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Berkeley and Richmond recently upped their minimum wages, and Oakland and San Francisco are also considering significant lifts for their lowest-wage workers. But each city’s minimum wage plan differs in significant ways. These differences reflect the balances of power between workers and employers, unions and business leagues, in each city.

In Oakland, labor and community organizations banded together as a coalition last year and decided to place an initiative directly on the ballot in time for the elections this November. That decision to circumvent the city council prevented what happened in Richmond and Berkeley. In Oakland’s neighbors to the north initial calls by grassroots activists for a $15 minimum wage were translated into a much smaller increase. Final legislation in these two cities was further watered down. Business lobbyists successfully argued that an immediate and significant hike in the minimum wage for all workers would cause unemployment, business closures, and a drain economic activity from these cities.

Berkeley’s minimum wage therefore isn’t very large, and it isn’t indexed to inflation, so it loses value quickly.

Richmond’s minimum wage, while larger on paper, may not impact very many workers in the city because of complicated exemptions that allow lots of employers to simply not pay the new municipal minimum wage, or to pay a lower “intermediate” amount.

In San Francisco the process has been legislative, like Richmond and Berkeley. But instead of starting from $15 and cutting downward, San Francisco’s board of supervisors appear headed toward $15 by 2018. If they pass the minimum wage legislation that was considered at today’s rules committee, San Francisco’s minimum wage will rise from it’s current $10.75 to $12.25 next year.

That would match the proposed increase that Oakland voters will consider in November. But then San Francisco’s minimum wage would jump another 75 cents in 2016, and then a dollar in 2017 and another dollar in 2018. Those increases significantly outpace the rate of inflation.

Here’s what the different enacted and proposed minimum wage increases in the Bay Area look like compared to one another.

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In Oakland the “Lift Up Oakland” ballot initiative would raise the minimum wage for all employees in March 2015 to $12.25 and then increase this wage each year to prevent it from losing value from inflation. The Oakland Chamber of Commerce is attempting to place a competing measure on the ballot that would phase in a minimum wage increase, but the increases charted below for this proposal would not benefit all workers as the Chamber’s proposal carves out certain categories of employers and employees.

 

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San Francisco’s proposed minimum wage would rise to $15 in 2018, possibly bringing pay just above the bare minimum considered a living wage.

 

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Differences between Berkeley and Richmond’s recently passed minimum wage laws, and San Francisco and Oakland’s proposed minimum wages are larger than this graph would imply. In Richmond the number of workers excluded from the new minimum wage of $13 by 2018 is probably very large due to exemption of “small businesses” from having to comply, and a complicated provision that establishes an “intermediate” minimum wage halfway between the city and state minimum wages, allowing employers who obtain half their income from sales or services provided outside the city to pay this lesser wage.

 

 

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A luxury house along “Billionaire’s Row” in San Francisco.

The failed economic policies of the Obama administration have been evident in measures of every important fundamental for six years now. Dismal job growth. High unemployment. Weak consumer demand, and so on. The biggest failure of the Obama administration was arguably the refusal to write down mortgage debt and force the top one percent of wealth holders to share some of the losses sustained during the housing market crash. While monetary policies pursued by the Fed, and a bailout of the secondary housing market with taxpayer dollars, temporarily provided a shot in the arm for housing prices, these gains were artificial. They weren’t based on genuine demand for housing by the majority of Americans. The result is that the top one percent of the U.S. housing market, the luxury segment, is booming, while the rest of Americans are having trouble affording homes. Now the housing market appears to be stalling out, except for luxury purchases by the elite whose wealth was protected by virtually every economic policy advanced through the financial crisis.

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A single family home in Oakland.

Let’s review the problem. In the 2000s the U.S. housing market was flooded with cheap credit. Lenders extended giant loans, many of them sub-prime, and the prices of houses shot upward in a bubble. But stagnating wages for American workers meant that the prices of real estate diverged from the reality of the ability of the average household to safely repay these loans. When the financial system imploded, the price of housing collapsed, and it was the borrowers who sustained the brunt of losses in the form of equity. The debt remained to be repaid, however, because Obama and his economic advisers chose to protect the wealth of the top one percent.

As economists Atif Mian and Amir Sufi have pointed out in their book House of Debt, the federal government could have taken over as the servicer of mortgage-backed securities and renegotiated millions of loans, dropping interests rates and principal balances. Or the government could have allowed bankruptcy judges to reduce mortgage debt burdens. The few principal reduction programs there were, like the Home Affordable Modification Program, could have been pushed much further. As is, programs like HAMP served only a small fraction of distressed borrowers with underwater loans. HAMP and other loan modification programs did not meet their original numerical goals.

By not making creditors share the pain of the collapse of real estate prices, the Obama administration enforced a giant wealth transfer from the majority of Americans to a small minority, literally the one percent who own the majority of stocks and bonds, particularly stocks in banks and mortgage servicing companies, and bonds backed by residential mortgage debt.

But the wealthy also cache their fortunes in non-housing related stocks and bonds, and the Obama administration’s quantitative easing program has been good for supporting the value of these securities. So the wealthy never took the same kind of hit the average American did with housing price dips and job losses. Then the wealthy benefited from federal programs that jacked up asset prices.

Should we be surprised then to learn that the top one percent of the residential housing market is booming while sales of literally every home priced below a luxury-grade are dropping? This is one consequence of the Obama administration’s housing and economic policies.

A new batch of numbers from the real estate research firm Redfin illustrates the consequences of the Obama administration’s economic policies by comparing the very top of the American real estate market to everything else. “Sales of the priciest 1 percent of homes are up 21.1 percent so far this year, following a gain of 35.7 percent in 2013,” writes Troy Martin of Refin. “Meanwhile, in the other 99 percent of the market, home sales have fallen 7.6 percent in 2014.”

“For the top 1 percent, the housing market is still booming. But for the rest of the market, the recovery is running out of gas,” concludes Martin. “As home prices have risen, wage and job growth have failed to keep up.”

Redfin’s research shows that in virtually every major metropolitan region the luxury segment of the housing market, the top one percent of homes in price terms, are selling fast and at higher prices. Not surprisingly, there’s considerable regional variation, but it’s a nation-wide phenomenon.

The real estate market in the San Francisco Bay Area is perhaps the most unequal and driven by sales to the super-rich. Luxury home purchases are way up in Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco, with Oakland and San Jose experiencing a virtual doubling of the luxury market over the past year. The top one percent of the market for Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco combined is priced at an average of $3.7 million, but San Francisco has pulled ahead of the rest of the nation with an average home price of $5.35 million for the top one percent of its market. Some of this is likely due to the booming tech sector which is creating thousands of millionaires in the region.

Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 10.43.54 PMFor the majority of Americans the problem boils down to household debt. There’s still too much debt for the average household to sustain purchasing power that would drive an economic recovery, including a recovery in the housing market. From 2003 to the peak of the housing bubble in the third quarter of 2008, total household debt shot upward by about $5.4 trillion, according to data compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. From the peak of the housing bubble to the present, total household debt only decreased by $1.5 trillion. That means that about $3.9 trillion in debt piled onto U.S. households during the housing bubble is still weighing down family budgets. Most of this debt, about $2.89 trillion, was mortgage debt.

Over the same time period wages remained flat for most Americans. The median household incomes in the year 2000 was approximately $42,000. In 2012 it was about $51,000. Accounting for inflation, the real value of household income actually declined over this period by $5,000.

