Don’t confuse a negotiating ploy with finished legislation. Don’t confuse politics with policy.
Aeons ago, back in 2016, a trio of left-leaning city supervisors proposed a hefty “tech tax,” the legislative equivalent of hoisting up Big Tech by its pant cuffs, shaking, and funneling the resultant pile of cash into beneficent causes such as homeless services and affordable housing.
Well, that generated a lot of copy. It was designed to, after all. And both professional journalists and regular folks fervently thumb-typing onto their phones began questioning how this was all going to work.
But this legislation was not designed to work. It was simply designed to garner media attention and embarrass Big Tech and its San Francisco government allies. As such, parsing the nuances of this proposed legislation was a fool’s errand. But serious and well-meaning journalists did this, regardless.
Diligently reporting on the inner workings of legislation that isn’t supposed to work actually misinforms the public. Context matters and, it turns out, there’s a difference between politics and policy.
Fast-forwarding to the present, odd-couple Supervisors Ahsha Safaí and Aaron Peskin, with the support of the city’s Golden Gate Restaurant Association, have introduced legislation that would preclude future office buildings from including private cafeterias where free food and other amenities keep techies indoors, toiling away at all hours (it would not affect extant cafeterias, and future offices could still bring in catering or subsidize their workers’ food). The ostensible goal is to shunt cloistered employees out-of-doors to purchase their lunches at local businesses, patronize other local establishments, and coexist with the rest of the city.
Well, this generated a lot of copy. It was designed to, after all. And, once again, both professional journalists and outraged thumb-typers parsed it all, questioning how it was all supposed to work.
But this legislation was also not designed to work. Not like this.
Shortly after its introduction, its principals explicitly confirmed to me that this was merely an initial gambit, an opening salvo meant to spur discussion and end up in a different, milder place.
Or, as one City Hall source put it, the ultimate goal is to have the cafeteria ban “massaged into something less extreme and into a program of the sort that already exists where companies are handing out vouchers.”
We live in a high-tech world: This would not be hard to do. Employees’ smartphones can be loaded up and recharged like Clipper Cards, and could be geotagged to only work within, say, a quarter mile of an office. Not coincidentally, Peskin and Safaí’s opening press conference was held in a mom-and-pop restaurant that benefits from a program of the sort that already exists, in which workers are presented food vouchers by their company.
So, to put it bluntly, Peskin and Safaí are engaging what is called “negotiating.” Opening hard and settling back to where you wanted to be has been a tried-and-true strategy dating back to the dawn of civilization when our forebears haggled over the price of gourds in open-air bazaars. Most recently, erstwhile Supervisor Scott Wiener elevated this to an art form. The former litigator eschewed the 400 meetings/blue ribbon panel/kumbaya approach and simply launched bruising “opening offers” which, in his own words, “forces the other side to negotiate.”
Context, again, matters. There is a difference between politics and policy. And, in this case, the former has been reported on as if it’s the latter.
A goodly number of Internet denizens have reached out to Ahsha Safaí via e-mail or social media to kindly inform him his city planning ideas are stupid and that he’s as dumb as a rock.
Let the record show that Safaí obtained a Master’s in city planning from a small Northeastern university called Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That doesn’t put him on a higher plane than the rest of humanity, but it is something to consider before sending him a derogatory meme.
There is no sign informing members of the general public that they must be so tall to ride the ride when it comes to commenting on San Francisco public affairs. That’s for the best; even naive and uninformed people can have great ideas — and weighing in on your government is your right. Even if you’re one of the guys who sings during public comment.
That said, word to the wise: Your elected leaders notice when reams of negative invective are heaped upon them via the Internet when they jostle companies backed by heaps of venture capital dollars — but in-person interactions skew overwhelmingly positive. And, you’re not going to believe this, but they give more credence to those who inhabit the real world than the virtual one.
Additionally, your elected leaders have grown weary of complaints that their legislation does not address myriad city problems it is not intended to address. As such, your elected leaders are not impressed when complainants accuse them of wasting time crafting such legislation, and thereby neglecting to devote every waking hour to solving this city’s most pressing issues. To wit: a particular sect of online commenters cast Peskin as some manner of San Francisco Rasputin who was using this legislation to obscure our city’s pressing woes of housing, homelessness, affordability and transit.
Well that would be a neat trick: The legislation in question was actually crafted by Safaí.
And then, just like that, in the midst of being pilloried for neglecting the city’s pressing issues, Peskin’s office last week announced the conclusion of an intense bargaining session with Uber and Lyft in which the rideshare titans would acquiesce to a future per-ride surcharge, creating a potential $30 million yearly revenue stream — specifically directed to city transit. Mayor London Breed is on board — as is Assemblyman Phil Ting, who will write the enabling state legislation. This was, in short, some complex, multi-party negotiating. “It turns out that legislators can pat their heads, rub their bellies, and negotiate with Uber and Lyft,” sums up Peskin. “To do well at this job, you have to run, catch, and hit.”
Criticisms of Safaí and Peskin’s cafeteria proposal are legitimate. The devil is in the details, and being a trained city planner, as Safaí is, or an autodidact, as Peskin is, does not mandate deference. It’s also a legitimate question as to whether the Wiener-like aggressive opening gambit might have led to more rancor than any “less extreme” vouchers-or-something compromise might be worth — if such a compromise is even reached after so much initial animosity.
But anyone who had been claiming that our legislators are unable to multitask and are hiding from this city’s pressing issues — and used this cafeteria legislation as a case in point — is not yet tall enough to ride the ride.
Both Safaí and Peskin claim that one of their goals was to start a conversation. That’s what you’d say if starting a conversation is all you manage to do. But it’s hardly a wild notion that a conversation is warranted: Some 7 million square feet of new offices could be conjured into being by the inchoate Central SoMa Plan, and it’s a legit concern that dead ground-floor space and insular tech employees will lead to an unwanted facsimile of mid-Market (where tech outfits were treated to tax breaks to “revitalize” the area and, instead, ensconced themselves within self-contained fortresses).
A city regulating tech cafeterias is a splashy news story, but a city regulating land use is not — it happens every day. San Francisco is a process-heavy realm that likes to talk and talk — and talk — but sometimes talking is warranted.
What kind of city do we want to be? What does it mean to be a San Franciscan? That’s food for thought.