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News + PoliticsMediaMedia Week: One crucial (buried) story and two prominent useless ones

Media Week: One crucial (buried) story and two prominent useless ones

The growth myth, the SF mayor's race, the foolishness of a so-called West Coast 'liberal,' and (for now, funny) and deceptive campaign videos

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One of the most important stories I’ve read in several years appeared in the NYTimes last week, and it’s gotten very little attention beyond that publication. It ran as a book review, by the paper’s nonfiction book critic; it should have been on the front page.

‘Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a madman or an economist.’ —David Attenborough. NASA photo from Wikimedia Images.

The story by Jennifer Szalia challenges the fundamental idea of modern capitalism—that growth is not only good but necessary for a healthy economy. Instead, she asks, what if the opposite is true, that growth is harming the planet and that the solution is not to expand the economic pie but to talk about how it’s distributed:

For advocates of degrowth, it’s a core tenet that in high-income countries the constant expansion demanded by capitalism isn’t required to improve people’s lives; instead, the ensuing inequality and environmental havoc have frequently undermined them.

Szalia quotes London anthropologist Jason Hickel:

Degrowth is about reducing the material and energy throughput of the economy to bring it back into balance with the living world, while distributing income and resources more fairly, liberating people from needless work, and investing in the public goods that people need to thrive.

In other words, what if we (especially in the Global North) already have enough stuff, that we have mined and logged and manufactured and created wealth (often at the expense of the Global South) as much as the planet can handle? What if the problem is not that we need to grow the economy in the rich nations but that we need to better distribute the wealth and resources we already have—and preserve what’s left of nature?

What if we don’t need a bigger economic pie—we just need to slice it up differently?

That, I would argue, is a fundamental question facing our society today. Glad the Times has at least noticed.

After three years on the job, you would think the Chronicle’s editorial page editor would know a little more about San Francisco politics than this. There are vast differences in policy across the board between Sup. Aaron Peskin and former Sup. Mark Farrell, but let’s just focus, as Matthew Fleischer does, on housing.

From his rather embarassing oped piece:

Farrell is mindful of our housing crisis but has generally been consistent that “the undisputable need to build more new housing does not have to come at the cost of completely changing San Francisco and our neighborhoods” outside of downtown.

Peskin also says he’s concerned with housing affordability, but that, “We should not destroy our neighborhoods” in service of more housing. He does, however, want to turn downtown into a neighborhood.

The key element here is that Fleischer makes no distinction between market-rate housing and affordable housing.

Peskin has supported every affordable housing project that has come before the board. He led the campaign for Prop. A, the march affordable housing bond (Mayor London Breed also had her name on it, but Peskin did all of the heavy lifting). And he has always supported regulations on private-market forces. (Note that at the debate last week, after Farrell praised Waymo and robotaxis, Peskin said he’d never ridden in one “but I taxed them.)

Farrell is a private-sector politician who argues that free markets are the best solution to most problems, including housing. He’s not going to approve big highrises in his own neighborhood, but he would love to see them anywhere else. (There are, indeed, some Yimbys who are really Yiybys—yes in your back yard.)

Then we have Nicholas Kristof, weirdly describing himself as a liberal, and then saying:

Centrist voters can reasonably ask: Why put liberals in charge nationally when the places where they have greatest control are plagued by homelessness, crime and dysfunction?

I’ll try to answer that question in a moment, but liberals like me do need to face the painful fact that something has gone badly wrong where we’re in charge, from San Diego to Seattle.

More:

We are more likely to believe that “housing is a human right” than conservatives in Florida or Texas, but less likely to actually get people housed. 

The number of unhoused in Austin, Texas is comparable to San Francisco, according to Kristof’s paper:

Austin’s homelessness rate has been rapidly worsening, and the city’s response has whipped back and forth. In 2019, the progressive City Council lifted Austin’s ban on public camping in an effort to decriminalize homelessness. But when people set up tents in more visible places — on downtown sidewalks and beside a popular walking path along the forested shores of Lady Bird Lake — many residents and business owners felt that homelessness was swelling out of control. Gov. Greg Abbott blasted Austin’s leadership on social media and sent Texas Department of Transportation workers to clear encampments from under highway overpasses. Soon a local political action committee gathered enough signatures to put a new camping ban on the ballot, which voters overwhelmingly approved just two years after the old one had been lifted.

Since then, police have cleared encampments from many public spaces, but homelessness has continued to rise. In October, the official estimate put the number of people living without shelter at 5,530, a 125 percent increase from two years earlier. Some of that rise is the result of better outreach, but officials acknowledged that more people have become homeless. 

In fact, it’s rising all over Texas, despite a free-market ideology Kristof embraces.

You can define “liberal” however you want, but if you take that word with its old connotation, liberals believe in, among other things, taxing the rich to address economic inequality. Tell me which mayor of which West Coast city has done that; certainly not any mayor of San Francisco.

Kristof, like so many other critics of anything progressive, talks dismissively about “ideology.” As if neoliberalism and belief in authoritarian solutions to drug abuse and homelessness aren’t “ideologies.”

Rather than saying “liberals” failed, Kristof might want to ask: What is the dominant ideology of the people actually running these cities?

Ads I have said many times before: I wish we could fairly blame the left for all the problems in San Francisco. That would mean that the left has been running the city.

Not true, not even close.

And I love all the talk, which we are hearing during this election season, about “common-sense” solutions. I’m not sure what those are; deregulating housing (hasn’t worked)? Criminalizing homelessness (seriously)? More cops and arrests (we’re doing that here, and it’s been a disaster)?

How about restoring the tax structure that the US had under FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon? How about creating a middle class by reducing the number of billionaires?

That seems pretty common sense to me.

Oh, and before we go: How long did you watch this video before you figured it out?

And the AI attack on American politics has only just begun.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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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