Godzilla, that stalwart of the man-in-a-dinosaur-costume-stepping-on-toys genre, emerged from the depths of the sea in 1954, and has been featured in 32 sequels. The spectacle of watching an oversize rubber iguana go full Keith Moon on an elaborate, flaming set of obvious papier-mache landscapes populated with dollhouse cities and model trains and cars is its own elevator pitch (hence the sequels).
It’s not high art, but it’s on. And you’re watching it.
And yet, there are deeper themes at play here. Godzilla, conjured into being by humankind’s callous and irresponsible use of nuclear power, is a large and ungainly metaphor. He is the embodiment of the horrifying destructive power derived by splitting the atom — which, for Japanese postwar audiences, was hardly a hypothetical scenario.
Somewhat amazingly, in later films Godzilla was cast as the hero, protecting humanity from more predatory monsters. The people cheered as the warring gargantuans did battle (ravaging their cities in the process).
It was hard not to think of Godzilla trading blows with other titans as Salesforce co-CEO and benevolent billionaire Marc Benioff overtly sparred with a host of less generously inclined San Francisco tech barons, namely Twitter and Square CEO Jack “be the change you want to see in the world” Dorsey, Stripe boss Patrick Collison, and Zynga honcho Mark Pincus. The spectacle of San Francisco’s battlin’ billionaires has attracted no small amount of national press — which not every proposed municipal gross receipts tax can claim.
At issue is San Francisco’s Proposition C, which would tax companies’ revenue at up to 0.5 percent after they gross $50 million and funnel that money into housing and other services for the homeless and mentally ill. As of Friday, Benioff and his company had put some $8 million behind the measure, single-handedly transforming what would have been a 4-to-1 spending disadvantage for the Yes on C forces into a 4-to-1 advantage.
For those enthused about Prop. C (or enthused at separating Dorsey from his money, or both), Benioff has become an improbable folk hero. The Halloween transformation of Salesforce Tower into the Eye of Sauron was greeted as a hilarious joke — not a creepy metaphor of its own coming from San Francisco’s largest private employer and occupant of the city’s tallest building, overseeing all the realm.
The sad truth of the matter is that, when you’re cheering on brawling gargantuans, it means that the conflict has transcended the realm of the little people below and is now in the hands of gargantuans. And there may be altruistic gargantuans and greedy gargantuans and better gargantuans and worse gargantuans but, long story short, you ain’t winning this fight unless you’ve got a gargantuan.
So, there’s an election Tuesday. You should vote. If you’ve failed to register, you can do that at City Hall. Right now. I mean, you should read to the end of this column first, and then go do that.
Especially on a district level — a small enough venue that on-the-ground organizing and old-fashioned get-out-the-vote tactics are not yet anachronistic — it remains somewhat challenging to simply buy an election. That will be tested this year, as it is every year; millions of dollars in Independent Expenditure money are propping up what used to be called “downtown-friendly” candidates. That includes, by the way, a $50,000 donation to the IE campaign backing District 4 hopeful Jessica Ho — made by none other than Salesforce.
Contributing to the orgy of soft money flooding candidate races isn’t folk hero-type stuff (unless you’re Mitt Romney or something). Ho, who — mind-blowingly — didn’t even move to this city until March, notably does not support Prop. C.
We inquired of Salesforce why this donation was made and whether any of it had been subsequently rescinded. A company spokesperson wrote back, somewhat opaquely, “We made the decision to contribute to the Safe and Clean Sunset Coalition some time ago.” Well, perhaps, but the donations were made on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.
“We are focusing our efforts on Prop. C, and have requested a return of our contribution.”
No doubt they’ll get it back. The Eye of Sauron does see all.
Marc Benioff and his wife, Lynne, have donated a tremendous amount of money to social causes. He was, legitimately, burned up about what he perceived as cruel and publicity-conscious rousting of homeless people during Super Bowl 50 and our leaders’ selling out of our city without “without regard to our public schools, hospitals, & homeless.” Benioff gives his employees time to do work in the community; he doesn’t just want them cutting a check. He wants them to be involved.