The income and wealth gains at the top of America’s economic pyramid over this same time frame should be familiar by now, as they have been extensively explained in recent research. What’s important to point out, however, is that the the average household, the median Americans whose incomes dropped by $5,000, took on significant mortgage debt during the 2000s, altogether in the trillions of dollars, and the lenders of this capital, ultimately, are the top one percent households.

So that’s why we see the luxury housing market booming while virtually 99 percent, the rest of America is stagnating.

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Bay Area Council CEO Jim Wunderman, BART director Grace Crunican, and MTC representative Tom Bulger in the Capitol with Rep. Nancy Pelosi in 2011.

On October 3 a business lobbying organization released a poll claiming that Bay Area residents are in “overwhelming agreement” that BART workers should accept the current contract proposal offered by the transit system’s management in order to avoid another strike. That offer would actually amount to a pay cut for most BART employees, but it was described in the poll as a “raise of 10 percent.” The survey’s overall design seems geared to elicit a result favoring BART management. No doubt this is because the business lobby that paid for and helped engineer the poll has an interest in driving down labor costs and freeing up BART’s revenue for system expansion.

The lobbying group that paid for the poll is the Bay Area Council, or BAC. The BAC was formed in 1944 as a coordinating committee of the region’s biggest banks, construction companies, manufacturers, oil giants, and real estate corporations, most of them headquartered in downtown San Francisco. The impetus to create the BAC stemmed from the frustrations of elite corporate executives who, during World War II, worried that the Bay Area’s fragmented geography and multitude of county and city governments would prevent the creation of grand transit and industrial projects. The war time boom minted huge fortunes for these tycoons, but they feared northern California’s auto-driven sprawl would diminish real estate values in their cherished urban core, San Francisco, and further that it would drive up operating costs for their companies as their white collar employees, and some of their peer companies, dispersed to the suburbs.

“These prospects were greeted with exaggerated gloom in San Francisco,” wrote Melvin Webber in a 1976 study of BART. Webber was the founder of Berkeley’s Transportation Center, and an influential author of an early analysis of BART’s impact on the region. Webber found the origins of BART in both the financial and political interest of San Francisco’s wealthy elite:

“Surely, no other American city is as proud and narcissistic-no civic leaders elsewhere so obsessed by their sense of responsibility for protecting and nurturing their priceless charge. The idea that San Francisco might go the way of Newark or St. Louis was utterly abhorrent. And so it was, as the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce proudly reported in a multi-page advertisement in Fortune, that the civic leaders of San Francisco and their neighboring kin initiated a major effort to keep the Bay Area from going the way that cities of lesser breed were headed. The campaign was masterful in both conception and execution.”

Alan Browne, a senior vice president at Bank of America who participated in this masterful campaign to establish BART said the problem was, “essentially just a breakdown on the movement of people,” from the hinterlands to the urban core.

Joining Browne was Adrian Falk, the president of S&W Foods. Falk helped raise funds and coordinate the 1962 ballot campaign to launch BART. S&W Foods, today known as Del Monte, the $3.8 billion corporate agribusiness giant, is still headquartered three blocks from BART’s Embarcadero Station. After helping wage the successful public relations campaign for BART’s creation, S&W’s Falk became the first president of BART’s board of directors.

Falk told the local newspapers quite frankly that the main purpose of BART was to create the necessary people moving infrastructure to benefit the wealthy downtown corporations already located in San Francisco. “Certain financial, banking, and industrial companies want to be centralized, want to have everyone near each other,” said Falk. “They don’t want to have to go one day to Oakland, the next day to San Jose, the next day to San Francisco.” (For a lengthy discussion of BART see John Dickey’s Metropolitan Transportation Planning, 2nd Edition, 1983, p. 378).

BART’s first general manager was a former executive with the Western States Oil and Gas Association, John Pierce. The oil industry’s dominant West Coast driller and refiner, Standard Oil of California, was at the time headquartered two blocks from BART’s planned Montgomery Street Station. Support from oil companies was just one sign that BART was never meant to reduce freeway traffic and reliance on oil. The Bay Area’s freeways were still planned to expand in size by multiples. (Years later Standard of California, broken off the larger oil monopoly and renamed Chevron, moved to San Ramon, far off the BART line.)

Executives of Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Crocker National Bank, all with their headquarters just blocks from BART’s planned stations running along Market Street, were instrumental in the campaign to create the transit system. For example, Bank of America CEO Carl Wente was the chair of the BAC’s rapid transit committee and chairman of the fundraising effort for the ballot measure that funded BART.

More than a few of the BAC’s corporate members made fortunes off the construction of BART.

No sooner had BART collected its first pot of sales tax revenue in 1958 then the District’s leadership paid Bechtel and Tutor to design the railway. Bechtel’s offices were again both located just blocks from where the planned funnel of BART trains would dump workers along Market Street. Bechtel, the giant engineering and construction company then busy building petroleum and nuclear plants around the world, later landed the contract to build BART’s tunnels and tubes. More recently Tutor was paid over $600 million by BART to build the SFO extension, and millions more to build the South San Francisco and San Bruno stations. The S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation to this day funds the Bay Area Council.

Bay Area banks underwrote the bonds for BART, skimming millions off the discount fees and interest payments secured ultimately by regressive bridge tolls and sales taxes.

Again, Bank of America’s Alan Browne provides a candid description of how BART’s lucrative financial and construction contracts were divvied up between San Francisco’s business lobby. “As it worked out,” said Brown in a 1988 interview, “Bechtel saw a chance to do the engineering work, and Kaiser was also involved in the idea of selling concrete and steel and engineering. PG&E could sell power; Chevron, if they took cars off the freeways, they’d be replaced with other cars. So that was another factor, and they all could see that they were going to benefit.”

As for Bank of America, Browne understated the benefit the San Francisco financial behemoth reaped from BART’s construction and operations:

“We were pretty good at investing. We weren’t as successful in bidding for the securities [BART bonds], and I used to be amused because all of our competitors in the banking world had no part at all in the growth and development of the BART concept. But when the bonds were finally approved and were being offered for sale, they were in there with both feet. So they were trying to prove something. All that we were able to obtain out of the spoils of victory were being made the trustee and fiscal paying agent. Which was not a big item, but it was one thing.”

That one thing was profitable enough for Bank of America. Other financial institutions made millions over the years financing BART, and Wells Fargo and Crocker National (merged into Wells Fargo in 1986) saw their downtown San Francisco fortunes boom.

The foundations established by these banks currently funnel dollars to support the Bay Area Council’s activities, including the recent poll it paid for about BART. Bank of America Foundation, US Bank, and the Wells Fargo Foundation all channel money to BAC.

Is it any surprise then that the Bay Area Council, a big business lobbying group, with its origins in the campaign to create BART and finance it with regressive sales taxes and passenger fares, would sponsor a poll today pressuring BART’s workers to accept pay cuts?

Today the Bay Area Council continues to to be the mouthpiece for some of the same mega-corporations that built and benefited the most from BART, including Wells Fargo, Bechtel, Clorox, Bank of America, and the hospital giant Kaiser that was spun off the industrial conglomerate of the same name years ago.

More than a few of the current members of the Bay Area Council have a strong financial interests in cutting the compensation of BART employees in order to free up more revenue for costly system expansions.

