Building community takes time and effort – you put energy into the city. Extracting wealth takes a different kind of effort – and all too often, you take life out of the city.
It makes no difference whether Google and Apple are changing the world, and giving us the ability to carry all of human knowledge around in our pockets. Other huge technological changes have transformed human civilization, and more will in the future.
Because humans continue to use oil, and Chevron is a mighty multinational corporation, is it wrong for people in Richmond to protest its leaky refinery? Seriously? The fact that tech companies are changing the world, for better and for worse, means we can’t push back against what they’re doing to our community in the process?
There have been industrial revolutions before, and there will be again. But through wars and industrialization and the first dot-com boom and so many other things, San Francisco remains – a community, a place with a soul, not just an economic unit.
At a forum on housing that I helped organize, Doug Engmann – an MIT-trained economist who is now a venture-capital investor, among other things, so hardly a radical commie — explained that San Francisco, like all great cities, has always, always accepted change. This is not the city it was in the 1940s, or the 1950s, or the 1960s, or the city that I knew when I arrived in the 1980s. Immigrants arrive; neighborhoods shift; industries come and go.
Nobody on the left has ever been against that.
What we have said, Engmann explained, is that disruptive economic forces need to be managed, slowed down just a little, to make sure that we as a society are not making costly mistakes – and to prevent the kind of massive collateral human damage that an untamed economy can cause.
Google and Apple and Facebook and Twitter and Ron Conway rule the universe today. Somebody else will rule it tomorrow. In the meantime, we have to be sure that San Francisco – and its diverse, welcoming community – has a chance to survive.
So when Rachel Swan insists that “Any human can stand in the way of a bus, after all. But he (sic) can’t stop the engine of progress behind it,” she is saying two stunning and deeply disturbing things: That what’s happening in San Francisco right now is “progress” – and that there’s nothing we can do about it.
Allow me to dissent.
The economic changes we are seeing in America today, particularly in the Bay Area, are unprecedented in the post-War era, and quite possibly in the history of the United States. There have been great industrial shifts (from farm labor to manufacturing, from steam to electricity, from horses to cars and railroads, the rise and fall of domestic auto manufacturing, the emergence of the financial sector as a dominant player, globalization, I could go on forever) in this country, but I don’t think there has ever been a time (perhaps since the Medieval Era) when such a small number of people has become so much richer than everyone else.
You want statistics? The richest 20 individuals – not families, individuals – in the US now have more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the entire population. I have to wonder if the Royal Family of England since the Magna Charta could actually claim that. Maybe; it’s hardly a standard we ought to be upholding.
And what’s happening to San Francisco represents pretty much everything that’s wrong with the American economy today.
There is “progress” – defined as anything new at all – and there is real progress, something that improves the human condition (and, I would argue, does so without destroying the environment we inhabit.) There are people today who argue that human cloning – the creation of a new race of bioengineered people, bred by the rich, who have abilities far beyond those of the rest of the plebians who will be their servants – would be “progress.” It’s cool science; pretty soon we’ll be able to do it. Why not?
Well, because it’s really creepy, is why, and that’s maybe not the future we want. Which is why pretty much every credible scientist thinks we ought to hold off for a while, so we can figure out how we want to control this technological genie.
Twitter hardly fits into that category – connecting the world in 140 characters isn’t a bad thing. Google has put the knowledge of all of civilization an instant away. Apple and Microsoft made possible the devices that make possible this online daily newspaper.
There is no doubt that society is better off from the incredible communications revolution that we’ve seen in the past couple of decades. (Of course, while Al Gore didn’t invent the Internet, the government –which so much of the tech world despises — actually did. Another story for another time.) Tech companies have created virtual communities, developed life-saving devices, transformed media (in a very good way) so that I can start a daily newspaper with a few hundred dollars in donations.
