John Diaz: Not sold on Be­nioff ’s pitch for Prop. C on home­less

San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday) - - INSIGHT - JOHN DIAZ

Sales­force founder Marc Be­nioff is putting a twist on the con­ven­tional CEO claim that nur­tur­ing a vi­brant busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment through light­ened taxes and reg­u­la­tion is the key to giv­ing gov­ern­ment the re­sources to fund so­cial pro­grams.

In pitch­ing for a tax in­crease mea­sure on Tues­day’s San Fran­cisco bal­lot, Be­nioff is ar­gu­ing for re­verse or­der: that nearly dou­bling city spend­ing on its most per­va­sive so­cial ill is es­sen­tial to pre­serv­ing the city’s busi­ness cli­mate.

The tech ti­tan is ap­ply­ing his checkbook and the full force of his per­son­al­ity on be­half of Propo­si­tion C, which would tax 300 to 400 of the city’s largest busi­nesses to raise about $300 mil­lion a year for home­less­ness pro­grams. Be­nioff has poured about $8 mil­lion in per­sonal and com­pany funds into the Yes on C cam­paign.

His late surge into the cam­paign goes well be­yond the is­sue at hand. It has be­come an in-your-face chal­lenge to his fel­low CEOs and en­trepreneurs to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for the plight of the city in which they have pros­pered.

“Is the busi­ness of busi­ness just busi­ness? Or is the busi­ness of the busi­ness im­prov­ing the state of the city?” Be­nioff said dur­ing a break­fast meet­ing Mon­day with Chron­i­cle Pub­lisher Bill Nagel, Ed­i­tor in Chief Au­drey Cooper and me.

He was nei­ther shy nor coy about his rea­son for re­quest­ing the meet­ing. He hoped to per­suade The Chron­i­cle to with­draw its op­po­si­tion to Propo­si­tion C. He ac­knowl­edged the ask was “maybe too crazy” to con­tem­plate. It cer­tainly would be un­prece­dented to over­turn an en­dorse­ment, at least in my 22 years as this news­pa­per’s ed­i­to­rial page ed­i­tor. (Note: The Chron­i­cle’s news and opin­ion op­er­a­tions are kept in­de­pen­dent of one an­other; I do not make news sec­tion judg­ments, and Cooper is not in­volved in en­dorse­ment de­ci­sions.)

“We need a lot of money, and we need it now,” he said. “If we don’t get Prop. C, where does it come from?”

While it’s not un­usual for any en­dorse­ment to elicit de­trac­tors who call and send emails, I can’t re­call a more di­rect and im­pas­sioned pitch than the one made by Be­nioff.

“I’m not telling you that you should do it ...” he said with a smile near the end of the meet­ing.

Ex­cept he was.

But we won’t. Here is why: While Be­nioff ’s in­ter­ven­tion has changed the po­lit­i­cal dy­namic of Prop. C — el­e­vat­ing its chances of pas­sage — our ed­i­to­rial board’s fun­da­men­tal con­cerns about the mea­sure re­main. We whole­heart­edly agree with Be­nioff that re­duc­tion of home­less­ness to the ex­tent hu­manly pos­si­ble should be the city’s No. 1 pri­or­ity. Our ed­i­to­rial board also has con­sis­tently ac­knowl­edged that it will re­quire more money — be­yond the $380 mil­lion the city now spends on home­less­ness — to truly make a dif­fer­ence.

How­ever, we also have con­sis­tently ar­gued that the city needs to get a bet­ter han­dle on the ef­fec­tive­ness and ef­fi­ciency of the money it now spends through eight city de­part­ments and more than 70 pri­vate and non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions in 400 con­tracts. Un­der Jeff Kosit­sky, over­seer of San Fran­cisco’s home­less pro­grams, the city has been mak­ing strides in scru­ti­niz­ing its spend­ing, but no one would ar­gue that it has yet to root out all du­pli­ca­tion and in­ef­fec­tive­ness.

Vot­ers should note that Prop. C re­quires the city to main­tain its $380 mil­lion base­line spend­ing. Is there any doubt that the in­fu­sion of an ex­tra $300 mil­lion would ease any pres­sure on the city to hold those ex­ist­ing pro­grams ac­count­able?

As our Sept. 30 ed­i­to­rial noted, “Prop. C sug­gests that money, alone, is the cure-all to home­less­ness. It is not.”

Our rare front-page ed­i­to­rial on July 3, 2016, “A civic dis­grace,” noted many of the el­e­ments that would be es­sen­tial to tack­ling home­less­ness. This is not just a San Fran­cisco prob­lem: “It needs to be ap­proached re­gion­ally, statewide, even na­tion­ally.” Also, in a con­cept that is painful but nec­es­sary to con­front, San Fran­cisco “needs to shed any per­cep­tion that it is a sanc­tu­ary for peo­ple who are un­will­ing to par­tic­i­pate in pro­grams de­signed to get them off, and keep them off, a life on the streets.”

