|March 10, 2014|
|Jan Koum and Brian Acton, the founders of the messaging software WhatsApp, have ample reason to celebrate this week’s 25th anniversary of the Internet’s World Wide Web. The pair have just become billionaires.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, the youngest billionaire ever, gave Koum and Acton that distinction last month when he gobbled up WhatsApp for $19 billion. The three of them have lots of online company in the global billionaire club. Forbes now counts 120 other high-tech whizzes with billion-dollar fortunes.
The Internet has become, in effect, the fastest billionaire-minting machine in world history. Should we consider this incredible concentration of wealth an outcome preordained? Did the last 25 years of online history have to leave us so much more unequal? We ask that question in this week’s Too Much.
And what about the future? How might we change the online world to help create a more equal real world? We ask that question, too.
|GREED AT A GLANCE|
|New European Union rules adopted last year limit banker bonuses to no more than triple their base salary. Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian Green Party lawmaker, led the drive for that cap, and now he’s struggling to stop the British government from letting UK bankers sidestep the EU’s modest new pay restrictions. One such sidestep: Banking giant HSBC is now paying its CEO Stuart Gulliver an extra $53,500 every month as an “allowance.” Lamberts wants the EU to take the UK to court. Barclays CEO Antony Jenkins, for his part, is defending his bank’s bonus culture. Nearly 500 power suits at Barclays, half of them in the United States, are taking home at least $1.6 million a year. Paying them any less, says Jenkins, would force his bank into a “death spiral.” To do business in America, adds the CEO, we must “reconcile ourselves to pay high levels of compensation.”
Don’t talk to Miami maritime lawyer Jim Walker about greedy bankers. The real greedy, says Walker, are running cruise lines and incorporating their operations offshore to avoid U.S. taxes and wage laws. The greediest cruise character of them all? That might be Carnival Cruise chair Micky Arison. He’s now selling off 10 million of his Carnival shares, a sale that figures to bring in $395 million and still leave his family holding over $6 billion in Carnival stock. Arison’s share sale began as passengers left adrift last year on a faulty Carnival cruise ship were testifying on the lawsuit they’ve filed against the company. That incident subjected over 4,200 passengers and crew to five days of overflowing toilets and rotting food. Carnival is dismissing the suit as “an opportunistic attempt to benefit financially” from “alleged emotional distress.”
You won’t find any billionaires standing in line to get their family heirlooms appraised on the hit public TV series Antiques Roadshow. But the world’s ultra rich, luxury editor Tara Loader Wilkinson noted last week, are definitely “going gaga for antiques.” The average billionaire, calculates a new billionaire census from the Swiss bank UBS and researchers at the Singapore-based Wealth-X, holds $14 million worth of antiques and collectibles. Why are so many uber rich hungering for antiques? French antiques expert Mikael Kraemer notes that “anyone with enough money can buy a jet.” Not everyone, he adds, has “what sets one billionaire apart from another”: enough “culture and knowledge” to find and buy something like an 18th century antique royal chandelier.
Quote of the Week
“Do you recall a time in America when the income of a single school teacher or baker or salesman or mechanic was enough to buy a home, have two cars, and raise a family? I remember.”
|PETULANT PLUTOCRAT OF THE WEEK|
|Fracking can be a dirty business. Big Energy CEOs don’t mind. Can’t let those environmentalists endanger our energy security, they like to insist. Unless the environment at risk happens to be their own. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson has joined a lawsuit that’s trying to stop the construction of a 160-foot water — for fracking — tower near his manse north of Dallas. Tillerson isn’t talking about his lawsuit. But an Exxon flack says his boss doesn’t object to the tower “for its potential use for water and gas operations for fracking.” He’s just upset because the tower would be “much taller” than originally proposed. If the lawsuit fails, Tillerson might have to buy the tower site himself to prevent the fracking eyesore. He can afford it. His 2012 Exxon take-home: $40.3 million.||
|IMAGES OF INEQUALITY|
The promoters of the new “Wealth Badge” are either cynically exploiting a new luxury niche or acutely exposing the cultural depravity of our unequal times. Their new Web site offers the affluent a metal pin that reads “Because I can.” The cost: $5,000. Explains the Wealth Badge pitch: “The idea is simple: If you buy something just because you can, you are truly rich.” The site claims to have sold 61 badges — and features photos of privileged people showing them off. The pins have begun drawing media play. But no one has so far answered the basic question: Is the Wealth Badge crew trying to make money or a point?