But it’s critical to separate what the tech companies do – some good, some bad – from the role they play, and should play, in a local community. And the tech ethos, which disparages the public sector – and, to be honest, old people, people with families, people who don’t learn to code, people who need stability more than disruption – right now is very much not aligned with what San Francisco community has been about for a half century.
I’m going to make what sounds like a radical statement, but is really pretty basic. What’s happening in the US economy right now — in part, although not entirely, because of the libertarian-style political clout of tech and finance leaders — doesn’t represent economic “progress.” It may offer progress in information sharing, communications, and consumer technology and entertainment – but as a macroeconomic phenomenon, taking social equality into account as a critical factor, it’s taken us backward, beyond backward, to an era of inequality that’s never before existed in this country.
Is it any wonder that San Francisco, one of the most progressive cities in the nation, is unhappy about that – and about its role as Ground Zero in a frightening social experiment where the gulf between the rich and the poor is at a level that might make Marie Antoinette gasp?
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The idea that “tech” – the development of new stuff and new ways of working and interacting – can exist and thrive only in a libertarian economic environment is utterly, completely wrong.
Other “disruptive” industries – railroads, oil, post-Depression finance, and cars, for example – grew and thrived even after the government regulated them. Automotive unions – protected and encouraged by federal law – made sure that the massive wealth of the industry was more equally distributed, and helped create the post-War middle class. Oil and financial barons between the 1930s and the 1960s paid taxes that topped out at 90 percent. That money was used, among other things, to finance the War on Poverty (which was in many ways a success) and the creation of what was once the greatest public education system (and thus social equalizer) on the planet.
Oh, and to build urban housing for low-income people.
Would Bill Gates have refused to create Microsoft if his marginal tax rate was equal to what his industrial peers paid between 1932 and 1980? Would these massive advances in technology have somehow disappeared if corporate tax rates were at the level they were in previous industrial boom eras?
Would there be no iPhones and no Google if the United States asked that a much bigger share of the massive wealth being created was more widely shared?
Somehow, I think Steve Jobs would have made his magic even if the taxman took 70 percent of his wealth. He’d have plenty left.
And if San Francisco didn’t offer the Twitter tax break, and raised fees on companies for affordable housing, and demanded that the tech titans pay for the impacts they’re creating on the city? I think we’d been doing just fine.
The mayor brags about the low unemployment rate – but what we don’t know is how many San Franciscans who were unemployed when he took office now have jobs – and how many left town, and were replaced with new arrivals who arrived to take tech jobs. I suspect the real numbers will show that residents of this city who were in tough economic circumstances four years ago are not, as a whole, better off today. If they are still here, which many are not.
Now let me tell you a little about San Francisco history.
In the late 1960s, when the rest of the country was really excited about the Interstate Highway System, a strange thing happened in San Francisco. People living in the Haight, where a proposed freeway would have gone right through the Panhandle and Golden Gate Park, decided they didn’t want that sort of “progress.” Around the same time, people who were watching highrise buildings spring up like Lincoln Logs downtown and on the waterfront started saying they weren’t sure this “progress” was a good thing either. Same for people in SoMa and the Western Addition, where urban renewal was destroying communities.
Not everyone out protesting had the same message, or the same understanding of the larger forces involved. What they knew was that they lived here, and their communities were being destroyed in the name of an economic experiment that nobody had asked them to accept.
Here’s what was happening: A group of powerful men (yes, they were all men) were meeting in back rooms, mostly the penthouse at the Fairmont Hotel, where owner Ben Swig lived, to plot out the future of the post-War Bay Area.
The plan eventually became clear: San Francisco was to become the West Coast Manhattan, the center of commerce for the Pacific Rim trade. Future development in the city would be mostly commercial highrise office buildings; the people who worked in them would live in the East Bay and on the Peninsula, and get to work on the freeways and a new rail system that came to be known as BART.
Problem is, nobody asked the people who already lived here – who had built a community – if that’s what they wanted.
