Skip to main content
The Lash

Introducing ‘The Lash’, a new column by Adam Lashinsky on SF’s woes and wonders

A biweekly column about the most vexing problems plaguing the city—and how we can begin to fix them.

an illustration showing interlocking circles of money power and influence in San Francisco
The interlocking circles of grift and ideology in San Francisco are “the root and flower of its dysfunction,” writes Adam Lashinsky. | Source: AI illustration by Jesse Rogala/The Standard

It’s often said that San Francisco is shaped like a square, 7 miles wide by 7 miles long. But to understand the political realities of San Francisco–the way the city actually works in three dimensions, not the way it’s laid out in two—you have to imagine a pair of intersecting circles. 

The city as Venn diagram. 

One of these circles represents, as the late Mayor Ed Lee explained to me more than a decade ago, the “City Family.” These are the 35,000 employees of the city and county of San Francisco, their dependents, the contractors (including executives and employees of nonprofit organizations) who sell things to them and other various hangers-on, including the political consultants, aides, bundlers and flacks who run the campaigns for elected office and ballot initiatives. 

Often, fixing what’s broken in the city is a threat to this group because if the city streamlined its processes, eliminated duplicative approvals and otherwise spent its money wisely, we’d very likely need fewer city family members. It is a standing army, living off the fat of the land, with the ultimate disincentive to ever leave their posts.

The other circle represents the filter through which all civic decisions are seen: Ideology. As all San Franciscans intimately understand, the city’s unique political environment is defined by the left and the further left. That liberals of all stripes—Democratic Socialists, progressives, moderates, pick your descriptive label—dominate the city bureaucracy explains an environment that is as permissive on public safety as it is conservative toward building housing. 

And yet, despite their inherent closeness, the members of the city’s warring liberal tribes will never lay down their arms, thanks to similar perverse incentives that power the city family.

Where the two circles meet, in the middle of the Venn diagram—that is the root and the flower of San Francisco’s dysfunction. 

‘These are people-made problems’

The deadpan comic Steven Wright used to tell a joke about people who like to kvetch: “Everyone complains about the weather,” he’d say. “But nobody does anything about it.” 

That line keeps popping into my head as I confront the constant griping about San Francisco. What the hell has gone wrong? Who’s to blame? Why isn’t anyone doing anything about it? 

“The Lash,” my new biweekly column for The Standard, is an attempt, if not to do something about these gripes, then at least to examine and interpret them. San Francisco’s malaise might seem like a summer fog bank that hangs over the hills interminably, sometimes getting heavier, infrequently clearing a smidge. But the metaphor doesn’t hold. These are people-made problems. People are to blame. And only people can fix them. 

One of the barriers to unpacking this sad state of affairs is the mental gymnastics it takes to explain them. Worse, those who understand the situation best—the several hundred or so most engaged political players, including the city’s elected officials, bureaucrats and consultants—do their level best to confuse the rest of us with double talk, blame-shifting and acquiescence to a messed-up structure they alone can fix. 

So rather than baffle you more, I’m going to attempt to grapple with the biggest problems in the city for you, and lay out who and what I believe are responsible for them, and who can most adequately fix them.  

SF Police stand guard
Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

Cops at the center of the Venn diagram 

Since there’s an election tomorrow, and because one of the most contested topics in civic life, policing, is on the ballot not once but twice, let’s use the current battle to illustrate the city’s current miasma of dysfunction.

Proposition B, described by its proponents as a measure to raise funds to hire more cops, is patently bad and deceptive legislation. Citizens can be forgiven for not knowing the tedious back story, which involves a supervisor, Ahsha Safaí, perverting the original idea of another supervisor, Matt Dorsey, to end up with an initiative that won’t help get more cops on the street. 

Prop. B would add funds for hiring additional cops only if voters pass an as-yet-unscheduled tax hike, and only then at some future date. It is a blatant nonstarter intended to confuse voters, not to increase policing levels. 

