• Jim Kelly

Why we should recall London Breed

Updated: Jan 1, 2021

I don't mean "recall" in the sense of fondly reminisce about San Francisco's mayor, but "recall" in the sense Californians recalled Governor Gray Davis in 2003 and are well on their way to recalling Gavin Newsom in 2021.

We San Franciscans who dare leave our homes at all are walking around wearing masks. Many of us are militant about the importance of masks, because we've accepted City Hall's message about externalities. If you don't wear a mask, you're not just risking your own health but the health of those around you.

Let's talk about externalities. In our curious society we keep the peace by endowing a few very special people with authority to make rules and throw us in prison. Whoever we choose--a genius, a sociopath, or usually someone in between--shapes important outcomes for hundreds of thousands of people.

In other words, your choice of mayor imposes externalities on the people around you, dramatically larger than walking down the street without a mask. Based on your choice of mayor and the mayor's choice of policies, maybe your neighbor keeps her job, maybe she keeps her home, maybe she keeps her business, or maybe she doesn't. Maybe she lives, or maybe she dies. Maybe she rots in prison.

In a city of 800,000 people, I can't see all the impacts of the leaders I support, yet my choices impact a lot of people around me. As voters in a democracy, you and I are the management, whether we want the job or not.

"Slow to hire, quick to fire" is the manager's saying, because while people are adaptable, only a few are a terrific fit for any given role. If you're making do with an okay fit, you may not realize how much you're missing, or how severely you're undermining the people around you.

What should you expect of the mayor?

The typical manager used to do the job of the people he oversees, so he has a sense of what success and failure look like. You and I have never been mayor, so how do we recognize a good one? As a manger of many years, here's my advice.

1. Is she helping you understand what her success and failure look like?

A long, long time ago I worked for an executive who drew up complicated scorecards for the people under him. At a laborious offsite, we evaluated all his direct reports based on the scorecard. The department's top performer--the guy he wanted us all to be more like--he had fired three weeks earlier.

Like all executives, you're busy with a million other things, and you have neither the knowledge nor the time to analyze what your people are doing right or wrong. The best ones understand your needs and do the job for you. They'll explain what their vision of success is, what's going well, and where they've realized they need to change course.

That's hard to do well, but not so hard to game. You don't want a salesman who constantly moves the goalposts to make himself look good. Either there are no problems in his world, or he already fixed them, or he can't spot them...but you don't know which. You can't trust him, and you don't want to spend your time cross-examining him or going around him to audit his department.

So here is your first criterion. Is Mayor Breed giving you a clear vision of what success looks like for her, what failure looks like and and how they differ? Does her definition of success align with yours? Is success merely a platitude, so loosely defined it's indistinguishable from failure? Would anyone shy of Pol Pot qualify as a success? Does success change from month to month? Does she acknowledge failures and lessons learned?

If you're not sure how to assess the mayor's success, you might start with her oath of office, where she committed to upholding citizens' constitutional rights. You're probably familiar with the federal constitution, but California has its own. Your rights, and your neighbors rights, are written down, so you can judge for yourself how well she's defended them. Before you give her an A-, a D+, or whatever, consider what a mayor would have to do to earn an F from you? Then consider what quality leader do your neighbors deserve?

2. Is she better than you at the things that matter?

Another manager saying: hire people better than you. Is the mayor better than you on dimensions that really matter?

We've heard a lot this year about "following the science." We've also hear experts touting epidemic models that overstated deaths by two orders magnitude. Lockdowns that were supposed to beat COVID didn't do so at all. Reopening schedules slipped by weeks, and then months, and now it's "don't call us, we'll call you." States and countries that didn't lock down trended much the same as places that did. What expertise have the mayor and her experts demonstrated over the rest of us?

You understand how diseases work. You catch a bug, and it could be fatal. But for most bugs and most people, your body develops antibodies, kills off that bug and protects you from getting it again. The bubonic plague, the Spanish flu, and every other epidemic ended when the population as a whole developed enough antibodies to choke the bug off. Herd immunity isn't one of several options for defeating COVID, it's the only mechanism that ever stops easily-transmitted diseases.

You understand how vaccines work. A vaccine stimulates your immune system's reaction without the toxicity of the disease, so it's a different path to develop the same herd immunity. A path without 100% efficacy, maybe with its own side effects, and obviously a lot slower if a vaccine isn't available.

