Of course, it isn’t really national news until it’s in the New York Times, which finally picked up on the bus battle Feb. 1.
Even as the tech companies extend their global reach and jostle to own the future, their hometown is turning from admiration to anger. The buses, which illegally use city stops, have become an unlikely rallying point. First, people were priced out of their homes, activists say; now they are being pushed off the streets.
While the national news media feast on pictures of bus protesters, an underlying fact is getting lost: The buses, and the housing crisis, are a sign of something President Obama can’t seem to talk enough about: Widening social inequality. San Francisco is on its way to joining the most economically unequal cities in the country – and the only way that will change is if the poor continue to be ousted until there are only the rich remaining.
You know things are getting serious when even the tech titans are talking about how things have gone too far. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, has some harsh words to say for the folks who are driving San Franciscans out of town:
The first thing is you can’t be throwing all these people out of their homes. They are using the Ellis Act during this unbelievable boom time, to toss everyday residents out of their homes. I think is unfair and I think it has to change. I think that our government, our industry leaders and everyday citizens — all three stakeholders — need to come together in a conversation and change that. I think these buses — which if you hang out in the Mission, [they come] every five minutes — they’ve got to be massively regulated, we have to get them off our streets. Those are two things we absolutely have to do. And the third thing is we need to get the tech community giving back more aggressively. Those are three things that need to happen now.
Perhaps Benioff will fund the ballot measure to repeal the Ellis Act.
Mayor Lee was a bit more subdued in a recent Time Magazine interview. He talked about wanting “philosophically” to support a city for the 100 percent, but
I hate seeing a change where the character of a neighborhood gets a shock. So what do you do about it? Part of it, you can’t do a whole lot because we have freedom. We can’t control everything. But there are a number of tools that we have created over a period of time that support local character … We can make it a little bit more difficult for new developers to come in and overnight change things … It’s a matter of, do we want the market to dictate what should be there? Sometimes that’s good. A lot of times, that’s bad.
Lee continues to talk, proudly, about the city’s low unemployment rate
But it’s worth taking a moment to look at what the figures for San Francisco really mean.
Unemployment data in the United States is based on a monthly telephone survey of roughly 60,000 households. That’s a really large sample size compared, for example, to political polls, which are widely considered accurate with a sample size of 2,000. On a national level, the data is pretty reliable.
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But it’s not a large sample size when you break it down to the smallest level, counties and large cities.
There are 824 “geographic areas” in the survey. By my math, that’s 72 households per geographic area. A survey of 72 households in San Francisco isn’t valid at all.
In fact, some economists say the local samples are way too small to be accurate
Mark Zandi, the chief executive of Moody’s Analytics, said he agreed that the surveys used to produce the state and national unemployment rates were too small to be reliable. But he said he had not heard state or city officials calling for the federal government to spend enough to improve them.
“As an economist, I think it’s kind of silly that we don’t spend more resources trying to get better data,” Mr. Zandi said. “The economic benefits would be enormous if we had good information.”
There’s another interesting factor, too. The unemployment rate is the fraction of people who are defined as “in the labor force” who are actually working. There’s very little doubt that a large number – perhaps 40,000 – people have moved to San Francisco in the past couple of years to take jobs, mostly in the tech industry. That’s bumped up the population of the city – and since all of those people who moved here to take jobs are (by definition) employed, then the number of employed people in the labor force has increased.
And if, as I think is almost inevitable, a significant number of unemployed people moved out of a city where unemployment benefits can’t possibly cover rent and food, you get a picture not of a city where the existing residents found jobs but of one where new arrivals came to take jobs, forcing existing residents out – and that, by definition and simple math, brought down the unemployment rate.
Is it something to be proud of? I dunno.
Oh, and while we’re idolizing tech companies: Did these folks conspire to keep wages down and cheat their workers?
The local taxi industry is hurting, badly. That may be in part because of a crazy business model that forces all employees to be independent contractors, and a failure to adapt quickly enough to new technology, but it’s also because unregulated “sharing economy” companies are taking a lot of the money away.
And while the cab industry had its problems, Darwin Bond Graham points out that ridesharing is “a parasitic business model:”
Their business model relies on marketizing formerly non-economic spheres of your life, like giving a friend a ride in your car, and they have aggressively externalized costs, like gas, insurance, payroll, etc., so that profits are maximized and expenses are as close as possible to nonexistent. In doing so they undermine the very essence of the taxi industry, but they also undermine public infrastructure … Taxis are not just some private sector dinosaur that should be hit from an innovation meteor. Taxis are an integral part of every major city’s transportation infrastructure.
But when we give up our transit infrastructure to tech companies, what else can you expect?
I am astonished that a city department can utterly defy the will of the Board of Supervisors and refuse to carry out a program that the board has approved. Supervisors John Avalos and London Breed have both been making a fuss about this. But the hand of PG&E is clearly at work here.
Nancy Pelosi went on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show last week, and her performance was embarrassing. You can check it out here. Steward isn’t arguing policy; he just wants to know why Democrats, who say they are supporters of government, have so much trouble making the federal government work effectively.
Pelosi’s response: That’s not my problem.
It’s pretty bad, and it suggests that Democratic leaders in Washington are a bit clueless. Corruption and government dysfunction are progressive issues; Pelosi seems ready to cede them to the Right. Ugh.
The measure to demand that towering waterfront projects go before the voters is going to qualify.