America is riven by enormous income inequality. Should Silicon Valley’s very richest pay to make that better? That’s the question behind an intriguing and politically timely new proposal that San Francisco lawmakers plan to put before voters next spring and that could lead to similar efforts across the country: A second-of-its-kind attempt to tax the companies that are paying their CEOs too much and their workers too little.
The proposal bridges many of the big ideas coursing through the progressive bloodstream during the presidential campaign: An agita with a technology industry that careens from scandal to scandal; a disgust with the yawning economic inequality between the wealthiest and the rest of us; and a shame over a lack of resources for people struggling with mental illness, which contributes to San Francisco’s homelessness crisis.
The tax would try to raise about $100 million for mental health services in San Francisco, money that proponents think would get people off the streets. And if it passes, progressive leaders think it could prompt a national movement to similarly try to solve social ills with a targeted tax on the companies that are most seriously driving income inequality across the country.
“Their stocks are shooting through the roof. At the same time, inequality is going right up along with it,” said Matt Haney, the supervisor behind the proposal. “People tend to watch what San Francisco is doing.”
But here’s the catch. In San Francisco — the city that’s most synonymous with Big Tech — it is not tech companies, but traditional retail, that would be most impacted by this tax. And in that way, the proposal shows how the backlash to tech has spawned a broader anti-business movement in a place where tech is the dominant, but not universal, industry. “People are able to see, for certain tech companies, the incredible amount of wealth they’ve been able to bring into their companies and to their CEOs, but not necessarily to the communities that surround these companies,” said Sam Lew, who ran the campaign last year in favor of Proposition C, which also taxed tech companies, and is backing this proposal. “The CEO tax targets just what people want to be targeting.”