San Francisco and a Sneaky Win for the Red

In San Francisco recently there has been a minor hubub about the buses that ferry technology workers from San Francisco (where they live) to Silicon Valley (where they work). “Activists” have been blocking the city bus lanes where the technology companies pick up workers, and the city of San Francisco recently voted to charge the buses $1 for each time they stop in the bus lanes to pick up passengers, per this article. However, the “real” challenge isn’t with the buses, but the impact of Google, Facebook and other technology companies in the valley that are contributing to a rapid gentrification of the entire city

But while logistical details of the pilot program were the reason for having the hearing, they also had nothing to do with it. For many residents, the high-ceilinged room at City Hall was a forum for airing much bigger grievances about inequality, for articulating angst against an industry attracting bands of well-paid workers to town while long-term residents are losing their homes. “These companies are filthy rich,” said a resident born in San Francisco. “We need to squeeze them for everything they’re worth.” Some speakers wanted the buses to be banned and for companies to take the money spent on shuttles and funnel it into the city’s transportation budget — advice the committee approving the proposal didn’t find too compelling.

A similar difference in approach played out at the protest that morning. While some activists made careful arguments about the tornado of wealth, growth and housing shortages that has thrown the city into an affordability crisis, others held a giant sign with a much less nuanced message: “F*** off Google.”

This thread crystalizes two key threads that I’ve noticed in my visits to California for work and for pleasure (Dan and I have been there a couple of times to run the Presidio 10) and I often travel to the valley to visit various companies as part of my job. The first item is that San Francisco has been completely remade, from top to bottom, and there are almost no “bad” neighborhoods left in the entire city. I’ve walked through most of the city or taken the streetcars, or driven, and since the 2008 bust the entire city has been part of an enormous revitalization as wealthy tech workers and related professionals have bought up property in the city. There still are a bunch of drunks in the Tenderloin, aggressive panhandlers everywhere, and some projects and worse neighborhoods in the corners of the city, but by and large it has been completely upgraded.

The second thread is that the workers in Silicon Valley are so completely opposite of these “activists” that it is difficult to know how to begin the comparison. At all of the companies I’ve visited the professionals are engaged in their work and have a very “capitalistic” view of being the best and beating the competition. While California is a completely “blue” state on the map, these technology professionals couldn’t be more “red” on the issues of free markets, access to capital, and the nature of the world-wide competition that they face (I don’t know about social issues because we’d never discuss that sort of thing). These firms leverage overseas workers without a second thought, and ruthlessly prune inefficient parts of their organization to focus on their core differentiators.

While the world was focused elsewhere San Francisco transformed into a post-industrial city full of aggressive technology workers and professionals. Due to some remaining elements of rent control there are still some of the characteristic “activists” milling around but the relentless and unstoppable force of high property values will find solutions and will eventually demolish and buy out their remaining haunts until it is just the ruthless face of the post industrial economy that can afford to live in the city.

The “activists” will end up packing their belongings and heading over to Oakland or somewhere else where the rents are affordable and they can pick up their protests there. Unfortunately for them San Francisco’s compact size, beauty, and absence of large scale government subsidized housing will drive them completely out of the city. The college students will likely pick up some of the protests but since they don’t really vote or build a substantial power base up the wealthy firms will soon control local government and then policy and reality will align.

If you really want to look at long term opportunities I’d recommend property in Oakland. Oakland has a great location, it just needs to be terraformed via gentrification and rising property taxes until every activist and poor person is driven out, just like it is occurring today in San Francisco. Maybe this is a 20-30 year vision, but it will happen.

Cross posted at LITGM

24 thoughts on “San Francisco and a Sneaky Win for the Red”

  1. San Francisco really started changing to the thing it has been today in the latter 1960s. I can remember going there for a weekend with my family in the late 50s-early 60s and it was always a wonderful experience. Not to be missed was the old Abercrombie and Fitch (they had a leather-stuff Rhino there that had been on the sales floor for years and a rack full of big game rifles), Gumps, and Shreves.

    A visit to Chinatown was usually on the itinerary. The White House Dept store on Union Square. San Francisco was really a beautiful, almost magical place.

    I would say that starting around 1965 things started changing to what you describe today with the “activists”. You cannot walk downtown without being confronted by aggressive pan handlers. My mother, some years ago, had a rather ugly confrontation with an “animal rights” activist (she was wearing (gasp!) a fur coat.