|PROGRESS AND PROMISE|
|Few people have contributed as much to our online world as Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist who helped pioneer — and label — what we call “virtual reality.” Lanier has been wondering of late about his fellow contributors, those hundreds of millions of Internet users who donate — for free — the information that a tiny cohort of tycoons has been able to crunch into billion-dollar fortunes. In his latest book, Lanier envisions a “universal micropayment system” that pays people who go online for whatever information of value their online clicks may create, “no matter what kind of information is involved or whether a person intended to provide it or not.” Such a system, says Lanier, would help us “see a less elite distribution of economic benefits.”||
Youth groups eager to help young people understand inequality’s impact on how we relate to each other can download the Theatre and Education Resource Guide from the London-based Equality Trust, part of a package of interactive learning materials.
|inequality by the numbers|
Stat of the Week
The world’s “ultra high net worth” crowd — individuals worth at least $30 million — now number 167,669, says a new Knight Frank report. Their total wealth: $20.1 trillion in 2013, almost half as much as the combined net worth of the 4.2 billion global adults who hold less than $100,000 in wealth.
A Thought for the Web’s Silver Anniversary
Let’s learn from our not-so-distant past and share the gold. New technologies don’t have to bring us new inequalities.
Exactly 25 years ago this week the British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee conceptually “invented” the World Wide Web — and began a process that would rather rapidly make the online world an essential part of our daily lives.
By 1995, 14 percent of Americans were surfing the Web. The level today: 87 percent. And among young adults, the Pew Research Center notes in a just-published silver anniversary report, the Internet has reached “near saturation.” Some 97 percent of Americans 18 to 29 are now going online.
Americans young and old alike are using the Web to work wonders few people 25 years ago could have ever imagined. We’re talking face-to-face with people thousands of miles away. We’re finding soulmates who share our passions and problems. We’re organizing political movements to change the world.
Life with the Web has become, for hundreds of millions of us, substantially richer. Not literally richer, of course. The same 25 years that have seen the Web explode into our consciousness have seen most of us struggle to stay even economically. The Internet and inequality have grown together.
Tim Berners-Lee never saw this inequality coming. The ground-breaking research he published on March 12, 1989, the paper that proposed the system that became the Web, carried no price tag. Berners-Lee would go on to release the code for his system for free. He didn’t invent the Web to get rich.
But others certainly have become rich via the Web. Fabulously rich. Forbes magazine last week released its annual list of global billionaires. Some 123 of them, Forbes calculates, owe their fortunes to high-tech ventures. The top 15 of these high-tech billionaires hold a collective $382 billion in personal net worth.
Numbers like these don’t particularly bother — or alarm — many of today’s economists. Grand new technologies, their conventional wisdom holds, always bring forth grand new personal fortunes for the entrepreneurs who lead the way.
In the 19th century, points out this standard narrative of American economic progress, the coming of the railroads dotted our landscape with the fortunes of railroad tycoons. In the early 20th century, the new automobile age created huge piles of wealth for car makers like Henry Ford and the oilmen who supplied the juice that kept his auto engines humming along.
Why should the Internet age, mainstream economists wonder, be any different? A new technology comes along that alters the fabric of daily life. That new technology gives rise to a new rich. The one outcome naturally follows the other. No need to get bent out of shape by the resulting inequality.
But epochal new technology doesn’t always automatically generate grand new fortunes. The prime example from our relatively recent past: television.
TV burst onto the American scene even more rapidly — and thoroughly — than the Internet. In 1948, only 1 percent of American households owned a TV. Within seven years, televisions graced 75 percent of American homes.
These TV sets didn’t just drop down into those homes. They had to be designed, manufactured, packaged, distributed, marketed. Programming had to be produced. Imaginations had to be captured. All of this demanded an enormous outlay of entrepreneurial energy.
But this outlay would produce no jaw-dropping grand fortunes, no billionaires, even after adjusting for inflation. That would be no accident. The American people, by the 1950s, had put in place a set of economic rules that made the accumulation of grand new private fortunes almost impossible.
Taxes played a key role here. Income over $400,000 faced a 91 percent tax rate throughout the 1950s. Regulations played an important role as well. In television’s early heyday, for instance, government regs limited how many commercials could run on children’s TV programming. TV’s original corporate execs could only squeeze so much out of their new medium.