The Orrick Herrington & Suffcliffe law firm was paid a pretty penny in 2010 bond as counsel to BART on a $129 million sales tax bond flotation. Orrick law is a member of the BAC. Last year Orrick earned another pot of money on BART’s $240 million sales tax bonds. BART is a big client for Orrick. Every time the transit district needs to borrow money it’s likely that Orrick will be paid to help structure a deal.

The trustee on most of BART’s bonds is US Bank, a member of the BAC, which basically inherited the business from Bank of America.

In 2009 BART’s board of directors fed at least two $15 million dollar contracts to URS Corporation, another member of the BAC, for various engineering and construction work related to the system’s expansion. In 2007 URS won a $10 million contract from BART to manage construction upgrades of BART’s elevated train lines. URS makes a lot of money from BART’s capital budget, having helped build three BART stations. A vice president of “corporate strategic planning” with URS currently sits on the Bay Area Council’s board of directors.

The real estate developer TMG Partners has multiple projects that will be affected by BART’s investments of public funds. Just earlier this year the San Francisco Business Times straightforwardly published an article about TMG entitled, “Landlords snap up sites near BART, Muni stops.” On its web site TMG says its vision is to “take advantage of [an] under-construction BART station,” by building an 1,100 unit apartment complex with a hotel in San Bruno where real estate values are poised to climb thanks to BART. TMG’s chairman and CEO Michael Covarrubias is a board member of the Bay Area Council, and his company is a corporate member.

Another member of the BAC, the engineering company CH2M Hill, was awarded a $25 million contract earlier this year to advise BART on vehicle maintenance and refurbishment. CH2M Hill’s prime contract includes multiple subcontractors like BAC members URS and Arup North America.

The Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman law firm is another Bay Area Council member with deep financial links to BART. Pillsbury has been paid millions by BART to lobby for the transit agency in Sacramento for many years. A Pillsbury partner Robert James has represented BART in real estate deals around planned stations. Robert James is a board member of the BAC.

Bay Area Council member Citibank has underwritten multiple BART bonds in prior years. Citibank has also sold BART complex financial derivatives like the 2004 interest rate cap that cost BART $245,000. Citibank’s Rebecca Macieira-Kaufmann is a BAC board member.

And of course joining all these CEOs whose companies do multi-million dollar business with BART on the board of the Bay Area Council is BART’s general manager Grace Crunican.

Atmosphere

Part of San Francisco’s Union Square hyper-lux retail offerings, the De Beers store which features armed guards at the entrances. Ferrari recently opened a store a block away on Stockton Street. Haute Couture names obscure fill the district’s buildings offering items of conspicuous consumption.

Through the Financial Crisis and the Great Recession, inequality has intensified through income, housing, and public debt in the Bay Area. Black and Latino communities have lost wealth and power, while white and Asian communities have mostly to recovered. At the top, the wealthiest 5 to 10 percent, have made enormous gains.

Imagine a place where the hills are lined with the mansions of millionaire families, some of them billionaires. Their residences sit atop forested ridge lines with views of a peaceful ocean, or upon oak-studded peninsulas that jut into an azure bay. In this place they want for nothing. De Beers opened a retail store in one of their favorite shopping districts a few years ago, next to haute couture names like Bulgari, Cartier, and Gucci. An investment bank opened a “coffee shop” just a couple blocks from the headquarters of no less than seven Fortune 500 corporations, to catch their employees after work for talks over lattes about what to do with all that money crowding their bank accounts. Posh towers filled with luxury apartments sprout from the city center where multiple cranes seem to perpetually dot the skyline. iPhones pop from the palms of pedestrians like third hands, and newfangled apps like third eyes give them instantaneous information about the latest opulent consumer activities. Everything glows with money and power, a lot of it.

Below the hillsides glittering with wealth are even more expansive terrains of crumbling homes and apartment buildings —many foreclosed upon and awaiting some kind of financial death— packed with families that barely scrape together twenty thousand dollars a year to live on. Their views: smokestacks, port cranes, freeway overpasses, and scrap yards, or, sometimes on a clear day, if they ever think to pause from survival mode, they can see the hills, the mansions, the gleaming skyscrapers beyond reach, the towering campaniles of universities where they can never afford to send their children.

This place is characterized by the crowding of impoverished human beings, most of them of African and Latin American descent, into hollowed out industrial zones where factory buildings and abandoned warehouses echo the bustle of past decades. This economy of yesterday was exported to the new shop floors of China. Among the only things left are the toxic plumes of chemicals spreading slowly under fence lines. In this place entire generations face severe poverty and a decimated public sector – especially the schools. Tens of thousands of adults exist, persist, somehow without meaningful work or income. Tens of thousands of house-less persons —likely no longer even part of the statistical surveys used to calculate joblessness and income— wander the streets and sleep in the cracks of weathered concrete each night. Every few months the police slay a youngster under questionable circumstances. Crime is rampant. Violent crime is hard to avoid, part of the overall suffering.

The splendid heights and stratospheric wealth would not be so contemptible was it not hanging directly over such desperate poverty. Of course the two things are not unrelated.

Welcome to the San Francisco Bay Area, in the Golden State of California.

The West Coast financial center of the United States.

The epicenter of the tech industry.

The global vortex of venture capital.

One of the most brutally unequal places in America, indeed the world.

If measured by the same metrics that are used to gauge income inequality within nation states, the Bay Area’s internal divide between its rich and its poor would place San Francisco between China and the Dominican Republic, making it roughly the 30th most unequal state in the world. China is now the estimated home to 317 billionaires. California counts perhaps 90 billionaires. Half of these, mostly white men, live in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. The Census counted 4.2 million persons slipping below their definition of poverty last year in California.

In the distribution of income and wealth, California more resembles the neocolonial territories of rapacious resource extraction and maquiladora capitalism than it does Western Europe. Oakland is more El Salvador than it is EU. The Bay Area metropolis is more Bangladesh than Belgium.

California is just one of seven states that has the distinction of ranking higher than the national average on three basic metrics of income inequality, as measured by the Bureau of the Census. Its gini coefficient of income inequality was most recently measured at 0.47.

The ratio of income between the top 10 percent and the bottom ten percent, as well as the ratio of income between the top five percent and the bottom twenty percent show staggering divides in economic power that few other places in America, indeed the world, surpass.

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Source: Weinberg, Daniel H., “U.S. Neighborhood Income Inequality in the 2005-2009 Period,” American Community Survey Reports, U.S. Census Bureau, October, 2011.

The only states that compare to California’s harsh inequalities are deep southern states structured by centuries of racist fortune building by pseudo-aristocratic ruling classes, and the East Coast capitals of the financial sector.

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Source: Weinberg, Daniel H., “U.S. Neighborhood Income Inequality in the 2005-2009 Period,” American Community Survey Reports, U.S. Census Bureau, October, 2011.

The economies of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama remain bound by racial inequalities founded in slavery and plantation agriculture; the wealthy elite of all three states remain a handful of white families who control the largest holdings of fertile land, and own the extractive mineral and timber industries, and the regional banks.

Texas, with its sprawling cities, global banks, energy corporations, universities, and tech companies, is more like California in that its extreme economic inequalities are as new as they are old. Stolen land and racial segregation combine with unworldly new fortunes built on the Internet and logistical revolutions in manufacturing and markets to manifest a gaping divide in power and wealth between the few and the many. The Texas border, like California’s, opens up vast pools of Mexican and immigrant labor for super-exploitation by agribusiness and industry.

