"First in the nation" is rarely a good thing for a law. First, it means the measure is liberal. (Conservatives don't brag that their proposed laws are an experiment.) Second, its target is virgin territory probably because there's been no need for a law. Third, the measure may cost someone else his job and surely will be paid out of your pocket.
Exhibit A: San Francisco's groundbreaking Happy Meal law. McDonald's got around the ordinance that banned free toys with meals that don't meet City Hall's nutritional standards by announcing it will charge customers an extra 10 cents if they want a toy with the food.
Exhibit B: The Mirkarimi plan. Supervisors will vote on Plastic Bag 2.0 this month. It would come with a mandatory charge of at least 10 cents per bag starting July 1, possibly rising to 25 cents in 2014. Retailers would get to keep your dimes.
Mirkarimi told me that San Francisco no longer is in the lead when it comes to bag laws. Other governments -- Ireland, Beijing, Marin County -- that followed Ess Eff's lead are "now blowing by us. Their laws are much more vigorous."
Single-use bags don't just end up in landfills and wetlands; they litter streets and become a "nuisance" and "blight." Science is on his side, Mirkarimi told me; it takes 500 years for plastic bags to disintegrate. (How does anyone know it takes 500 years for a bag to disintegrate?)
Mayor Ed Lee told KCBS' Barbara Taylor that he supports the measure because it probably would "modify behavior." Spokeswoman Christine Falvey walked that position back with an email that said Lee supports "the goal of the legislation and incentivizing consumers to bring their own bags." He will weigh in later.
Mirkarimi argued, "You've got to deal with the hidden costs of pollution that were never factored in (to) the retail point of purchase."
This is how City Hall sees the bag bill playing out: Thanks to enlightened San Francisco politicians, shoppers begin to take reusable bags wherever they go. Bad consumers pay for their own bags. Good consumers no longer have to subsidize bad consumers.
Even the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce is on board. "You're outlawing the plastic bags but also encouraging reusable," said Vice President Jim Lazarus.
"The chamber reflects the community we live in," Lazarus added. I ask how big department stores, which send off their merchandise in brightly colored bags, feel about the bill. "A number of retailers must prefer not to have this regulation," he answered, "but are resigned to the changing demands of communities of how bags are used."
That's the story of San Francisco. The left squawks when, say, the mayor suggests that Occupy SF activists decamp from their illegal digs in Justin Herman Plaza. The mayor backed off for weeks. But when City Hall tells law-abiding businesses and customers to change their behavior, it gets results.
But not always the desired result. A Safeway spokeswoman explained that Mirkarimi's 2007 plastic bag ban prompted customers not to bring their own reusable bags, but to ask for free paper bags.
Given a choice, San Franciscans chose free bags. Bingo, a new law.
Of course Safeway supports the new Mirkarimi measure. It makes Safeway charge for bags it has been giving away.
The lonely job of opposing the measure falls to Stephen Joseph, who represents plastic bag manufacturers. Because most reusable bags are made overseas whereas most plastic bags are made in America, he claims, the new measure essentially would kill American jobs and replace them with Chinese jobs.
Joseph doesn't believe consumers will use reusable bags as often as expected. They get dirty, so you don't want to put food in them.
Also, San Francisco is a tourist mecca. Where's the hospitality in charging visitors to buy a bag to take their purchases home?
My objection: City documents report that single-use plastic bags represent 0.13 percent of California's total waste stream. If the supervisors want to address a "nuisance," as Mirkarimi calls plastic bags, they should work with the mayor to go after bigger nuisances that dramatically alter the quality of life in San Francisco. Read: aggressive panhandlers, hostile street people who use the city as a public toilet and substance abusers who drive up crime rates. But that would require city pols to moderate their politics.
So they go after people who have the cheek to buy things in San Francisco stores and expect a free new bag. They're the only group in San Francisco that won't protest.