And television’s early kingpins couldn’t squeeze their workers all that much either. Most of their employees, from the workers who manufactured TV sets to the technicians who staffed broadcast studios, belonged to unions. TV’s early movers and shakers had to share the wealth their new medium was creating.
Today’s Internet movers and shakers, by contrast, have to share nothing. In an America where less than 7 percent of private-sector workers carry union cards, online corporate giants seldom ever need bargain with their employees.
In a deregulated U.S. economy, meanwhile, these Internet kingpins face precious few public-interest rules that keep them from charging whatever the market can bear — and rigging markets to squeeze out even more.
And taxes? Today’s Internet billionaires face tax rates that run well less than half the rates that early TV kingpins faced.
We can’t — and shouldn’t — fault Tim Berners-Lee for any of this. He freely shared, after all, his invention with the world.
“I wanted to build a creative space,” Berners-Lee observed in an interview a few years ago, “something like a sandpit where everyone could play together.”
Some people didn’t play nice.
Isaiah Poole, Paul Ryan Misses Top Reason We Haven’t ‘Won’ the War on Poverty, OurFuture.Org, March 4, 2014. That reason: policy decisions that concentrate wealth in the top 1 percent.
Joseph Olanyo, African growth fails to bridge inequality gap, Observer, March 4, 2014. Nations need tax systems that could redistribute wealth more fairly.
J.D. Alt, Forget The 1%, New Economic Perspectives, March 5, 2014. They serve no useful social function.
Wayne Besen, Will Economic Inequality Undermine LGBT Equality? Falls Church News-Press, March 5, 2014. Growing divides spawn powerful right-wing movements that scapegoat minorities.
Kathleen Geier, The IMF (Finally) Admits That Inequality Slows Growth, Nation, March 6, 2014. Good background on an important new IMF study.
Colin Gordon, Our Inequality: An Introduction, Dissent, March 6, 2014. Exploring U.S. inequality and antidotes to it.
Yves Smith, Tax Havens Make US and Europe Look Poorer than They Are, Naked Capitalism, March 6, 2014. Around 8 percent of global financial wealth is now sitting in tax havens.
James Kwak, Posturing from Weakness, Baseline Scenario, March 6, 2014. The tax hikes on the rich in the new Obama budget: only for show?
“Make room for The Rich Don’t Always Win on your book shelf right next to Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of America.”
|NEW AND notable|
A Statistical Guide to Our New ‘Plutonomy’
Sherle Schwenninger and Samuel Sherraden, The U.S. Economy After The Great Recession, New America Foundation, Washington, D.C., March 4, 2014.
Need to better understand how the Great Recession — and the political responses to it — have played out? This no-nonsense set of slides brings together, in one place, the key trends that have defined the the U.S. economy since the Great Recession hit in 2008. Just a few of the report’s many choice tidbits . . .
Good times at the top: From 2009 to 2012, America’s top 1 percent incomes grew by 31.4 percent. Bottom 99 percent incomes rose all of 0.4 percent.
Shrinking returns to labor: From 2007′s fourth quarter to 2013′s third, the labor compensation share of national income declined from 64 to 61% percent. If this labor share of national income had remained at the 2007 level, American workers would have earned $520 billion more in 2013 than they actually did.
Enter the “plutonomy”: The U.S. economy is revolving ever more around consumption by the rich. In 2012 the top 5 percent of American income earners accounted for 38 percent of domestic consumption, up from 28 percent in 1995.
- The Observer, Saturday 8 March 2014
1 The importance of “permissionless innovation”
The thing that is most extraordinary about the internet is the way it enables permissionless innovation. This stems from two epoch-making design decisions made by its creators in the early 1970s: that there would be no central ownership or control; and that the network would not be optimised for any particular application: all it would do is take in data-packets from an application at one end, and do its best to deliver those packets to their destination.
It was entirely agnostic about the contents of those packets. If you had an idea for an application that could be realised using data-packets (and were smart enough to write the necessary software) then the network would do it for you with no questions asked. This had the effect of dramatically lowering the bar for innovation, and it resulted in an explosion of creativity.
What the designers of the internet created, in effect, was a global machine for springing surprises. The web was the first really big surprise and it came from an individual – Tim Berners-Lee – who, with a small group of helpers, wrote the necessary software and designed the protocols needed to implement the idea. And then he launched it on the world by putting it on the Cern internet server in 1991, without having to ask anybody’s permission.