    That, and a choke hold the labor unions have on the city – drove out the ships (across the bay to Oakland). I can remember going to a Sun Oil national convention at the Moscone Center and with all the restrictive rules the unions had, Sun said “Never again”.

    This will be a change for the better if it occurs.

  2. The labor unions may have a hold on the city but they are nowhere to be found in the ranks of the tech companies and the related firms that serve them.

    I don’t know if anyone can beat the government unions but at some point I’d expect these people to try. They also will end up going after the teachers’ unions because there is no reason for the schools in San Francisco to not be top notch given how much money is sloshing around in that city and how high the property values are except for bad policies and bad teaching.

    The other element is that San Francisco is a giant shopping mecca for the countries of the Pacific and the tourists who pour in to buy (for them) incredibly cheap consumer goods. I remember going to a giant mall near Macy’s downtown and probably 3/4 of the customers were Asian, whether US born or foreign born. This also is part of their face out to the world (and not inward like the Blue states love).

  3. The Oakland Hills are a very upscale community with many homes having views of the Bay. The area was devastated by a fire a few years ago but it is very expensive real estate. My son lives in Alameda, an island that is right next to Oakland, separated by a channel. It is gentrifying and there are many beautiful Victorian homes there.

    The social politics of the Silicone Valley types have often been attributed to wives’ obsession with abortion. Gay marriage is also a big issue, probably related to the history of the city and a larger share of knowledge workers with that persuasion than the average population. San Francisco has been a “gay city” since the 50s. I used to visit Finochio’s to see the female impersonator shows with my fraternity brothers in the 50s. Then, another stop on the tour was Carol Doda, another famous landmark, so to speak.

    A final landmark now gone was Bimbo’s with the naked mermaid behind the bar. I guess it is still there. I haven’t been there in 40 years.

  4. “Political contributions of the employees of SV companies skewed overwhelmingly to Obama:”

    These people are very smart. They see what happens to those who don’t agree with Obama. I’m not completely serious here. My son and his wife are firm lefties, He is a successful trial lawyer and she a psychology professor in the Bay Area. I get some sense of the opinions of the left from them and from another of my kids, also a lawyer.

    They are obsessed with social issues like global warming, abortion, evolution and fundamentalist religion, which they see as frightening. Another daughter, also a lefty but one I can talk to, was worried about a school district somewhere (probably Texas, source of all evil) that allowed the teaching of creation along with evolution. I asked her which she would consider more important, teaching kids to read and do arithmetic, or teaching evolution ? She agreed that reading was more important. I’m not sure the others would agree.

    The Republicans are not the people obsessed with social issues; it is the political left. Economics barely crosses their radar screen. Many of them are making good livings and are not that concerned about taxes because most of them are not trying to run businesses.

  5. “The social politics of the Silicone Valley types have often been attributed to wives’ obsession with abortion.” Ah, the simple joy of a creative typo. I suppose “Silicone Valley” must be somewhere in Hollywood.

  6. ” I suppose “Silicone Valley” must be somewhere in Hollywood.”

    This is going to sound very sexist but, the husbands are usually fully engulfed in running the project/ business/ venture capital firm. The wives often have free time and lots of money, a dangerous combination. For example, the wife of an electronics billionaire in Orange County, has donated the money for an alternate medicine institute at UCI to study such serious topics as “mindfulness” in treating disease.

    Another example, although the wife was also in business, is the Brin couple who are now splitting up.

    Their Brin Wojcicki Foundation supports human rights and anti-poverty programs, and the couple also has donated to research into Parkinson’s disease. Not as left wing as some.

    Bill Gates and his wife seem more sensible than most. Some of the looniest philanthropies are from very rich ex-wives. I guess I could call this the Wendy Davis award.

    Mrs. McCaw is a staunch defender of animal rights, arguing against whaling operations and a federally funded hunt to kill feral pigs on the Santa Barbara Channel Islands.

    Wendy is the ex-wive who spends part of her time fighting off people who want to use the beach in front of her estate.

    In twin lawsuits making their way through the California courts, Wendy P. McCaw charges that the California Coastal Commission and Santa Barbara County have illegally combined to create a 500-foot-long public easement on the beach in front of her 25-acre estate. She lives there with her “fiance” and two donkeys. I actually agree with her on the pigs which have been there for 400 years. Environmentalists fighting each other are OK with me.