The same goes for New York, Connecticut, and Washington D.C. the other most unequal places in the United States. New York and Connecticut, like California, have become societies divided by an upper stratum of financial-sector workers and corporate employees whose salaries and investments simply dwarf the bottom half of the population’s earnings, and unlike the South, this extreme level of inequality is rather new in its source of valorization. Washington D.C. is split between the federal haves, mostly fattened contractors who run the military, or who represent the interests of the billionaires in California and New York, and the have-nots, mostly Black and immigrant service sector workers who wait on these technocrats of empire.

It’s a strange club, the super-inequitable states of the U.S. This exclusive list pairs the bluest coastal enclaves of liberal power with the reddest Southern conservative states. In terms of wages and wealth these places have a lot in common.

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San Francisco’s real estate roller coaster. The Financial Crisis cut 20% off home values in San Francisco, but the U.S. Federal Reserve’s bond buying program, coupled with broader tax and fiscal policies, has created a rally in securities markets, handing the wealthiest Americans enormous gains in net worth. These economic policies benefiting the rich are evident in San Francisco’s real estate prices. Secondarily is the Tech 2.0 boom in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, pulling in thousands of new residents to work in Internet, biotech, and other industries where six figure salaries are the norm.

In San Francisco homes now routinely sell for millions. Not mansions. Not even particularly large houses. Just simple homes built decades ago. In most other markets they would fetch the national median home price of about $170,000. San Francisco, which locals like to call “the City,” sees dozens of real estate deals every month in which a cool million or two pass hands, and afterward the new owner, usually someone with freshly minted tech or finance money, has the modest structure demolished and scraped away. The new thing is to build upward, and lavishly, from scratch. Heated stone bathroom floors and wine cellars are popular. Securing a pad in Noe Valley or Bernal Heights for a few million is seen as a reasonable way to spend money.

In San Francisco the western end of Broadway is known as “billionaire’s row.” Quite a few of the side streets and parallel avenues like Jackson, Pacific, and Washington are lined with estates that trade hands on occasion for a few tens of millions. No tear downs here. The villas and manors along these avenues were built by sugar barons and banking tycoons of centuries past. Silicon Valley’s most senior executives, and the City’s hedge fund managers, buyout barons, bankers, and a few celebrities make up most of the neighborhood’s owners. Their children attend exclusive private schools in Pacific Heights where they are preened for Stanford and Princeton.

It is becoming hard to identify any part of San Francisco as an “elite” enclave. Tech 2.0, as the Google and Facebook-led regional boom is being called now, has vested thousands of twenty somethings as well as senior executives with billions in IPO cash and billions more in salaries to hunt for real estate, and they have chosen San Francisco, nearly all of it, as their preferred stomping grounds. Maybe it will only be another decade until Broadway starts getting called trillionaire’s row.

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Sea View Avenue, Piedmont, California. 71 percent white, only 5 percent of Piedmont’s population is Black or Latino. Median household income is $200,000, and wealth holdings are much more. Piedmont supports its own public schools, police force, parks, and libraries.

Across the Bay is a slightly more modest version of billionaire’s row, probably better called a millionaire’s row running across the ridge line from Oakland north to Kensington. In the middle of Oakland, in fact completely surrounded by the scrappy industrial city by the Bay, is the city of Piedmont. When it was founded in the 1920s its first residents gave it the nickname “city of millionaires.” They restricted housing to single family residential homes on large lots from the start to prevent Black and immigrant families from moving up the hillside. Sea View Avenue is where the big money that wants to show off buys real estate, but the entire city boast a median home price of $1.4 million. The Berkeley hills are similarly rich and populated by an unusually high number of lawyers.

Lawyers, especially tort defense, corporate, and tax lawyers who serve the wealthy and defend corporate America from labor unions, environmentalist, and consumer advocates, also love Marin County. Across the Golden Gate from San Francisco, Marin is not much more than a bedroom community for corporate lawyers and CEOs who want a little more room and sun than San Francisco provides. If Piedmont was a city shelter to exclude the working class, then Marin is similar, but on the level of a county. Despite growing pockets of Latino poverty in older towns like Novato and San Rafael, Marin remains one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S. on a per capita basis. Marin’s Black population is segregated into the tiny Marin City, one of the only places public housing was allowed to be built. Marin City’s residents work in the retail sector and some of the industry along San Rafael’s waterfront. They earn near the bottom of the region’s wage scale and subsist on a fraction of the income their wealthy neighbors take in each month.

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Hagenberger Road, East Oakland. Oakland is over 50 percent Black and Latino. Sections of the city such as the area pictured above are 90 percent non-white. In the typical pattern of environmental racism, residential homes are in close proximity to major roadways, highways, rail lines, industrial facilities, scrap yards, and utilities.

Unemployment stalks the working poor of the Bay Area, threatening to force them into insolvency and bankruptcy, foreclosure and displacement. During the first Dot Com boom of the late 1990s unemployment was at five percent for white Bay Area residents. For those living along the billionaire’s and millionaire’s rows, unemployment is a meaningless concept. The capital invested by the rich, by their clever advisers who run the hedge funds and private equity shops, earns interests and returns on equity far larger than any years honest wage labor can eek out. The tax code provides for this with carried interest and the lowest personal income tax rates for top earners in many decades. Hordes of tax lawyers, many who live in Marin, the Oakland hills, and San Francisco, will eagerly structure a family’s investments and bills to minimize taxes, so long as they possess a minimum of $5 million in liquid assets – preferably more.

Black men in the Bay Area have consistently suffered an unemployment rate double that of white men. Through the entire George W. Bush presidency, a period characterized by an economic policy to benefit the wealthiest with low taxes and interest rates, Black men endured double digit unemployment rates, reaching about 13 percent when Obama took office. The Financial Crisis sent Black unemployment rates skyrocketing in San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, and Vallejo, upwards of 22 percent in 2010.

UnemploymentCAbyRace1999-2012Economic policies under Obama —both those he championed, and those he compromised on— have been very good for the wealthy, and that’s reflected best by the real estate and consumption bubbles frothing over places like San Francisco. The Federal Reserve Bank’s unprecedented purchases of bonds and its low lending rates have produced rallies in stock and debt markets which have greatly re-inflated the fortunes of the rich.

Pew_Uneven_RecoveryThe Pew Research Center recently summed up this polarizing redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top by noting simply that since 2009 the wealthiest 7 percent of Americans experienced an increase of 28% in their net worth, while the bottom 93 percent actually lost 4 percent of their savings.

The San Francisco Bay Area’s current tech boom is further dividing the wealthy few from the impoverished masses. Companies like Google, Apple, and Oracle are among the least diverse workplaces places where men outnumber women, and white and Asian employees dominate the ranks of lowly programmers and senior executives. The need to hire thousands of engineers is drawing waves of college graduates to Silicon Valley and San Francisco, and they’re washing over the current residents like a tide of suffocating oil. Some of the tech buses —private transit systems operated by Silicon Valley’s largest firms to shuttle employees from San Francisco to their suburban campuses in Santa Clara County— now run lines into Oakland and Hayward, a sign that their employees are increasingly colonizing formerly undesirable zones of real estate.

The drift apart between the pale wealthy few and the impoverished multitudes of darker-skinned peoples is evident on the level of whole cities. San Francisco enjoys robust public finances, high credit ratings, low per capita debt to income ratios, and many well funded public services. However, two decades of intense gentrification mean that this healthy public sector increasingly caters only to those “citizens” who can afford to live in San Francisco.

