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News + PoliticsWhat the billionaires want

What the billionaires want

The agenda behind the big money is clear—and for more than 40 years, it's been a massive failure that created most of our social problems.

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I would normally ignore something like this; it’s a post on Substack that makes the false suggestion that the “far left” somehow “controls” San Francisco.

The “far left” has never controlled this city. For the past 40 years, mayors who can at best be described as moderate and in reality as neoliberal have run San Francisco. I often wish the progressives had as much power as the conspiracy theorists say.

Garry Tan, who has said seven supervisors who have made modest moves to challenge neoliberalism should die, has a pretty clear agenda for the city. So do his billionaire friends. Wikimedia Images photo

But this thing is getting attention, and I want to respond not just by saying that it’s a fantasy that some collection of wealthy liberals are running the city through an organization that promotes the empowerment of marginalized communities but by explaining what the billionaires who are trying to take over the city have in mind.

There’s no doubt that voters in San Francisco are sick of policy failures, sick of the crisis of homelessness and drug addiction, and want answers. The billionaires have easy ones, and they can sound appealing.

But these folks aren’t just rich people trying to make this a better city. They have a real policy agenda—and I think if most San Franciscans understood it, they would realize it’s going to fail, going to make things worse for many residents—and is based on the idea that many people who currently live in this city don’t belong.

Understanding that agenda involves kind of a complicated dive into the politics of the last 45 years and the concept of neoliberalism. But it’s critical if we want to figure out not just who these Big Tech and Real Estate folks are, but why they are putting up so much money to try to control the city.

On one level, it’s just the tech bros (and yes, they are almost all men) moving into a new playground. I don’t know why Garry Tan cares that much about eight-grade algebra (the guy who spurred death threats against supervisors gave $25,000 to Yes on G; the campaign seems to think that it’s okay to show school kids that threatening public officials is just fine if you are rich). Chris Larsen made almost no political contributions until three years ago.

But there’s a lot more here.

The big money coming into SF politics at a level I have never seen in more than 40 years as a journalist comes with an agenda. Let me try my best to explain what it is.

First of all: Most of the very rich people in the US (with the exception of, say, George Soros, who is one of the folks who conspiracy theorists love to link to the left), almost universally refuse to accept the idea that any serious efforts at social, economic, and climate reforms will require them to give up some, even a little, of their wealth, and not through philanthropy (which is tax-exempt) but through taxes.

Some may be socially liberal, and support some good causes. But overall, they agenda they are pushing starts with the idea that the free market is the best way to address almost anything, that government intervention in the market (particularly the regulation of tech and finance) is almost always bad and stifles innovation.

We have seen this at work since 1981. Neoliberalism, which was considered something of a joke before the 1970s, has been the economic law of the land since Reagan’s election—under both Democrats and Republicans.

We have, as they say, data on this.

The explosion in homelessness—which really didn’t exist in most major cities in the 1970s—and the opioid epidemic, which comes in part from Big Pharma but also in significant part from economic desperation, are the results of what I sometimes too optimistically call late-state neoliberal capitalism.

In 1960, the effective tax rate on corporate profits was 50 percent. The marginal tax rate on very high incomes was 80 percent. That left the government with money to fund social programs like the Great Society and the War on Poverty (and free college education in California). But it also put a cap on riches; there weren’t a lot of billionaires or even millionaires.

When I arrived in SF in 1981, Stanford MBA’s bragged about making “twice their age.” That is, a 25-year-old was thrilled with $50,000 a year. They could pay maybe $1,000 a month in rent, or buy a house that cost $150,000—but they weren’t driving costs up to the level we see today. The tech boom, combined with massive, ongoing tax cuts, changed all of that: The full 100 percent increase in wealth due to the productive increases of the digital age has gone to the top 10 percent, much of it to the top 1 percent.

The resulting radical economic inequality, has, not surprisingly, led to severe social problems. The solution that the billionaires in SF are offering is simple: Use the cops to arrest poor people, lock them up, and get them out of sight.

It’s hard to imagine now, but homelessness was not a big problem in US cities between 1946 and 1980. Housing prices were radically lower, people without college degrees could make a decent living in union jobs, and the safety net was enough to keep folks sheltered. That, I would argue, is in large part because taxes kept people from making massive fortunes that drive prices up for everyone else.

It was also a period of massive, structural racism, when Black people were unable to buy housing in many cities, when public housing was a form of social segregation, and when many white people abandoned cities for the suburbs.

Heather McGhee describes this brilliantly in The Sum of Us: During the Civil Rights Era, white people were convinced to eliminate public services rather than share them with Black people. From the NY Times:

It’s a self-defeating form of exclusion, a determination not to share resources even if the ultimate result is that everyone suffers. McGhee writes about health care, voting rights and the environment; she persuasively argues that white Americans have been steeped in the notion of “zero sum” — that any gains by another group must come at white people’s expense. 

Ronald Reagan exploited that during the incredibly racist presidential campaign of 1980, when he sought to blame “welfare queens” stealing tax dollars for the problems of the white working class.

The stunning fact is that none of the Democrats who followed Reagan into the White House and Congress did anything to shift the basic narrative or restore the tax rates of the post-War era.

San Francisco, to the limited extent that it’s possible for a city, has made a few moves to challenge that agenda. The voters have approved taxes on very high-end real-estate transactions, and on the biggest corporations in the city, to fund affordable housing (although the mayor has refused to spend the money).

We have seen at least some attempts to regulate new technology before it overwhelms us. We tried to move a little bit away from using the prison system as the solution to poverty, addiction, and mental illness.

This is what the billionaires want to roll back.

The “common sense” solutions they talk about are all based on the neoliberal theory that markets will solve our problems and that government interference is the obstacle to a better city. The mayor’s ballot measures that they are supporting are all about using the police and prisons to solve the problems that their approach has created.

We tried this. We have tried it for more than 40 years. It hasn’t worked.

Low-income and working-class people are not part of the neoliberal agenda for San Francisco. The neighborhoods where working-class people live are not part of this. It’s all about making life better for the rich—and if others have to be forced out in the process, well, that’s just how the market goes.

I know that a lot of folks are just frustrated and want anything that works. I know that some of this is a federal and state problem, and forcing San Francisco to take on poverty and homelessness alone is radically unfair. The neoliberal approach sounds simple: Clean up the streets. Build more housing. Help local business.

But in the long term, it won’t do any of those things. It can only make inequality, and its social impacts, even worse.

Or we could talk about why the rich insist on taking over politics, from Hannah Arendt:

Even exploitation and oppression still make society work and establish some kind of order. Only wealth without power or aloofness without a policy are felt to be parasitical, useless, revolting, because such conditions cut all the threads which tie men together. Wealth which does not exploit lacks even the relationship which exists between exploiter and exploited; aloofness without policy does not imply even the minimum concern of the oppressor for the oppressed.

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Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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