Prop. C avoids those tough is­sues.

It is worth re­mind­ing that some of the main ar­chi­tects of Prop. C have op­posed ev­ery­thing from Gavin New­som’s Care Not Cash plan to the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the state Laura’s Law to com­pel out­pa­tient treat­ment for men­tal ill­ness to con­ser­va­tor­ships for chron­i­cally home­less peo­ple who can’t care for them­selves. They have con­demned laws against ag­gres­sive pan­han­dling, tent en­camp­ments and defe­ca­tion and uri­na­tion in the streets as “crim­i­nal­iz­ing poverty.”

Thus, the in­vest­ment from Prop. C is con­sid­er­able, but the strat­egy is in­com­plete.

Be­nioff is not naive about the in­ef­fi­cien­cies in a bu­reau­cracy. He pointed out that any op­er­a­tion, even a busi­ness as suc­cess­ful as his, has a cer­tain level of in­ef­fi­ciency. Still, he sees Prop. C as a dif­fer­ence maker — and it frus­trates him to no end that his fel­low CEOs fail to share his moral indig­na­tion or sense of ur­gency about home­less­ness.

For phi­lan­thropist Be­nioff, home­less­ness has long been one of his main causes. He and his com­pany have poured mil­lions into pro­grams such as the non­profit Hamil­ton Fam­i­lies, which helps fam­i­lies get into per­ma­nent hous­ing. Be­nioff can quickly rat­tle off ex­am­ples of its in­no­va­tions and re­sults, and sug­gested that Prop. C would al­low the city to of­fer that and other ser­vices at greater scale.

Be­nioff de­cided to get in­volved with Prop. C about a month ago when he started get­ting calls against it from some of the same busi­ness lead­ers who had not both­ered to do­nate to pro­grams for home­less kids.

“That got my psy­chic at­ten­tion,” he said, and he was off and run­ning — and

“We need a lot of money, and we need it now. If we don’t get Prop. C, where will it come from?” Marc Be­nioff, Sales­force founder

spend­ing — as the un­of­fi­cial yet un­de­ni­able face of Yes on C.

He has scoffed at the no­tion that the city’s wealth­i­est com­pa­nies could not af­ford the tax. As for the ar­gu­ment that the tax could cost 700 jobs city­wide, Be­nioff said, “That’s how many I hire in 90 days.”

Be­nioff ’s at­tempt to jolt the con­science of the tech class en­joyed a god­send in the form of a tweet from his pal Jack Dorsey, the head of Square and Twit­ter, who wrote that he wanted to help fix the home­less prob­lem but “I don’t be­lieve this is the best way to do it.”

Be­nioff tweeted back: “Ex­actly (how) much have his com­pa­nies & per­son­ally given back to our city, our home­less pro­grams, pub­lic hos­pi­tals and pub­lic schools?”

The tweet war was on, and the ex­changes be­tween the two bil­lion­aires went vi­ral. Propo­si­tion C was sud­denly get­ting na­tional at­ten­tion. Be­nioff had an opin­ion piece in the New York Times and has been mak­ing the rounds on na­tional tele­vi­sion in the past week, as he noted dur­ing our break­fast meet­ing.

For Be­nioff, all of this is in ser­vice of his home­town.

“We’re not the first com­pany like this,” he ex­plained, sug­gest­ing that Sales­force was fol­low­ing “part of a lin­eage” of com­pa­nies such as Levi Strauss, Wells Fargo and the Gap, or busi­ness lead­ers such as the late War­ren Hell­man, the Haas fam­ily and Don­ald Fisher, in us­ing their eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal clout to en­rich the city in so many ways.

I may dis­agree with Be­nioff on the wis­dom of Propo­si­tion C, but there is some­thing to ad­mire about an en­tre­pre­neur at the top of the San Fran­cisco sky­line break­ing from his busi­ness brethren to stand for what he is con­vinced is the pub­lic good, even at the ex­pense of his own com­pany’s bot­tom line.

In do­ing so, Be­nioff is forc­ing an over­due reck­on­ing among the rest of the tech bil­lion­aires who were un­der the il­lu­sion that their value to San Fran­cisco could be mea­sured solely by the size of their pay­rolls and height of their of­fice tow­ers.

That wor­thy con­ver­sa­tion is sure to con­tinue no mat­ter what hap­pens on Nov. 6.

Eric Ris­berg / As­so­ci­ated Press

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