2 The web is not the internet
Although many people (including some who should know better) often confuse the two. Neither is Google the internet, nor Facebook the internet. Think of the net as analogous to the tracks and signalling of a railway system, and applications – such as the web, Skype, file-sharing and streaming media – as kinds of traffic which run on that infrastructure. The web is important, but it’s only one of the things that runs on the net.
3 The importance of having a network that is free and open
The internet was created by government and runs on open source software. Nobody “owns” it. Yet on this “free” foundation, colossal enterprises and fortunes have been built – a fact that the neoliberal fanatics who run internet companies often seem to forget. Berners-Lee could have been as rich as Croesus if he had viewed the web as a commercial opportunity. But he didn’t – he persuaded Cern that it should be given to the world as a free resource. So the web in its turn became, like the internet, a platform for permissionless innovation. That’s why a Harvard undergraduate was able to launch Facebook on the back of the web.
4 Many of the things that are built on the web are neither free nor open
Mark Zuckerberg was able to build Facebook because the web was free and open. But he hasn’t returned the compliment: his creation is not a platform from which young innovators can freely spring the next set of surprises. The same holds for most of the others who have built fortunes from exploiting the facilities offered by the web. The only real exception is Wikipedia.
5 Tim Berners-Lee is Gutenberg’s true heir
In 1455, with his revolution in printing, Johannes Gutenberg single-handedly launched a transformation in mankind’s communications environment – a transformation that has shaped human society ever since. Berners-Lee is the first individual since then to have done anything comparable.
6 The web is not a static thing
The web we use today is quite different from the one that appeared 25 years ago. In fact it has been evolving at a furious pace. You can think of this evolution in geological “eras”. Web 1.0 was the read-only, static web that existed until the late 1990s. Web 2.0 is the web of blogging, Web services, mapping, mashups and so on – the web that American commentator David Weinberger describes as “small pieces, loosely joined”. The outlines of web 3.0 are only just beginning to appear as web applications that can “understand” the content of web pages (the so-called “semantic web”), the web of data (applications that can read, analyse and mine the torrent of data that’s now routinely published on websites), and so on. And after that there will be web 4.0 and so on ad infinitum.
7 Power laws rule OK
In many areas of life, the law of averages applies – most things are statistically distributed in a pattern that looks like a bell. This pattern is called the “normal distribution”. Take human height. Most people are of average height and there are relatively small number of very tall and very short people. But very few – if any – online phenomena follow a normal distribution. Instead they follow what statisticians call a power law distribution, which is why a very small number of the billions of websites in the world attract the overwhelming bulk of the traffic while the long tail of other websites has very little.
8 The web is now dominated by corporations
Despite the fact that anybody can launch a website, the vast majority of the top 100 websites are run by corporations. The only real exception is Wikipedia.
9 Web dominance gives companies awesome (and unregulated) powers
Take Google, the dominant search engine. If a Google search doesn’t find your site, then in effect you don’t exist. And this will get worse as more of the world’s business moves online. Every so often, Google tweaks its search algorithms in order to thwart those who are trying to “game” them in what’s called search engine optimisation. Every time Google rolls out the new tweaks, however, entrepreneurs and organisations find that their online business or service suffers or disappears altogether. And there’s no real comeback for them.
10 The web has become a memory prosthesis for the world
Have you noticed how you no longer try to remember some things because you know that if you need to retrieve them you can do so just by Googling?
11 The web shows the power of networking
The web is based on the idea of “hypertext” – documents in which some terms are dynamically linked to other documents. But Berners-Lee didn’t invent hypertext – Ted Nelson did in 1963 and there were lots of hypertext systems in existence long before Berners-Lee started thinking about the web. But the existing systems all worked by interlinking documents on the same computer. The twist that Berners-Lee added was to use the internet to link documents that could be stored anywhere. And that was what made the difference.
12 The web has unleashed a wave of human creativity
Before the web, “ordinary” people could publish their ideas and creations only if they could persuade media gatekeepers (editors, publishers, broadcasters) to give them prominence. But the web has given people a global publishing platform for their writing (Blogger, WordPress, Typepad, Tumblr), photographs (Flickr, Picasa, Facebook), audio and video (YouTube, Vimeo); and people have leapt at the opportunity.