Just as we would stop a flooding river by stacking up sandbags, COVID stops when the population has piled up enough antibodies in enough bloodstreams, and not before. Not everyone is suited for that work, but plenty of us are and could have completed it months ago if we hadn't been locked at home. Sensible public health policy would have encouraged the spread of COVID among the young and protected the old until the virus spent itself out.

Does the mayor believe that what stops epidemics is sufficient antibodies in the population? If so, how do lockdowns contribute toward that goal? If not, what is her theory of what stops epidemics? Have you heard it in any of her tweets or videos or edicts? Shouldn't she have mentioned it by now?

What you're hearing instead is contradictions--on the one hand warnings that even with a vaccine at hand it will be some time before the epidemic is over, and on the other exhorting citizens not to socialize because we might make it worse. Which is it? Is defeating COVID in the hands of us citizens or not?

Why is communication so muddled? Why do dates keep slipping? Because the mayor's strategy is based on a fallacy of composition. While it's certainly true that any individual can prevent COVID by staying home, if everyone does that the population remains vulnerable. She might as well order that everyone stand up in movie theaters so they can see better. If she hadn't closed them.

If that seems a pretty basic error, well, yes it does. Doctors have been speaking out against lockdowns for a while, just not the ones working in public health departments. One would have thought this was the sort of thing government epidemiologists would be good at. Their whole job was preparing for epidemics, wasn't it? Will we be employing more of them or fewer of them going forward?

Maximizing the population's antibodies while minimizing risk was not just the sensible policy in March, it's still the sensible policy now at the end of December. And it's still the opposite of what Mayor Breed is doing. Schools are still closed as she fights with the teacher's union. Muni is mostly not running; doubtless she promised transit unions they'd be paid anyway, their pensions unaffected, so they're not pressuring her to get back to work either. Restaurants and gyms are closed, again, despite their investments to adapt to the edicts the city's "experts" imposed in the spring and summer. "I have altered our deal. Pray that I do not alter it again."

Is the mayor better than you on COVID? Maybe she's better on other issues that might be more important to you? What are those?

3. Are you in the relationship you want?

Doctors pledge to first do no harm, because the patient's health is complicated. There's no problem so bad surgery or shock treatments or leeches can't make worse. At the end of the day it's about helping the patient live their own life with their own tradeoffs, not about imposing the doctor's vision of a properly healthy life.

But the question is what you want your relationship as a citizen to be with the mayor. Do you see yourself as a competent adult making your own decisions about your own life, which the mayor respects with a Hippocratic humility and focuses on keeping basic services operating?

Or would you rather the mayor takes worries off your hands and solves problems for you? Should City Hall enforce proactive direction to you and other citizens for living healthy, prosperous lives, because their experts are wiser than us? How many mistakes do the experts need to make before you start worrying again?

Or would you rather a more spiritual relationship with the mayor, where she serves as an inspiration of San Francisco's potential if we all just pull together in the right way? Progressives can overlook a lot of government bungling because they have a strong faith in what government could be. How long are you prepared to wait?

Would you be okay if the mayor regards us as 800,000 bumpers in her political pinball tournament? By angling shots carefully, she can get us to kick the right way and propel her into an a bigger office with more power over more people, just like Gavin Newsom or Kamala Harris did. Is that the relationship you want?


2020 is a difficult year for many of us to score. It's not like we've lived through a hundred pandemics and know what works and what doesn't. We recognize local politicians who usually have to worry about bus schedules and potholes suddenly had to make life-impacting decisions, based on limited data, quickly. We're not sure what we would do in their chair, so we're not sure what standards to hold them to.

That's a tough situation, not just for the mayor but for the voters who must oversee her. She comes across as a nice, charismatic person, always upbeat, always concerned, and always smiling. Our own Oprah-by-the-bay. We want to cut her slack.

Unfortunately the trickier the times, the more desperately your neighbors need excellence from the people in charge. Every bit of slack you grant the government tightens the rope on a thousand of your neighbors, whether you see them or not. Tens of thousands of San Franciscans are jobless because of decisions the mayor made and continues to make. If you see the wisdom of defunding the police, shouldn't you first consider replacing their boss?

A mayor is entrusted with the extraordinary power of the police force and the prison keys. You're entrusted with the extraordinary power to oversee her. If you're not going to hold her to any particular expectations, someone--maybe her, maybe someone with her ear--will exploit the opportunity. You're within your rights to do so, because your vote and your political support are yours alone to award.

But if you're not going to hold the mayor accountable, why bother wearing a mask?

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