  7. They are obsessed with social issues like global warming, abortion, evolution and fundamentalist religion, which they see as frightening.

    There is nothing more tedious than the secular pieties of modern Liberals. Could there be anything less useful or edifying? Mostly it’s just a display of social virtue for their peers.

    But Evolution must be the most pointless Liberal Badge of Inherent Virtue. I guess it’s true. I DON’T CARE. Is there anything today so important to so many having so little immediate impact on daily life, and of so little measurable value in predicting whether mayors, legislators, governors, presidents – are fit for office and might do a good job? Much less a corporate CEO or plumber. Or for that matter how good a friend somebody might be.

    I submit the same is true for pretty much all engineers; and all scientists who don’t research the subject. You be a brilliant geneticist without caring if Natural Selection is valid.

    I’m not saying it isn’t worthy of study and debate, or that the study won’t lead to good and wonderful things, just that on average the daily social utility of believing in Evolution is quite limited, not any more useful than thinking Einstein got it right about Relativity. Most people who tell you they accept Relativity can’t tell you how it works (I can’t!!). I bet 75% of people who casually tell you they believe in Evolution can’t accurately describe how “Natural Selection” is supposed to work, and the math’s not as hard.

    Also: I can’t believe that anybody who can remember the 1980s could possibly believe Christian Fundamentalism is a serious factor in National Politics today. Maybe the people who fear it are so thoroughly secularized they have no frame of reference and so even tepid Lutherans appear to be dangerous radicals.

  8. “on average the daily social utility of believing in Evolution is quite limited,”

    Agree completely. I would not write a letter of recommendation to medical school for a kid who didn’t believe in evolution although I know a few family doctors who don’t. Other than that, aside from intellectual interests in biology, it doesn’t matter. It especially doesn’t matter to little kids.

  9. Take note of the photo, one of pet peeves: The law mandates that passengers in the car following wear their seat belts, but the law permits those on the running board of the cable car to hang-out.

    One could ride the cable cars without paying a premium far, and I used to actually commute in the mid ’70’s on them from the “FiDi” (Financial District to non-hipsters) to Russian Hill, and my $200/month — “a view with a room” — apartment. Then, the cable cars became an amusement ride for the tourists, and the hipsters arrived . . . .

  10. T.K. Tortch
    But Evolution must be the most pointless Liberal Badge of Inherent Virtue.

    The Darwin-Wallace theory of Evolution has been around for over 150 years- even more when you consider that Darwin sat on his conclusions for ~20 years until Wallace’s findings pushed Darwin to make his views on Evolution public. I don’t see how some high school textbooks can topple the theory of Evolution. In any event,the future viability or non-viability of the theory of Evolution will be fought out by Ph.D. scientists, not by what someone with only a high school education has to say.

    Many Demos claim that polls which show that Pubs are less likely to believe in the theory of Evolution than Demos do show that Demos are superior thinkers etc. Yet how many of the Demos making these claims have studied Evolution at the university level? How well could these Demos making these claims about Demo superiority shown by Evolution beliefs then be able to explain genetic drift or punctuated equilibrium, for example? Not very many, I suspect.

    How many of those “Demos are more scientific” people be able to talk about the Second Law of Thermodynamics? Even fewer.

  11. [T]he daily social utility of believing in Evolution is quite limited, not any more useful than thinking Einstein got it right about Relativity.

    General Relativity is proven every time you turn on your GPS. The system only works because it compensates for the relativistic time effects due to the acceleration experienced by the satellites.

    Obviously your phone nav system works whether you “believe” in it or not, but the utility of the theory itself is undeniable.

    In contrast, natural selection is perhaps unique among models and theories in the hard sciences insofar as its perceived importance is so far out of step with its practical importance.

  12. This hang-up about evolution is one of the few things of which it is reasonably accurate to say “only in America”.

  13. I work in San Francisco a few weeks a year. Young (18 – 35) adults humping to cover the monthly nut in a very expensive city, virtually no kids around, the middle-aged people are either successful professionals or union city workers, plus lots of relatively rich retirees. The resulting politics are odd. You’d think that the young capitalists would be fiscal convervative/social liberal types, to counter the tax ‘n spend unionists. But they’re not; they’re lefties. Maybe they’re too busy making a living to worry about taxes. And with no kids they don’t have to worry about their children’s future.

