The Business of Our Discontent - May 18, 2016 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

The Business of Our Discontent

These days, everyone has a scalding-hot take on what's happening in San Francisco. But we have scant empirical evidence of what most city residents actually feel. And what little we do know may be tainted by a distinct agenda.

Both the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the Bay Area Council, a regional corporate lobby group, release annual surveys, the results of which are treated as gospel by much of the media. Two recent polls earlier this year generated no fewer than eight San Francisco Chronicle headlines.

But unlike the respected (and nonpartisan) Field Poll, these surveys are intended to advance the cause of business.

“We will put things in the poll that help the professionals here do their jobs,” says Jim Lazarus, senior vice president for public policy at the Chamber of Commerce. “We use the information in our public lobbying of the board of supervisors and the mayor.”

While specific questions — like one showing support for a proposed BART bond — do help lobbyists target politicians, answers to other, broader queries can be framed as the public consensus. Other survey results — as in the ones that the survey's funders don't want out there — are buried.

For example, the chamber withheld the dismal approval rating for business-friendly Mayor Ed Lee, as the Chronicle reported earlier this year.

And even when surveys that contradict their funders' positions are released, they can still be used to promote their position.

The Bay Area Council is a strong advocate for building housing throughout the region. An April survey asked if residents thought “creating a better transportation network” between the Bay Area and Sacramento — chief city of the transit-poor San Joaquin Valley, where housing is cheap — would help the housing crisis. When the poll found 85 percent support for such a solution, council president Jim Wunderman used it as a dire warning of failed housing policies (instead of, say, a call to action to build a better transit network).

“Unless policymakers are willing to take new steps to see housing built in their own communities, this is what housing in the future will look like,” Wunderman told the Chronicle.

Other times, results are distorted to fit certain agendas, according to critics.

One chamber poll, the results of which showed homelessness as the chief concern for area, residents lumped together “street behavior” and “homelessness.” That's a sign that the business types are in search of a wedge issue to “get more conservative politicians elected,” says Jennifier Friedenbach, the Coalition on Homelessness's executive director.

But when you're paying for the poll, you might as well pay for what you want.