Fear, Loathing, and Non Sequiturs at Chico State

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

It was 9 a.m. on a Monday, I'd been up all night, and I knew that if I closed my eyelids, they'd scrape painful grooves down the panes of my eyeballs. So I stared blankly northward. I was shivering in the warmth of the SF Weekly Enterprisesbuilding, thinking bad thoughts about San Francisco's political season, knowing that, somehow, I had to get out of this place. Then it hit me: I could go upstate, where the breeze is dry, the fields are blond, and my clogged-up nose couldn't detect the sour-liquor fumes wafting from San Francisco's small-town, big-city, pre-election borrachera.

You know what I mean: The city was enthralled by a fleet of inane, ignorant, destructive ballot propositions that had somehow been passed off as spaceships to Valhalla. A new, district-by-district system of selecting municipal supervisors promised to turn San Francisco into a Balkan zone of NIMBY warfare. State ballot propositions -- faux-campaign finance reform, big-business scams to scuttle regulatory fees, and so forth -- threatened to squash forever the Hiram Johnson dream of curbing special interests. The country at large, meanwhile, had been forced to suffer the presidential aspirations of a lethal-inject-'em-or-pollute-'em moron from Texas and The Nihilist From Tennessee.

It all stank; it made my eyes hurt; I couldn't sleep. The smell was worst here in San Francisco: The saccharine odor of old wood and wet carpet wafted out of the Mission District social halls where small groups of "progressives" had assembled their ludicrous no-growth ballot proposition, L. The soft-leather and room-freshener stench seeped from the 23rd-floor corporate suites where financial chieftains brokered the unfair tax break for themselves known as Proposition I. There was the acid smell of bogusness surrounding a host of other measures, including the Proposition M "taxi reform" measure.

And there was the reek of dozens of muddy shoes on thousands of living room floors where supervisorial candidates had carried the collective district-election message: Power to the mean-spirited. NIMBY neighbors forever!

I needed to hit the road, go statewide.

Butte County, Tehama County, Shasta County -- God's Country, that's where I was headed. I rented a 168-horsepower, overhead-cam, V-6 Chrysler Sirrus (0-60 in 10 seconds, 60-90 in five more). I paid my toll at the Carquinez Bridge, pressed the accelerator, felt my head yank backward, and soared; through Woodland's fallow tomato fields, the puddled rice paddies of Sutter County, past Marysville and Yuba City, gunning the car along olive-tree-lined Highway 99 as if this two-lane road were the back way out of a bar fight.

I didn't want to traverse this territory alone, of course. It's hard to cleanse oneself of the fetid bacon drippings of politics without help, so I figured I'd hook up in Chico with a thin, slightly wall-eyed guy I know. The thin man had been on the road for a long time now, trying to escape the coarse reality of the 2000 election. He'd know what we should do, where to go.

Now, though, there was driving to do: I passed pine-post and cardboard election signs sprouting from the roadside. Squinting, I imagined these local, Butte County political strivers -- Chuck Epp, a Gridley, Calif., maker of motorized duck decoys, and Wally Herger, a Mormon rice export advocate from Chico -- to be of a better, more wholesome stock than our San Francisco breed. "They had to be better in Gridley, Calif.," I was thinking, and just then I saw flashing lights in my rearview mirror, followed by the smiling fresh face of a Gridley, Calif., cop.

It turns out they've got a 45 mph zone a mile out of town. I was going 55. As the cop was writing the ticket, Gridley seemed less and less inviting. In fact, I decided, those Gridleyites were a bunch of conniving scammeurs.

Hardly any better, in fact, than the charlatans who fancy themselves wholesome in San Francisco: the no-growth harpies.

The harpies had managed to qualify an anti-office-development ballot initiative that just made me burn. According to their logic, if builders would only quit making so many new offices, commercial rents would decline, housing would become affordable, nonprofits would be saved, traffic problems would cease, and San Francisco's 1950s role as a manufacturing center could be reasserted.

These professors of anti-economics argued that scarcity doesn't drive up the price of real estate, "gentrification" does. Their reasoning was as tangled as a box of phone cords, and the measure itself had been financed by a millionaire real estate speculator who would see his holdings increase in value if it succeeded. Still, the Prop. L spiel ("people, not profits") seemed to be having an effect on voters, who, polls said, were more or less split on whether this proposition should pass. And that burned me up.

Three years ago, I moved to San Francisco, after spending most of the previous 13 years in the developing world. My first few months back in the Bay Area seemed a wonderland of First World delights: drinkable tap water, smooth streets, reliable phone service. Soon, though, I began to see that the locals cherished a different First World luxury: the privilege of engaging in escapist economic fantasy.

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.

Housing, housing, housing, housing, housing, housing.

None of our maladies is nearly as severe as our status as one of the most expensive places to live in the country. Employers offering low- to mid-skill-level jobs can't afford to locate here, because their workers couldn't afford the rent. People already working in all but the most elite jobs can no longer afford to live here. The housing shortage cuts both ways, slicing economic diversity from the city like a mad butcher.

The Board of Supervisors has done nearly nothing about this, deferring at every turn to the venal whines of NIMBY neighborhood groups that oppose new housing projects as if they were leper colonies. Now, in the face of district elections, you're hearing supervisor candidates tell community groups that they'll support the concerns of neighborhoods over those of outsiders. Ergo, they'll oppose new housing.

And ... and ... and ...

And things were just fine in Chico. Really, they were. It was one of those perfect fall days in Northern California, when hapless valley residents are rewarded for the horrid hot weather they suffer during the summer with sunshine so cool and crisp and soft it produces a sensation similar to drinking soda pop.

The thin man and I moved into a classroom above the university bookstore; we were joined by a group of students and journalists, one of whom had wrists as thin as a Weed Eater handle, which I'd never seen before.

Like me, the students and journalists seemed to enjoy the thin man's company, despite, or perhaps because of, his unflappable, non-emoting air. They asked him questions about the future of community radio, slavery reparations for African-Americans, and other important issues. I asked him whom he supported for the World Series.

"I'm an old Lou Gehrig fan," said the thin man, "so I'm supporting the Yankees."

That seemed a good choice to me. And after the thin man's handlers had hurried him into an elevator, I climbed into my illegally parked rental car and drove back toward Highway 99, and San Francisco, and when I made it back, I found that, yes, the city still smells.

So there are plenty of reasons for wanting to run away with the thin man I met in Chico, who calls his own long strange road trip Ralph Nader 2000.

But wild-eyed escapist fantasies -- whether they be no-hope runs at the presidency, fun-with-make-believe ballot initiatives, or high-speed drives to Chico -- tend to have a way of reappearing as nightmares (and speeding tickets).

Proposition L may prevail, then finish stripping San Francisco of its eclectic flesh. George W. Bush may, with Nader's help, win the presidency, and then plunge America into the same sort of racist, sexist, homophobic, pillage-the-environment era we suffered under Ronald Reagan.

And this would be too bad.

But then, we'd always have Chico. Wouldn't we?

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