Pushed out of the region’s urban core, in the 1990s and 2000s Black, Latino, and some Asian immigrants found themselves in the affordable locales of Vallejo, Stockton, Richmond and Oakland. Further out towns like Antioch, Brentwood, and Pittsburg became increasingly non-white and working class. In the Financial Crisis these cities hemorrhaged residents and revenues due to some of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation. Vallejo and Stockton went bankrupt after slashing the most basic services. Vallejo is 75 percent non-white. Stockton is 80 percent non-white.

The wealthiest Bay Area communities, the “towns” of Hillsborough, Woodside, Atherton, Los Altos Hills, and the city of Piedmont are three quarters white with median incomes in the six figures. Public finances barely flinched during the Great Recession. A few of these local governments in fact have no outstanding public debt.

Atherton and Los Altos Hills have zero bonded public debt.

Oakland has almost a billion just in bonded debt.

In the tony Marin hamlet of Fairfax the public debt burden resting on each resident is about 1.7 percent of their annual income.

In Richmond the ratio of public debt to personal income for each resident is 16 percent.

Richmond, a quarter Black and a third Latino, is a tangle of oil and chemical refineries run primarily by Chevron. Not a year ago a massive fire at one of the company’s plants spewed toxic vapors and smoke into the sky, poisoning thousands of residents.

Chevron is headquartered in San Ramon, another exclusive, mostly white suburban environment with low municipal debt and a household median income of $121,000 a year.

Far from being an epicenter of ‘cleantech,’ the Bay Area actually is host to some of the largest oil corporations exploiting Canada’s oil sands.

Sidney Martin Blair, Bechtel's man in Canada, an early proponent of mining the oil sands of Alberta.

Sidney Martin Blair, Bechtel’s man in Canada, an early proponent of mining the oil sands of Alberta.

In 1951 Sidney Martin Blair, the vice president of Bechtel Canada, visited Alberta at the behest of the regional government to examine the economic case for mining the thick deposits of bitumen resting underneath much of the boreal forests and grasslands that reach up and around frigid Lake Athabasca. Blair was no stranger to what are known popularly today as the tar, or oil sands. In 1924 Blair, who grew up in the northern clime of Canada’s interior, submitted his thesis for a Master of Science degree from the University of Alberta: “An Investigation of the Bitumen Constituent of the Bituminous Sands of Northern Alberta.” His later study of the oil sands for Alberta came to be known as the Blair Report and served as the founding document for what is becoming one of the largest industrial projects in human history, and one of the most dire environmental threats we have ever faced.

On the economic end Blair concluded, importantly, that extraction of a barrel of oil from the Alberta sands had reached a cost of $3.10, while that same barrel would be worth $3.50 in the regional and Western U.S. markets. It was still high above the cost of pumping sweet crude from plentiful wells in Canada and south of the border in America’s abundant oil plays of Colorado, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming, but the price arrangements were headed toward more parity over the long-term, Blair and others surmised. Easy to drill gushers would disappear by the 1980s in the United States, leading to increasing imports of more expensive oil, and finally to the fracking boom which requires much higher levels of capital and investment to squeeze petroleum from fickle rock formations. The economic price per barrel of oil from Alberta’s bituminous sands would only become more attractive.

Blair’s affiliation with Bechtel was no accident. The secretive corporation was by the 1940s a major player in the petroleum industry, building pipelines and other infrastructure for oil giants, and national oil corporations all over the world. Bechtel’s close ties to the U.S. military and CIA gave the company access to the highest levels of government in the Middle East, South America, Europe, and Asia, where newly rich princes and anti-communist dictators flush with cash, and with U.S. foreign aid, sought to build gargantuan energy projects. The Bechtels and their close associates made billions many times over.

Where once existed a Boreal forest, now an open pit oil sands mine worked by shovels and trucks.

Where once existed a Boreal forest, now an open pit oil sands mine worked by shovels and trucks.

The Bechtel family viewed Canada’s oil sands as a potential source of profits many years before the regional government and oil corporations were willing to invest. Blair gave Bechtel entry when the time came; in 1962 Bechtel began construction of the Athabasca Tar Sands project in Alberta’s northern reaches for the Greater Canadian Oil Sands company. It was the first large scale attempt to mine and refine the bitumen into oil and other hydrocarbon products. Imitators, from smaller independent companies to the big majors like Exxon and Chevron, would eventually pile aboard.

Over the next several decades Bechtel built many of the “upgrading facilities” as the giant cookers that heat and separate the filthy mixture of bitumen, sand, and water, are called. Today Bechtel, along with its subsidiary Bantrel, remains one of the largest oil sands engineering firms in the world. Bantrel designs and Bechtel builds. Over the last two decades Bantrel designed and Bechtel built several massive upgraders for Suncor, the corporate successor of the Greater Canadian Oil Sands company.

Picture 2Suncor’s open pit mines lie northwest of Fort McMurray. Miles of scraped-bare earth crawl with one-hundred ton shovel excavators and trucks capable of hauling four-hundred tons of earth across miles of devastated moonscape to waiting crushers and conveyors. The tar sands mines are visible from space, probably even from the moon.

Suncor’s bitumen is processed on site resulting in the equivalent of over 300,000 barrels of oil equivalent extracted each day. In-situ extraction, a process of pumping oil from deeper sand deposits after its is heated and precipitated into thick veins within the soil using steam and other injectants, provides another 100,000 barrels, much of which is piped to a refinery in Denver.

Suncor aspires to produce a million barrels of oil a day from its tar sands holdings. Bechtel will likely build the facilities.

Bechtel today actually plays second string to another San Francisco corporation when it comes to providing engineering and construction services to exploit the oil sands. Last year URS, the giant engineering company that Dianne Feinstein’s husband Richard Blum once owned a big stake in, bought out Flint Energy Services, a Canadian oil and gas production services provider, for $1.25 billion. Flint is less well-known that other oil services companies like Schlumberger and Halliburton, but it does the same work.

In-situ oil sands mining utilizes steam and other heated injectants to emulsify bitumen deep in the ground. It is then pumped to the surface and piped to nearby separation and treatment plants. As much as 80 percent of Canada's tar sands is too deep to pit mine, meaning that in-situ extraction is of paramount importance to the fossil fuel industry's plans.

In-situ oil sands mining utilizes steam and other heated injectants to emulsify bitumen deep in the ground. It is then pumped to the surface and piped to nearby separation and treatment plants. As much as 80 percent of Canada’s tar sands is too deep to pit mine, meaning that in-situ extraction is of paramount importance to the fossil fuel industry’s plans.

One of URS’s biggest and newest oil sands contracts is a $130 million project to lay 43 miles of pipes that will shoot steam deep underneath the surface of the Wood Buffalo region, a remote and mostly forested plain northeast of Fort McMurray. This single in-situ tar sands project will extract 85,000 barrels of bitumen a day according to the application filed by Canadian Natural Resources, Inc. URS is carrying out several similar projects to heat up enormous expanses of the Canadian landscape far beneath the surface in order to liquify and suck out bitumen.

