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From the Outside Looking In


By Alexa Llewellyn




February 24, 2003


Ain't Going Study War No More

One of the most poignant moments of the movie Titantic is when the couples dance around the ballroom as the great ship inches toward the iceberg.

We are like those couples, clothed in stunning evening wear, waltzing around a large dance floor. In front of us looms something that is going to change our lives forever. We don't know how it will change our lives. We don't know where our lives will be impacted - but we all know that it won't be for the better.

The something that looms in front us is war.

The book The Public City (Philip J. Ethington, University of California Press, 1994) talks about antebellum San Francisco. Prior to the Civil War, the residents of San Francisco were oblivious to class and economic differences. Instead, they classified themselves according to occupational and trade groups. Everyone could find a job - and usually they found that job through a network of friends, relatives, and/or fellow countrymen and women.

Yet something changed during the course of the Civil War. That war was not popular. Since the United States was not a heavily industrialized nation, it relied on Europe for finished goods, but Europe relied on the South for raw materials such as cotton, hemp, and crops. Since there was an embargo on exports from the South, this meant that all finished products were much more expensive.

Because the United States had to go into debt to pay its defense costs, the U.S. Treasury issued more money to cover the debt. More money in circulation means inflation. Everything became more expensive - and wages had less buying power than in the past. In other words, people worked more to get less. That's not politically popular in any era.

Meanwhile, the freed slaves were competing for the first time in the job market - making it more difficult for everyone to find work.

So the unity of San Francisco began to crack. People with similar economic interests began to join together and fight against others who they felt were hurting them. For example, skilled labor fought against semi-skilled labor. Semi-skilled labor fought against unskilled labor. Merchants occasionally stirred the pot, keeping wages down to make sure that none of the labor groups worked together.

We are now facing another war. Just like the Civil War, it will include defense costs, reconstruction costs, loss of life, and reprioritizing of values.

We are also facing a deficit of $350 million or, as Controller Ed Harrington defined it in a recent Budget Committee meeting, the worse shortfall that we have seen since the Depression.

None of our politicians has addressed the impact of the war on San Francisco. Does it mean that our aging and polluting energy plants will have to stay on line to meet the additional need of defense contractors for power? Does it mean that all federal money will be removed from social programs in order to support defense? Does it mean that all healthcare research now devoted to AIDS and other diseases will be focused on the health impacts of biological warfare and other war hazards? What will change in our lives - and how can we prepare for that change?

Or are we going to continue to waltz around the dance floor as our boat edges toward an iceberg?