arrived an hour late for a planned meeting with the thin man. After some searching, I found him at a movie theater, talking with some Chico State college students. It was a balmy day, and Chico felt like the perfect place to escape real-world politics. The thin man seemed to think so, too. He was enjoying a delightful discussion of the sort that seemed tailor-made for escapism.

"In 30 years there will be humanoids," the thin man explained with his trademark jovial sobriety. "Who is having a public discussion on this? Isn't this something where someone should decide the rules for the right to control what happens?"

"What happens, indeed," I thought, before the banalities of the S.F. elections again crowded my mind, and Proposition I clouded my vision.

Prop. I is an obscure proposal; it's dull, even soporific; no one cares about it. But it bears paying attention to, if only because it offers a vivid illustration of the cynical, illusory nature of our political season. After spending years futilely battling lawsuits that challenged the legality of San Francisco's system of taxing business, San Francisco City Attorney Louise Renne was recently forced to punt. A handful of large corporations won their fight to force San Francisco to conform with the way other cities tax companies. Now, Renne says, the city has to change its system, and could end up paying those companies as much as $800 million in refunds and damages.

Big companies doing business in San Francisco in years past paid tax on either their gross receipts from sales here, or a percentage of their San Francisco payrolls, whichever was more. Courts twice deemed this two-tier system illegal, yet Renne tilted on in its defense -- until a couple of months ago, when it became evident that continuing this mad fight would accomplish nothing but would cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars more than it already owed the firms in refunds.

As a quick fix, the Mayor's Office brokered a deal with the town's financial high and mighty. The deal, laid out in Prop. I, will put the entire weight of this debacle on companies with large payrolls. That's to say, Prop. I will bring a tax increase to restaurants, hardware stores, sewing shops, and all the other businesses whose primary expense involves employees, rather than property.

Now, fighting legal battles against corporations in hopes of making them pay a maximum of taxes is an honorable pursuit, exactly the kind of defense of the commonweal we pay the city attorneys for. But tilting at corporations by dragging on a no-win fight at an ultimate cost of hundreds of millions of dollars -- as happened in this case -- is another matter entirely. It's one that smacks of incompetence, phony populism, and a cynical disregard for the public good.

So voters are left with the option of a "yes" vote, effectively endorsing incompetence, or a "no" vote, which would expose the city to the possibility of additional legal problems that could cost millions more dollars.

That's a hell of a conundrum, a real political paradox -- but that's why I'd left the city, anyway, and come to Chico to hear the thin man.

He was wearing a sort of floppy suit, like he always does, and his face was dour, even though he seemed to be in a good mood. He had moved from the subject of humanoids to industrial hemp, which is interesting, the thin man said, because it has 50,000 different uses. "If it's grown next to marijuana, it cross-pollinates and dilutes the strength of the marijuana," he helpfully noted. "It produces fiber for our textiles worth $300 million a year. It produces paper without chlorine. It produces lubricants."

Which all of us were going to need, now that San Francisco's Board of Supervisors is about to become even more squeaky and rust-caked than it has been, what with the advent of district-by-district supervisorial elections.

I know, I know: Power to the neighborhoods and everything. But, at the risk of making SF Weekly Enterprises read like a broken record, I have to say: Our city's greatest problem right now is housing.

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