The Guardian Way: Fudge the Numbers Till They Add Up How You Want

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When we got wind that the Guardian was planning a response to the "Worst-Run Big City in the U.S." article I wrote with Benjamin Wachs, we guessed they'd do two things: Focus almost entirely on one chart that went along with our lengthy article (nearly completely ignoring the article) and propose the idea of comparing San Francisco to other cities is ridiculous because other cities are so different (as if comparisons should only be made among things that are the same).

Well, that happened. And, in the process, the Guardian unleashed a chocolate factory's worth of fudge on San Francisco and other cities' budget totals, culminating in nonsensical numbers games that have utterly no basis in reality -- but sure do help San Francisco's jarring budget numbers look borderline sane.

To top it off, the Guardian has the temerity to slap the headline "The truth about San Francisco's budget" on its story. This is "Ministry of Truth" truth, perhaps, but not "The Truth Shall Set You Free" truth. 

The Guardian's strategy for this story seems to be to use as many charts as possible. And when one doesn't make the point it wants, it re-jiggers the numbers and prints up another. And another. And another -- until they're left comparing a less costly San Francisco with hypothetical city-counties made to artificially resemble San Francisco. Maybe peering in a mirror is all they wanted from the start.

The Guardian starts with SF Weekly's chart -- which, even when you add in the error we admittedly made with Philadelphia's budget, illustrates that San Francisco spends more per-capita than other combined city-counties. We are then chided for choosing counties so "dramatically different" than San Francisco -- despite the fact that, for years, the Guardian and other apologists have said that the only cities San Francisco could be compared to were other city-counties. Apparently they changed their mind once someone actually did. Then, using some largely unexplained math, the Guardian neatly lops off all the things San Francisco chooses to pay for when other city-counties don't -- apparently it's not fair to hold San Francisco accountable for its choices about what to pay for. But guess what? We're still spending more per-capita than the other city-counties. Way more in most cases. Guess they need another chart.

And this is where the cheese slips off the Guardian's cracker. While the paper's article quite clearly states "You can't compare San Francsico to any other city in California because San Francisco is the only combined city and county," the Guardian then sees fit to contrast the city's budget with Los Angeles'. How? By torturing the numbers in a manner that would induce organ failure in even John Yoo.

The Guardian gets to break its own rules and compare San Francisco's budget to L.A.'s and Chicago's by "add[ing] to the L.A. and Chicago city budgets a percentage of the L.A. County and Cook County spending equal to each city's percentage of the county population."

This would make perfect sense -- if it didn't make no goddamn sense. You can't just determine overlapping city and county budgets via long division; cities are cities and counties are counties because they have differing, separate services. L.A. City and County each have their own Departments of Public Works, Building Inspection Departments, road crews, parks departments, you name it. Cities pay for their own services because they usually don't use the counties'. Simply adding a lump sum of county costs on to city costs makes about as much sense as multiplying the city numbers by Planck's Constant.

And then, amazingly, they do. Well, not by Planck's Constant. Instead -- since the Guardian's numbers still had San Francisco healthily spending the most per-capita -- they decide to do a Cost of Living Adjustment.

This is a little more grounded in reality -- but to merely slough off a city's cost of living as a factor to be mitigated away and not a product of that city's political decisions says a lot about the Guardian's mindset. Cities' cost of living aren't determined by the Cost of Living Fairy -- you think San Francisco's cost of living has nothing to do with this city's utter failure to build affordable housing for the middle class? And while the Guardian insists that the city has to pay its workers a lot of money because we have a high cost of living, you could argue that San Francisco has a high cost of living because we pay our workers top dollar. In fact, stacked against neighboring cities with comparable costs of living, S.F. is far more generous with its employees. Not to say that's a good thing or a bad thing -- but it is a thing. To merely eliminate it as the Guardian does is disingenuous.

But it does give us an "adjusted" per-capita expenditure less than L.A., Chicago, or Philly -- thus appeasing the city political interests with which the Guardian is connected at the hip.

And that was the real point. That was the point all along. 

Finally, the Guardian has struggled to make this an argument only about spending, perhaps so they can paint their opponents as knee-jerk conservatives. But, as anyone who read our cover story with an open mind should know, it's just as much or more about how the city spends its money, what it gets in return for its vast investments, and how an entrenched culture of unaccountability will keep even the most generous and well-prepared plans from being realized. That's the real shame.    



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