The in-situ tar sands extraction method is less destructive to the immediate landscape than open pit mining, but it poses the greater risk in terms of climate change. Approximately 80 percent of the oil sands are buried too deep to excavate. Thus in-situ extraction methods being engineered by URS and Bechtel are being used to tap these hundreds of billions of barrels equivalent of oil. Needless to say, if this happens levels of CO2 in the atmosphere will surpass the counts that most scientists say will lead to catastrophic rises in global temperatures.

The roads, pipelines, and “pads” —the patches of cleared earth upon which drilling rigs operate and where valves and other machinery are built— required for in-situ oil sands mining are also visible from satellite photos of the region. From high above the roads and pads of the region’s in-situ oil plays look like tan nets cast over the landscape, covering hundreds of square miles, cutting wild boreal forests into neat, logical grids.

Expansion of the open pits and in-situ fields of the tar sands will all happen regardless of whether the Keystone XL pipeline is approved, but URS noted in their annual report for the last year that such a decision would impact their earnings as it would significantly restrict expansion. “Should the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project application be denied or delayed by the federal government,” explained the company, “then there may be a slowing of spending in the development of the Canadian oil sands.”

Martin Koffel, CEO of URS Corp. URS is also one of the largest U.S. military contractors, and co-operates the multiple sites within the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, including the nation's two primary weapons design and testing labs.

Martin Koffel, CEO of URS Corp. URS is also one of the largest U.S. military contractors, and co-operates the multiple sites within the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, including the nation’s two primary weapons design and testing labs.

Regardless, San Francisco’s URS is going all in for the tar sands. On a recent conference call URS’s long-time CEO Martin Koffel said, “Flint, in our view, is the perfect fit for us, given our long-held ambition to expand our position in the oil and gas market.” Koffel noted that 20 percent of URS Corp’s revenues are now dependent upon oil and gas projects, and most of these will involve the Canadian oil sands, or fracking projects in the United States. “We’re more than enthusiastic about this sector,” said Koffel.

Other Bay Area corporate giants have been eager to invest in the tar sands in recent years. San Ramon-headquartered Chevron owns interests in the Athabasca Oil Sands Project near Fort McMurray, an operation that pipes out over a quarter million barrels each day. Chevron has been one of the most aggressive oil and gas corporations in the political sphere. The company has contributed millions in recent years to campaigns aimed at gutting state and federal environmental laws. Chevron’s army of lobbyists are active on Capitol Hill and across various oil and gas-rich states pressing to keep lucrative subsidies in place, and to prevent climate change and other environmental bills from being considered. Chevron is also one of the sponsors of MIT’s Energy Initiative, the pro-oil, gas, and coal think tank from which Obama’s current Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz hails.

Fluor Corporation, an engineering rival of URS, has an office in the East Bay city of Dublin that employs approximately one hundred engineers. When it opened its Dublin office in 2008, Fluor cited its proximity to Chevron’s East Bay operations and headquarters as a deciding factor for the move.

Fluor’s global headquarters is in Irving, Texas, just one mile down the road from another of the company’s key clients, the world’s largest oil corporation, ExxonMobil. Fluor’s East Bay office employes about one hundred engineers who plug away full-time on oil and gas projects. For Chevron Fluor is designing and building facilities at the Muskeg River Mine, a giant oil sands site 75 miles northwest of Fort McMurray that will spit out 155,000 barrels of bitumen each day for three decades. This will result in a total of 1.6 billion barrels of bitumen that will be refined into upwards of billion barrels equivalent of oil.

That the San Francisco Bay Area is now an epicenter of oil sands engineering and services is ironic given the region’s reputation for environmentalism, and strong pushes for renewable energy development by various local governments. San Francisco, Sonoma County, Marin County, and Richmond are all developing community choice aggregation programs to replace PG&E as their utility, and to develop local renewable sources of electricity. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted just last month to urge the city’s pension system to divest about half a billion dollars from stocks in oil, gas, and coal companies, some of them the same corporations named above. Berkeley’s mayor is urging similarly, and is even pressing California’s massive public employees pension system CalPERS to divest its stock and bond portfolios from fossil fuel energy companies.

The Bay Area’s business community plays up its green credentials, even if it’s undeserved. Every company touts “sustainability” as a major goal. Even URS and Bechtel both publish glossy annual sustainability reports touting beach clean ups, community garden volunteer days, light bulb replacements in their offices, and the number of their employees who bike or take the train to work.

If they succeed in their quest to exploit Canada’s mostly un-tapped oil sands, in the not-too distant future URS and Bechtel employees might be cleaning up beaches that have shifted miles inland from calamitous rises in sea level, and they might be biking to work in 120 degree heat.

According to James Hansen, the recently retired chief climate scientist of NASA, the oil sands are an end game for the environment.

“Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history,” wrote Hansen in a New York Times op-ed last year.

“If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.”

cityoflondon

The City of London, the world’s most central financial hub and site of the biggest Eurodollar money market which LIBOR was created to govern.

The importance of uncovering the complete truth about the LIBOR rigging conspiracy cannot be overstated for local communities across the United States, especially here in California.

It’s been five years since a few academics and journalists began to dig up evidence that something was wrong with the London Inter-Bank Offered Rate, or LIBOR (pronounced appropriately as “lie-bore.”) The data that curious researchers were compiling couldn’t be explained using the prevailing definition of what LIBOR supposedly was: a trustworthy interest rate that accurately gauged the market price of borrowed US dollars held overseas by the world’s biggest banks. Instead, their findings pointed toward something other than an idealized neoliberal market, influenced only by impersonal supply and demand forces. Many began to realize that the data could easily be explained if the banks were rigging the LIBOR rate in their favor. Strange discrepancies in LIBOR’s correlation to other rates, and to the economic fundamentals of the bank companies responsible for formulating the rate, showed something seriously amiss, but it made sense if the banks were cheating.

The motives of the banks have been clear from the beginning. A few banks that dominate the marketplace for derivatives stand to make billions if LIBOR moves in their favor on particular days when contractual payments between them and their customers come due. They therefore suppressed the rates in order to skim billions of dollars off derivatives and investments. Later these same banks suppressed LIBOR rates to create the illusion that their balance sheets were robust during the financial crisis. This also allowed them further rounds of money-siphoning from their unwitting derivatives customers.

Barclays-logoUntil recently LIBOR rates have been set by a panel of banks that are members of the British Bankers Association (BBA). The BBA is a private industry group established almost 100 years ago to lobby for the financial industry in one of its global hubs, London. The BBA really came into power in the mid-1980s with the creation of LIBOR. LIBOR was created to further integrate the giant global money market in US dollars held in overseas banks or holding companies, and therefore unregulated by the US Federal Reserve. Called “Eurodollars,” because they originally were dollar savings accumulated in European banks, especially banks in London, these funds quickly became a de facto global currency. LIBOR began as a way for the banks to standardize investment products for these vast pools of American dollars flowing through Europe, and later Japan, the Middle East, and Latin America. By the 1990s LIBOR had become such an important set of interest rates, and US dollars held overseas had becomes such an important source of credit for US consumers, that LIBOR became the key global interest rate around which many financial products were pegged. As LIBOR became more and more important to the globalization of finance, it accrued a sort of official, trusty gloss; nearly everyone assumed that LIBOR was a market rate reflecting competition. Instead, LIBOR has probably all along been a fudged rate, determined less by vast market forces and invisible hands, and more by the vulgar self-interest and power of the elite banks that set LIBOR rates.

citiLast year government investigations into this globe-spanning crime —rightly called the biggest financial scam in all of history— led to multi-billion dollar fines against Barclays, the Royal Bank of Scotland, and UBS, the 7th, 8th, and 20th largest banks in the world, respectively. Criminal investigations spearheaded by US, UK, Japanese, Canadian, Swiss, and Singaporean authorities are ongoing and aimed at other banks such as Citigroup, JP Morgan, Bank of America, and other “too big to fail” institutions. More details of the crime will be forthcoming as e-mails, internal documents, phone tapes, text messages, and other evidence, is made public, and as the banks are forced to pay significant fines, and sign plea agreements.