I suspect if SF Weekly had been around, the writers and editors would have made snarky fun of the hippies and students and young activists who fought the freeways and the highrises. They were standing in the way of “progress.” In retrospect, the community activists (as is so often the case) were right.
Not always perfect, not always clear and on message, sometimes a little cranky or weird, some driven by anti-capitalist ideology, some by what today SF Weekly would call Nimby-ism… but the city is better for what they did.
Because what they were saying was that San Francisco, the community, is more important than San Francisco, the center of extractive wealth.
They stopped the freeways that would have cut up the city, they slowed the destruction of Urban Renewal (and forced the city to build some affordable housing to replace what was destroyed) and, by the 1980s, forced the construction of new office buildings to slow down, just a bit.
That didn’t wreck the economy. In fact, slower growth in the office sector saved the city: When places like overbuilt Houston crashed in the early 1990s recession, SF survived – with a more diverse, more resilient economy not based entirely on the commercial office sector.
And, although this is a part of history that’s long been overlooked, the folks on the left argued back then that instead of just offices, the city ought to be demanding housing – because the idea that San Francisco would be only the place where people worked, and not where they lived, was a bad approach to urban planning and community building.
The Chamber of Commerce and the business leaders (and the politicians who listened to them) had none of it. San Francisco wasn’t a community first; it was a commodity, a place to be sold, a center for commerce.
In 1968, Roger Lapham, Jr., the son of a former mayor, sat in a highrise office building and told a Bay Guardian reporter that the battle was over: San Francisco was going to be the next Manhattan, and that was progress, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.
People just like the ones in the streets today proved him wrong. The fact that we all think this is a really cool city is a testament to the progenitors of the people Rachel Swan is dissing.
Swan went on vacation after her story ran, so I couldn’t reach her. Instead I asked a simple question to her editor, Brandon Reynolds: Do you really think what’s happening in San Francisco today can be described as “progress?”
He sent me a screed of sorts, which is fine since I’m writing a screed of sorts, but it came down to this:
Our story isn’t an endorsement of the things that are happening, nor a condemnation. It’s a way of getting at the complexity of the issues, of suggesting that the old ways of raising attention are just not going to work. This is totally new territory, not just for SF, but for pretty much everywhere, since “everywhere” is exactly how far this industry’s reach extends.
Protests are good for short, punchy statements, whatever you can fit on a poster or a bedsheet. Getting at anything more involved is impossible, unless your message is “Now let’s all sit down and work this thing out,” which could maybe squeeze in if you write small. This just isn’t as binary as e.g. DOMA — you can be for gay marriage or against it. Having easy “sides” in what’s happening in the Bay Area now is a luxury we never had.
And if you try to boil it down, it gets absurd pretty quick. Consider the issue as having two components:
1) People who are already here should be allowed to stay.
2) People who are not here should be allowed to come.
If the answer is Yes to the first and No to the second, then you must pretty much build a big wall around the city and, whenever we hear anybody outside, turn out the lights and get real quiet. If the answer is No and Yes, then San Francisco becomes a Thunderdome of Conspicuous Wealth, in which citizenship is determined by Contests of Credit Limit where he who is outpurchased must submit to being the “underbro” for the victor or else drive his Hummer to exile in, gad, Marin, and in which a census-taker visits your underground casino to inventory your vintage collection of Nazi couches.
[me: Huh? What the fuck?]
If it’s No to both, then kindly leave your front door open as you make your way to the city limits that the rats might more easily transgress (long may they reign).
The goal should be to illuminate and explore and, if necessary, fight the unchecked consequences of this rising economic tide. That means discussion more than demonstration, which only ends up being about itself.
See, that’s the wrong way of looking at it.
The proper answer to those two questions is: Yes. And Yes – but not if it means pushing someone else out.
The people who come to San Francisco – and there are a lot of them – who are using this as a bedroom community for their Silicon Valley jobs have no more rights than the people who are already here. This is where so much of the anger comes from, so much of the disgust at the Google buses – the wealthier new arrivals seem to have no sense, no understanding that there were people living here before them, and that those people (by virtue of seniority, if nothing else) have more right to stay than the newcomers do to displace them.