(I should note here that I’m against all ballot initiatives as a ridiculous distraction from representative democracy. They have evolved from a decent form of giving the people a direct say into a cynical game for the political class to bamboozle its constituents. But they are the law in California, so play the game we must.) 

Police funding is something the Board of Supervisors is perfectly capable of handling through its own budgeting process. Promulgating misleading referendums like Prop. B allows them to pass the buck.

Less discussed is why the Board of Supervisors would want to pretend to fund more cops, knowing it won’t. The answer is that cops get funded from the city’s generous $14.6 billion budget, as do city workers. The union contract for those workers is up for renewal in June, and elected officials know union leaders don’t want to compete with cops for funding increases. 

So much for supporting their fellow workers, let alone the security of the streets on which they work. (The Service Employees International Union Local 1021 supports Prop. B, paying to state in the Department of Elections voter’s guide that it would “address a severe police shortage.” It is silent on any connection to its contract negotiations with the city.)

Self-interested politicking isn’t the only thing that keeps San Francisco from adequately policing itself. It also has a police commission—one of about 130 citizen commissions and advisory bodies orgiastically groping city government—that nitpicks the police department, often from an ideological perspective. 

Residents typically wouldn’t know how the Police Commission does this, but one of its tools is a long list of DGOs, or Department General Orders, passed by the commission and that govern everything from fitness and grooming— “fingernails shall be a length which does not interfere with the performance of duties”—to the use of deadly force and the 14 factors officers “shall not allow … to influence their course of action during domestic violence incidents.”

The commission recently approved a new DGO intended to curtail the ability of cops to pull over suspects for one reason and then charge them for something else. The rationale is pure: Data shows that a disproportionate number of police stops are made on people of color. Yet the response is to burden cops with a list that is so long—including nine instances in which cops no longer can stop cars at all—that any reasonable officer would conclude it doesn’t make sense to bother. 

Moderate opponents of the immoderate Police Commission have a ballot initiative of their own on Tuesday: Proposition E. Among its intentions is to hobble the commission by requiring the police department to hold a community hearing in each of 10 police districts any time the commission wants to change department policy. 

In other words, the moderate solution to what it sees as too much citizen oversight is to add another layer of citizen oversight. It’s a perfect example of something the longtime San Francisco political operative Todd David calls “process fetish,” a tool equally loved by the left and the less left. (For what it’s worth, I am going to hold my nose and vote yes on E because I agree with its overall policy goals. But I don’t like that I’m being asked to do so.)

Add all this up, and you have a microcosm of how the city doesn’t work. Just in the case of policing, you can see how legitimate policy goals–adequate staffing levels and reasonable policymaking–get stuck in the quagmire of machine politics, Byzantine governing rules and internecine ideological warfare. It’s a messed-up drama that plays out day after day, year after year throughout the fraying organization that is our government. 

Who does this guy think he is?

By now you might be wondering who I am. I’m a Chicago native who moved to the Bay Area in 1997 to write about Silicon Valley. For most of that time, I was at Fortune magazine, where I ultimately was executive editor. Though my beat was national, I’ve written a fair amount over the years about San Francisco, including a February 2020 feature story for Fortune—published days before the world locked down—that asked, “Can San Francisco Be Saved?” I’ve been a public- and private-school parent, and I have lived in the city for nearly 20 years. 

I hope you’ll find me neither a cheerleader nor a hater: I have written, and continue to believe, that San Francisco’s problems aren’t a result of bad PR, but rather that it has bad PR because of its problems. Fix them, and public relations will sort itself out.

You’ll be hearing from me twice a month. I hope to hear from you as often as you like at

Adam Lashinsky is editor-at-large at The Standard. He is a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, a former executive editor of Fortune magazine and the author two books—one on Apple, another on Uber. He is at work on a third about the political columnist and language maven William Safire.

We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our opinion articles. You can email us at Interested in submitting an opinion piece of your own? Review our submission guidelines.