So, Benioff is something of a mensch. But he’s also a billionaire. And he’s also the co-CEO of a publicly traded company. He has a fiduciary interest to maximize the well-being of his shareholders. He has not said he’s pushing Prop. C solely due to simple altruism (though that’s likely part of it) or to show up the San Francisco billionaires he’s accused of miserliness (though that may well be part of it too). He has, however, emphasized that Prop. C is good for business because a humanitarian crisis on our streets is not.
That’s likely true, too. But it’s also the kind of thing a responsible fiduciary would do. Volunteering to pay more in corporate taxes out of simple benevolence is the sort of act that inspires shareholder lawsuits.
So you could argue there are sound business reasons to reduce human misery on San Francisco’s streets. But it’s harder to come up with any shareholder-pleasing rationales for stocking San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors with left-leaning legislators who’d work against Mayor London Breed.
For Salesforce to send $50,000 toward Ho — toothpaste money — could be considered a mollification for the mayor and her backers. Considering the high drama and unusual dynamics of Prop. C, the donation to Ho was an embarrassing misstep that was quickly undone. And yet, even beyond a make-good move, it made sense on a higher level.
“There are all kinds of ways a progressive Board could be very damaging to the tech industry,” notes a longtime city political shot-caller. “To start with, they might make them obey the law.”
Nobody I’ve spoken to thinks Prop. C isn’t going to pass. Polls quoted to me put it comfortably ahead. But not at the two-thirds plateau necessary to avoid the being tied up, for years, in litigation from anti-tax absolutists insistent that a mere majority is not enough for such a revenue measure.
Prop. C backers are pretty open, at this point, about how their only remaining hope is that a judge may rule in their favor — if they can dissuade 23 percent of the voters from taxing Jack Dorsey’s money.
Government sources, however, tell me the City Attorney feels pretty solid about San Francisco prevailing in such a suit, meaning there’s a better than decent chance that this money will, eventually, get collected and get spent. Many of Prop. C’s biggest backers ought to be ebullient. But they aren’t exactly that. Rooting for your gargantuan to beat their gargantuan doesn’t quite feel like participatory democracy.
“It shows us that the system is broken,” says a veteran city politico. “This is great, but it also turns us into serfs begging for some rich person to be on our side.”
Millionaires, billionaires, or confederations of both spending lavishly to entrench their special interests has, for quite some time, been par for the course on the federal and state levels. Anyone who’s perused the state ballot measures is aware of this; we have healthcare unions battling dialysis centers (Prop. 8) and an ambulance company serving as the sole funder for a measure that would let it off the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in potential legal payouts while additionally pawning hundreds of millions in labor costs off on the public (Prop. 11).
But, increasingly, that’s how things work on even the municipal level. Airbnb spent more than $8 million to avoid tighter regulation, defeating Prop. F in 2015. One year later, soda companies spent some $23 million fighting a sugary beverage tax — but lost thanks to $15.4 million in spending for the tax, including more than $9 million alone from rich person and liliputian gargantuan Michael Bloomberg (of note, roughly $40 million was spent on the 22nd proposition of 24 on the ballot that year).
People-powered campaigns sometimes do win against the heavy funding of a Ron Conway, a Don Fisher, or the many intertwined corporate Political Action Committees. But, mostly, they lose. Having your own gargantuan is a better bet. The only loser is democratic ideals.
“I have lived my life and spent my career in this system,” says a city political operative. “We don’t really have a democracy anymore. We have oligarchs battling each other at the ballot box.”
It’s not high art, but it’s on. And you’re living it.
Over the past 40 years, there have been three attempts to raise taxes on SF’s biggest corporations. This is the third. The first lost narrowly (then decisively); the second won. What is distinctive about this measure is that the revenues it raises are targeted. Despite the shift in the city’s political demography, taxing the big corporations is still popular. Which is why Breed and her predecessors, Brown and Newsom, join in the attack on C. It is also somewhat ironic to hear Brown and Newsom say that the city’s homeless programs don’t work. These are their programs which, cynics might charge, were designed to fail.