While this scandal might seem worlds away, concerning complex financial concepts and obscure money market instruments dealt by bankers out of skyscraper offices in the City of London, the importance of uncovering the complete truth about the LIBOR rigging conspiracy cannot be overstated for local communities across the United States, especially here in California.

ubsWhy? First, LIBOR has been used since the 1990s to determine cash flows on interest rate swaps that local governments have purchased from banks to insure themselves against wild swings in variable interest rates owed on billions of municipal debt. Messing with LIBOR messes with the payments due on these instruments.

Second, LIBOR has also been used as a main interest rate of reference for an array of investment products that yield a variable return, dipping and rising in concert with LIBOR. Local and state governments have used these investment products, called “municipal derivatives reinvestment products” to temporarily park public funds, while pension systems and government enterprises like utilities use them make investments. Governments and public agencies earn LIBOR rate returns on their dollars invested in numerous kinds of municipal derivatives, so if LIBOR is illegally fixed downward, they earn less income.

jp_morgan_chase_logo_2723Through both of these forms of exposure, local governments have potentially been harmed by LIBOR-fixing perpetrated by the banks, often times the very same banks that have sold them swaps or municipal derivatives investment products.

California is fast emerging as a center of investigation and litigation into the LIBOR-fixing conspiracy. California is the largest single municipal debt market in the United States, and one of the largest in the world. Last year alone the state of California and its cities, counties, school districts, and other public entities issued $65.7 billion in total public debt. Because of California’s regressive tax structure and chronic budget crises, the state’s multitude of governments have been among the most aggressive in issuing variable rate debt hedged with interest rate swaps.

The Golden State’s local governments have also been the largest purchasers of municipal derivatives contracts from banks because streams of tax and fee revenues often don’t match up with the dates that payments to public employees and contractors come due. Collusive suppression of LIBOR rates by the 16-member panel who were trusted to provide accurate quotes could mean that California local governments have paid untold millions to their interest rate swap counterparties (the banks) that should otherwise have remained in budgets and used to fund school construction, bus lines, street paving, water and sewerage services, etc.

In the 1990s and 2000s local governments across California increasingly issued bonds with variable rates. Investment bank underwriters and municipal debt advisers from the private sector encouraged variable rate bond financing because it promised lower interest rates for California’s cash-strapped municipalities. To hedge against the risk that variable rates might explode, as they did in the 1980s, the banks sold interest rate swaps to local governments. The swaps effectively converted floating rate debt into a fixed rate. Under a typical swap contract the bank seller agrees to pay a floating rate designed to mimic the variable rate interest on the bond debt, and in return the local government agrees to pay a fixed rate. I’ve written elsewhere about how this deal blew up and created a financial injustice when variable interest rates plummeted during and after the Financial Crisis, but the LIBOR rigging conspiracy adds to these harms. The US government bailed out the banks and assisted them in taking “toxic” derivatives assets off their hands, but stood idly by while cities, counties, and public agencies suffered without aid during the Financial Crisis, allowing derivatives instruments on the public’s books to blow up and drain budgets. At this very moment the banks perpetrated an illegal scam to suck even more money from the public via further depression of LIBOR.

Barclays, RBS, UBS, and other banks worked together to suppress LIBOR below even the depths to which it sank after 2008. A number of lawsuits filed by various cities, counties, and public agencies in California asserts the banks did this to skim off an unknown, but very large, amount of money from their public victims, and also to bolster their own balance sheets during the crisis. By suppressing LIBOR the banks ensured that the net difference between the variable rates they owed, and the fixed rates the public was paying on swaps, was wider than it would otherwise have been. This net difference meant that the public owed the banks higher amounts when the interest rate swap payments came due (usually twice a year).

For San Francisco this could mean that millions have been stolen from the capital budget of its Airport. SFO currently has seven interest rate swaps it has purchased to convert variable rate bond debt into synthetic fixed rates. The airport’s counterparties on its swaps included JP Morgan Chase, Merrill Lynch (owned by Bank of America), and Goldman Sachs. Each of these banks likely benefited from conspiratorial suppression of LIBOR, even if it was by just a few basis points (hundredths of a percent). JP Morgan Chase and Merrill’s parent Bank of America are both members of the panel that sets LIBOR, and are both believed to have played a role in the conspiracy.

San Francisco’s pension system may have also been raided by the banks through its speculative investments in swaps. According to the most recent audit of the San Francisco Retirement System’s portfolio, the city’s pension system holds two interest rate swaps on its books with a notional value of $15 million. In prior years, SFERs held other swaps. In 2010, the Retirement System’s audit showed three interest rate swaps with a total notional value of $41 million. Over the last two years these swaps drained $5.3 million from the pension system, and some of these losses might have been due to the downward manipulation of LIBOR. Also on the Retirement System’s books are other investments in bank loans, options, and other securities that might have been impacted by the LIBOR fraud.

San Francisco’s LIBOR damages are probably small in comparison to other local governments and public agencies. The East Bay Municipal Utility District has already filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging damages from bank rigging of LIBOR. The water district’s complaint, filed in January of 2013, alleges that LIBOR suppression drained potentially millions, again from interest rate swap agreements with some of the very banks that sit on the LIBOR-panel: Citibank, JP Morgan Chase, and Bank of America. East Bay MUD lists nine interest rate swaps potentially affected by LIBOR rigging in its lawsuit.

East Bay MUD’s swaps had a total notional amount of $481 million in 2012, according to the utility’s most recent financial report. Downward manipulation of LIBOR by just 10 to 50 basis points (1/10th to 1/2 of a percent) could have drained between $481,000 to $2,400,000 through East Bay MUD’s swap payments every six months. Over a few years, say the conspiracy’s 2007-2010 time-frame alleged in EBMUD’s lawsuit, this would add up to millions of dollars stolen by the banks.

EBMUDswaps

The cities of Richmond, San Diego, and Riverside, and the County of San Mateo, are other California governments that have now filed lawsuits against the banks responsible for setting LIBOR. All of these lawsuits have been consolidated into a larger class action case currently being heard in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, before Judge Naomi Buchwald. There are now about two dozen LIBOR manipulation lawsuits that have been filed and consolidated in New York. The lead case is the City of Baltimore and the New Britain Firefighters’ and Police Benefit Fund lawsuit against the 16-bank LIBOR panel, filed in April of 2012.

More California cities, counties, and public agencies are expected to file their own lawsuits soon, however. CalPERS, which has numerous investments that fluctuate in value and yield with LIBOR, is also said to be investigating its own exposure to rate rigging.

[See the upcoming December issue of California Northern magazine for a lengthy feature on the politics of privatization in Calfornia. Also check out the upcoming  December issue of Dollars & Sense for a feature on the political-economy of P3 privatization in the USA.]

