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But these tend to be one-offs. Having passed a stupid, and arguably illegal, law about immigration, Arizona won't next demand to negotiate treaties with the European Union. Muslim-baiting in Oklahoma may be the voter-pleasing equivalent of McDonald's-bashing in San Francisco — but only the Sooner State's lunatic fringe would suggest that this is just the beginning of a governmental movement to lock Muslims out of civic life. In San Francisco, liberal politicians don't see themselves as passing one-off laws. They see themselves as part of a movement to fundamentally change the role of city government in your lives. No legislator has yet said, "We've gone far enough." No one is even sure what "too far" would be.
Asked whether he was planning a next step, Mar said, "We're looking at a number of different issues, from the sugar-sweetened drinks and sodas to the zoning of fast food and businesses that people feel don't contribute to a healthy environment." He isn't limiting his options.
When asked if there was anything he saw as not being government's business, a line into "personal" or "private" lives it should not cross, the man who wanted the government to step in and help him with his daughter's food choices seemed surprised by the concept. "I'm not sure where I would draw the line. I think that's an important question," he said, leaving the distinct impression he hadn't given it much thought. An aide then abruptly yanked Mar out of the interview for an undisclosed reason before its scheduled end.
Campos, too, was stymied for a moment when asked what boundaries government shouldn't cross. Unlike Mar, however, he tried to find the line: "I have focused on the issues and the problems that impact my constituency, whether that's District Nine or the city as a whole. And sometimes there are issues that have a national scope."
The trouble is that rationale can be used to justify anything. In fact, it already has; San Francisco's city activism has always been rationalized by the idea that it affects local people. That may be a line, but everything is on one side.
Mirkarimi, who would like to see city government take further steps addressing the use of plastics, the coming headaches of citywide overcrowding, the availability of environmentally sound prescription drug disposal, and preparation for a decline in global oil supplies, acknowledges that the inability of progressives to figure out what is and isn't government's business is a problem. Asked where he draws the line, he is both thoughtful and direct. He doesn't know — and doubts anyone does.
"There is no particular gauge about what is too exotic or strange or symbolic," he says. "I don't think anybody has one — in red or blue states." But, he emphasizes, even in San Francisco, legislators won't ban just anything. "Do you know there are a hundred more of these [ideas] that are in our e-mail inboxes and hearts and minds that we don't act on?" He adds that what seems "too much" today is often mainstream tomorrow. "Plastic bag bans are almost passé right now. There is a likelihood that you're going to start seeing some of these kind of initiatives all over the country."
This is absolutely true. But it's Mirkarimi, Campos, Mar, and the other progressives who are proposing a significantly expanded role for city government. If they don't know where the line is, even in theory, what's to prevent them from continually crossing it? The intense pressure on San Francisco politicians to look busy, to solve the biggest social problem from the smallest of pulpits, to come up with something new, and innovative, and "cutting-edge" — without accountability for the consequences — is as much a recipe for oppressive laws as bad ones.
There's no reason to think that if Eric Mar had been told that we can't ban toys in Happy Meals because that's not what government does, he'd have instead stepped up to the Gordian knot of school lunches. But there's probably a reason so much boundary-pushing legislation is so bad. If San Francisco weren't trying to solve the world's problems, it might be better at fixing Muni and balancing its budget.
A system in which city supervisors think they can do anything, are pressured to produce, and aren't held accountable for results is going to churn out an unacceptable amount of legislative Happy Meals.
This city is working on its own version of billions and billions served. But while McDonald's takes orders, San Francisco gives them.