  14. “You’d think that the young capitalists would be fiscal convervative/social liberal types, to counter the tax ‘n spend unionists. But they’re not; they’re lefties.”

    I’m struck by this as well. I expressed this above. I suspect doctors will shift in a similar way as they go from small business owners to salaried employees. I was starting to see this in medical students a few years ago but that seems to be very quiescent now. I think they are alarmed by Obamacare but have little choice but to hope for the best. It has killed off the enthusiasm for national health care.

  15. It’s interesting that educated American leftists tend to accept the existence of feedback-driven invisible-hand type processes in biological evolution but not in economics, politics and other nonbiological areas.

  16. For that cable car – agreed it is funny that in a city that tries to police everything (except bums and panhandlers which are apparently a treasure) they just let you hang right out. This is from a few years ago – I often try to throw a photo into the post and there is little that is more iconically “San Francisco” than that cable car photo. Recently when I tried to ride the cable car the lines were giant and could take hours so I gave up.

    About the younger people.. I think they live their lives in an economically libertarian way, but then they spout liberal platitudes in polite conversation or to pick up girls. It’s easier that way, rather than arguing with everyone.

    Ultimately the union workers are going to be completely priced out of town unless they become rapacious landlords, selling to the highest bidder. With taxes and costs there sky high the math doesn’t work otherwise.

    I think a lot of the younger people ARE going to want to stay in San Francisco and not move out to a distant suburb. I think that they realize that life car-pooling is miserable and some of the high end tech companies are now moving into the warehouse districts in San Francisco proper. I know because I’ve been there myself. Then they are going to try to figure out how to change these institutions.

    The remorseless process of high real estate costs will drive every bit of non wealthy life out of this town, except for near the university. Watch over time and you will see it. And the tech people there may tout liberal things out loud but if you try to take something that is theirs you will find that it isn’t so easy. You can’t rise up in a ruthless world of tech and be a squishy person – you need to do great work, work all the time, and demand and seize your share of the pie, even if that involves jumping jobs and the like.

    Things are changing and changing fast. I don’t think this will be visible in politics for many years, if ever, though. Politics doesn’t really matter if you wall yourself off from what the politicians care about, with private schools, private health care, and private security. Even private energy (what do you think the backup generators are?)

    Politicians and poor people are just a “tax” on productive people. They are irrelevant to the larger economy.

  17. It’s interesting that educated American leftists tend to accept the existence of feedback-driven invisible-hand type processes in biological evolution but not in economics, politics and other nonbiological areas.

    Because Liberals (and definitely Leftists) dislike acknowledging anything can invisibly cause anything to happen not in accordance with their expectations and policy preferences. Sometimes 2*2 can’t be allowed to be 4, but must be 5.12, say.

    They also accept something like that kind of feedback process when it comes to social engineering – or “nudging”, as Cass Sunstein likes to call it. Then get consternated when the nudges cause people to behave differently than they expected.

    This result is of course the people’s fault because there’s something wrong with those people. It most certainly cannot be the fault of the Sunsteins in failing to have the requisite omniscience to carry out such fine-tuned manipulations without unforeseen consequences.

  18. The most emphatic “Darwinians” don’t really understand the full meaning of the title “The THEORY of Evolution” and do protest too much.

  19. It’s much like Newton’s Theory Of Gravitation, Maxwell’s Field Theory, Einstein’s Theories Of Relativity, And Planck’s Quantum Theory.

  20. As Dearieme’s examples illustrate, focusing on the word Theory misses the point. A Theory that has been tested and consistently resisted any and all attempts to falsify it is, for all practical purposes, a fact.

    The problem with the theory of evolution via natural selection is that some — but by no means all — of the claims made for it are unfalsifiable, and are therefore not theories at all, but rather Doctrines.

    For example, supposed I were convinced that all major morphological changes to living organisms are the result of a majority vote of The High Council of Pixies, which creates new species by manipulating DNA with tiny tweezers. As long as I kept my beliefs to myself, I could have a perfectly fine career as a paleontologist or evolutionary biologist, since there is no functional difference between my beliefs and the doctrines of natural selection.

  21. I think he repeated and rigorous use of Newton’s work on gravity lead people to refer to it as a “Law” – it has reached a certain plateau in scientific thinking. Darwin’s theory on natural selection, however useful and intuitively factual, not so much. I’d suggest it’s an observation that explains, still a best guess.

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