California’s Legislative Analyst cast doubt on the state’s latest experiment in privatizing highways in a November 8 report, saying essentially that California has few safeguards in place to prevent wasteful contracts from being signed for so-called “public-private partnerships.” The report also says that the state’s first two big projects under the new privatization program, a road in San Francisco, and a courthouse in Long Beach, may have devoured $300 million more than if they had proceeded as public investments.

California’s public-private partnership (P3) program for highway privatization began in 2009 when outgoing governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed SB 4. SB 4 allows private companies to finance, build, operate, and maintain public roads under multi-decade concession contracts. Governor Jerry Brown has taken a wait-and-see approach to the program by allowing the first big transportation project to move ahead – San Francisco’s Presidio Parkway.

A rendition of Presidio Parkway. The project replaces the elevated Doyle Drive, built in the 1930s with New Deal federal funding, with several tunnels and viaducts through the Presidio approaching the Golden Gate Bridge.

In 2011 California’s Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and the San Francisco County Transportation Authority signed an agreement with Golden Link Partners (a consortium that includes the French investment bank Meridiam Infrastructure, the German construction company Hochtief, and AECOM, an American engineering firm) to finance, construct, maintain, and operate the replacement span for Doyle Drive, the elevated approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. Under the terms of the contract, Golden Link Partners were to match private capital with public funds to build the road. It’s slated to be finished in 2015. The partners have a 30-year concession which promises them over a billion in revenues through availability payments if they meet certain performance goals along the way.

Privatization of Presidio Parkway, as the road is now called, was opposed by the Professional Engineers in California Government (PECG), a union of state engineers. PECG claimed it would cost taxpayers more, and expose the public to greater risks associated with private control over infrastructure investment. The union sued to stop the project, contending that SB 4 didn’t in fact authorize the use of availability payments to repay private investors in highway projects. A state judge briefly halted the project, but in early 2011 lifted a temporary restraining order and allowed the privatization scheme to move ahead.

According to Mac Taylor, the state’s Legislative Analyst, the selection of Presidio Parkway for privatization was a mistake, one that is likely costing taxpayers upwards of $140 million more than if it had moved forward as a public project put out to multiple competing bids, and financed with state transportation bonds instead of private debt and equity.

“[W]hen Caltrans used a P3 procurement for the Presidio Parkway, the department lacked a transparent framework for selecting the project,” explains the report. “[T]he selection process for the project did not include such recommended criteria as the ability to transfer risk to the private sector and whether the state would benefit from using non-state financing.”

The LAO’s conclusions are somewhat damning because risk transfer, and potential savings accrued from obtaining financing in private capital markets are the two key advantages that that P3 privatization supposedly offers for especially complex infrastructure projects. The report concludes that, “if Caltrans utilized such criteria in its selection process, the Presidio Parkway project would have been found to be inappropriate for P3 procurement.”

Value for Money (VFM): proponents of P3s claim that by transferring financing, construction, and other responsibilities to the private sector, the state also transfers over risks that threaten to make public procurement more costly. The concept of value for risk is central to the economic theory underlying P3 procurement because private financing is in fact more expensive than public financing, as the figure above illustrates. (Source: “Visualizing Trends in Transportation Infrastructure Public Private Partnerships,” Matti Siemiatycki, assistant professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto.)

The LAO went one step further than simply commenting on Caltrans’ selection criteria by running their own analysis of Presidio Parkway, using what they judged to be more reasonable assumptions about the project’s costs and potential risks. According to LAO’s analysis, taxpayers have lost about $140 million by handing Presidio Parkway over to Golden Link Partners.

Dale Bonner, former Governor Schwarzenegger’s transportation secretary who shepherded the Presidio Parkway toward privatization, said the project was a good fit for P3 because it reduced eight different contracts into one. He also pointed toward the project’s advanced stage of development once it was converted into a P3. “One of the very important things you need to have before you start a public-private partnership is to have a project that has gotten through the environmental clearance process and has been approved, so you can actually go out for procurement,” said Bonner. “When we started looking for projects that fit this criteria many were far away. Presidio was a good project because of it’s high need and the fact that it was well along.”

Jose Luis Moscovich, director of San Francisco’s County Transportation Agency, also supported privatization of Presidio Parkway, stating at the time that it would actually provide cost savings of approximately $150 million compared to procurement under the traditional design-bid-build process.

The Legislative Analyst Office stated in their report, however, that the selection factors used by Bonner and Moscovich’s staff at the time “do not constitute a robust set of screening criteria,” to determine a project’s suitability for privatization. Furthermore, the LAO report explains that Presidio Parkway’s advanced stage made any transfer of risk to the private investors a moot point.

“[T]he Presidio Parkway project was too far along to transfer many of the project’s risks to a private partner. This is because the Presidio Parkway’s first phase of construction was already underway using a design-bid-build procurement when the second phase of the project was selected for P3 procurement.” According to the LAO, this caused the state to retain “significant risk,” even while paying more under the terms of privatization.

More generally the LAO report says California lacks a transparent and objective process to judge any and all potential P3 projects. This exposes the public to numerous potential harms, some of which the LAO lists: increased financing costs, greater possibility for unforeseen challenges, limited government flexibility, new risks from a complex procurement process, and fewer bidders which drives up prices.

The LAO also attempted to evaluate the only two P3 highway projects ever completed in California, the SR 91 Express Lanes in Orange County, and the South Bay Expressway in San Diego, but according to the report, “Caltrans was unable to provide us with the necessary data to evaluate whether the P3 projects completed by the state —SR 91 and SR 125— resulted in greater price and schedule certainty than if the projects were procured under a more traditional approach.”

Both of these highway projects were in fact plagued with problems.

While the SR 91 was profitable for its investors —Level 3 Communications, Granite Construction, Inc., and Cofiroute SA— these corporations actually sued California to prevent freeway improvements along nearby public routes because it would potentially chip into their profits from the toll road. They prevailed in this obstructive effort because their contract did in fact prohibit competition. This led to a costly solution; a regional transportation agency was forced to purchase the express lanes in 2003.

In San Diego the South Bay Expressway actually went bankrupt when traffic projections failed to pan out. The private investors for that project, a group of banks and the Australian equity fund Macquarie Capital, recouped some losses by convincing a bankruptcy judge to write down debt on federally subsidized loans that floated the project. Like the SR 91 Express Lanes, the South Bay Expressway was purchased by a regional transportation agency in 2011 for $345 million, yet another loss to the public.

The Long Beach Courthouse.

The other P3 project addressed in the Legislative Analyst’s report is the Long Beach Courthouse, procured under a $492 million, 35-year lease-back agreement. As with Presidio Parkway, Meridiam Infrastructure is also the lead investor in the Long Beach Courthouse, with debt financing coming from six global investment banks. According to the LAO, similar biases and assumptions that created a favorable analysis for Presidio Parkway also over-stated the financial advantage of privatization the Long Beach Courthouse. By assuming an unjustified tax adjustment, overstating cost overruns, over-stating the potential leasing of additional space, and by assuming unrealistic project delays under public procurement, project managers may have cost the public $160 million when they handed control to the private investors.

Private investors have big plans for highways in California. SB 4 authorizes an unlimited number of P3 transportation projects. Big multi-national investment banks and construction companies have busied themselves since 2009 in scoping out potential privatization opportunities, and in retaining lobbyists and law firms to support their efforts. According to Caltrans officials the next projects likely to be privatized will be four major highway modifications in the Los Angeles Metro region.