There is no reason why Facebook and Google workers have to live in the Mission (except that the private bus lines are there). They, and any other group of immigrants, are welcome, and should be welcome, to this city – but not if they are throwing someone else out.
If there are no vacant apartments in the Mission, no way to move in without forcing someone to leave, too bad: Live closer to work, on the Peninsula. Take all your creative energy and turn Sunnyvale into a cool place. Move your startup toa depressed Central Valley town, where they really need to diversify beyond unsustainable agriculture.
Housing policy is complicated, but on a basic, social level, one thing is simple: Tenants living in rent-controlled apartments with a long tenure in the community have the right to stay here. That trumps any other housing rights that anyone else might claim. Including the right to buy a place cleared by eviction.
I’m glad to see that some tech leaders are (finally) talking about reforming the Ellis Act. But everyone who has a high-paying job and wants to move here needs to understand a basic mandate: It’s wrong to evict a tenant who was here first. That means it’s wrong to buy a TIC that was cleared by an Ellis Act eviction. Every one of you should demand to know why that cool place in the Mission or North Beach is available – and if it’s because the last tenants were forced out to make room for you, just say no.
Here’s Chuck Nevius:
Recently I was talking to a tech critic who has lived in the Mission for years. She said that an older woman, a longtime tenant, had recently been evicted from her apartment. The landlord turned the building into condos and a woman from one of the tech companies bought the place and moved in.
“So none of us talk to her,” the critic said.
Right. Because she’s the problem.
Actually, in some ways, she is. If she understood the impact her purchase would have on the community, she might have refused to buy a tainted apartment. Then the next longtime resident might not get evicted. Just a thought.
Here’s the larger question:
Maybe, just as many San Franciscans decided they didn’t want to be the West Coast Manhattan, that they didn’t want to have Los-Angeles-style freeways, we should have the chance to ask: Do we want to be the tech center of the world? Do we want to be the bedroom community for Silicon Valley? Because to do that, we have to give up a lot of what we are as a city.
And right now, the protesters who are blocking the Google buses are at least starting to ask that question. And if they don’t ask it, the “discussion” that the SF Weekly likes will never happen.
We need to have loud, angry protests, at every level – at City Hall, in the streets, in front of Twitter headquarters. Not because we want “tech” companies to leave, but maybe because we want the transformation they are bringing to happen a little more slowly and deliberately. Maybe we want them to pay more attention to the damage they are doing, share the wealth a little more, offer more than $1 to park in a bus stop. Donate a little more than a fraction of their massive tax breaks to local organizations. (Hey Twitter, you know what nonprofits need right now? Cheap office space. How about you make room for some of them in the building that tax breaks got you?)
When you have a place that’s only 47.5 square miles, that has a culture developed over decades, generations, it’s by nature fragile. When we, as a city, lurch into a fast, disruptive era that will change our community more than an earthquake, we have the right to ask: Why? Is this what we want for our city?
And if it isn’t, we have the right to say: No, thanks. Or, at the very least: Not so fast that our history, culture, and soul gets trampled in the process.
Because no matter how you define it, that’s not “progress.”
Way back in 1997, on the cusp of the last dot-com boom, I wrote a piece for a long-defunct website called Rewired about how that generation’s Tech Elite viewed the world, and why it was wrong.
My focus was on a book by Kevin Kelly called “New Rules for the New Economy,” which lauded, as so many tech folks do today, the notion of disruption, of breaking things, of constant economic churn.
I suggested back then that maybe we were on the wrong track, that maybe we should stop and take a deep breath before we flung ourselves into the Network Economy he was promoting.
Rewired died and left no trace, not even on the Internet Archive, so I dug this out of my files and am posting it below. It’s fascinating what I got right, and what I got wrong, and how different the world looks 17 years later – and also, how similar the issues are.
They were talking then about disruption, and I was talking about community. Substitute a few phrases and companies, and I wonder: Didn’t we learn anything last time around?
Here ya go, vintage 1997.
“Promoting stability, defending productivity, and protecting success can only prolong the misery
Dec. 16. 1997 – Economics and ecology have a lot in common, starting with the fact that nobody really understands either one. The more scientists in either discipline claim to be able to explain how the essential systems work, the more they demonstrate how little they really know.
So it’s fun and perhaps even useful to apply an ecological model of constant, often brutal change – a sustainable disequilibrium – to a discussion of the coming economy. In fact, the description Kevin Kelly offers may turn out to be accurate. In the network economy, stability may be an endangered species: Businesses will start, expand, collapse. Jobs will be created rapidly, and just as rapidly destroyed.
But is that a future we really want, as a society, as human beings? Because for all the fun and interesting theoretical similarities, there’s an essential difference between ecology and economics.
We are all ultimately servants of nature, and despite out best (and worst) efforts, the ecological system of Planet Earth is bigger than all of us. But the economy that governs our interactions as people is fundamentally an artificial construct. Like a computer network, the economy exists to serve us; we don’t exist to serve it.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, rapid economic changes – driven not by the invisible hand of Adam Smith or the force of El Nino, but by political decisions made by conscious human beings – transformed the American economic landscape. Industrial cities like Detroit (in the Rust Belt) were devastated; white-collar office-park cities like Housing (in the Sun Belt) were booming.
Policy-makers and economic pundits divided into two basic camps. The conservative free-marketers argued that capitalism was a tough-love system, that cities and industries unable to adapt should die. Liberals argued that the innocent victims – the folks who lost their stable, union jobs in the factories – should get some sort of help finding new jobs, new training, new places to live.
Almost nobody asked the real question: Was Detroit worth saving, because it had value – not as an economic unit, but as a place where people lived, and built communities, and had backyard barbecues with aunts and cousins and grandparents?
Did the economy work for us, or did we work for it?
The question won’t go away when the next economic transformation takes place.
De we really want to live in a world where nobody knows what his or her job will be next year? Where life is a hectic, manic, stressful dash from job to job, where the most nimble and lucky buy nice homes with their stock options and the rest of us get evicted when we can’t pay the rent?
Is constant economic instability a socially acceptable condition?
Or would we rather take steps to limit the rapid churn, to temper the whims of our emerging economy, to decide, as a society, that it’s more important for people to be able to live happy, stable lives than for the computer networks we have created to turn us into manic rats in a never-ending maze? Can’t we evaluate the future, as sentient beings, and make our own choices?
Nature is brutal. Disequilibrium isn’t a pleasant thing to watch. Rapidly changing ecosystems are nasty, violent places. The creatures born with large, powerful bodies, perfect eyesight and hearing, legs and wings and fins that move fast, brains the process certain types of information at the proper speed – they survive. The small, the slow, the weak, the ones who approach the day-to-day survival problem with less than total dedication – they die young.
The ecologists teach us the human society has evolved beyond that point. We make decisions based on more abstract values. We give children born with limbs and nerves and brains that are less than genetically perfect a chance to live, too. And we find that sometimes, the ones who would not survive in a churning ecosystem add the most to our collective lives.
So we can decide what sort of economic system we want to use to control our interactions in the network age. And if we decide that what a lot of people in our society really want is enough stability to pay the rent, buy houses, plan families, take weekends off, save money to put the kids through college and have a little left for retirement … we can direct the economy we have created to make that possible.
If that means our technological knowledge advances a tiny bit more slowly, that our fabulous network economy grows not entirely wild and free but under careful human control, I’d argue that we won’t have lost anything all that valuable. And if that means that the young, brilliant, netizens like Kevin Kelly and his colleagues at Wired have to give up a little so the rest of the world can have decent lives too, I won’t be crying into my network terminal.