13 The web should have been a read-write medium from the beginning
Berners-Lee’s original desire was for a web that would enable people not only to publish, but also to modify, web pages, but in the end practical considerations led to the compromise of a read-only web. Anybody could publish, but only the authors or owners of web pages could modify them. This led to the evolution of the web in a particular direction and it was probably the factor that guaranteed that corporations would in the end become dominant.
14 The web would be much more useful if web pages were machine-understandable
Web pages are, by definition, machine-readable. But machines can’t understand what they “read” because they can’t do semantics. So they can’t easily determine whether the word “Casablanca” refers to a city or to a movie. Berners-Lee’s proposal for the “semantic web” – ie a way of restructuring web pages to make it easier for computers to distinguish between, say, Casablanca the city and Casablanca the movie – is one approach, but it would require a lot of work upfront and is unlikely to happen on a large scale. What may be more useful are increasingly powerful machine-learning techniques that will make computers better at understanding context.
15 The importance of killer apps
A killer application is one that makes the adoption of a technology a no-brainer. The spreadsheet was the killer app for the first Apple computer. Email was the first killer app for the Arpanet – the internet’s precursor. The web was the internet’s first killer app. Before the web – and especially before the first graphical browser, Mosaic, appeared in 1993 – almost nobody knew or cared about the internet (which had been running since 1983). But after the web appeared, suddenly people “got” it, and the rest is history.
16 WWW is linguistically unique
Well, perhaps not, but Douglas Adams claimed that it was the only set of initials that took longer to say than the thing it was supposed to represent.
17 The web is a startling illustration of the power of software
Software is pure “thought stuff”. You have an idea; you write some instructions in a special language (a computer program); and then you feed it to a machine that obeys your instructions to the letter. It’s a kind of secular magic. Berners-Lee had an idea; he wrote the code; he put it on the net, and the network did the rest. And in the process he changed the world.
18 The web needs a micro-payment system
In addition to being just a read-only system, the other initial drawback of the web was that it did not have a mechanism for rewarding people who published on it. That was because no efficient online payment system existed for securely processing very small transactions at large volumes. (Credit-card systems are too expensive and clumsy for small transactions.) But the absence of a micro-payment system led to the evolution of the web in a dysfunctional way: companies offered “free” services that had a hidden and undeclared cost, namely the exploitation of the personal data of users. This led to the grossly tilted playing field that we have today, in which online companies get users to do most of the work while only the companies reap the financial rewards.
19 We thought that the HTTPS protocol would make the web secure. We were wrong
HTTP is the protocol (agreed set of conventions) that normally regulates conversations between your web browser and a web server. But it’s insecure because anybody monitoring the interaction can read it. HTTPS (stands for HTTP Secure) was developed to encrypt in-transit interactions containing sensitive data (eg your credit card details). The Snowden revelations about US National Security Agency surveillance suggest that the agency may have deliberately weakened this and other key internet protocols.
20 The web has an impact on the environment. We just don’t know how big it is
The web is largely powered by huge server farms located all over the world that need large quantities of electricity for computers and cooling. (Not to mention the carbon footprint and natural resource costs of the construction of these installations.) Nobody really knows what the overall environmental impact of the web is, but it’s definitely non-trivial. A couple of years ago, Google claimed that its carbon footprint was on a par with that of Laos or the United Nations. The company now claims that each of its users is responsible for about eight grams of carbon dioxide emissions every day. Facebook claims that, despite its users’ more intensive engagement with the service, it has a significantly lower carbon footprint than Google.
21 The web that we see is just the tip of an iceberg
The web is huge – nobody knows how big it is, but what we do know is that the part of it that is reached and indexed by search engines is just the surface. Most of the web is buried deep down – in dynamically generated web pages, pages that are not linked to by other pages and sites that require logins – which are not reached by these engines. Most experts think that this deep (hidden) web is several orders of magnitude larger than the 2.3 billion pages that we can see.
22 Tim Berners-Lee’s boss was the first of many people who didn’t get it initially
Berners-Lee’s manager at Cern scribbled “vague but interesting” on the first proposal Berners-Lee submitted to him. Most people confronted with something that is totally new probably react the same way.
23 The web has been the fastest-growing communication medium of all time
One measure is how long a medium takes to reach the first 50 million users. It took broadcast radio 38 years and television 13 years. The web got there in four.
24 Web users are ruthless readers
The average page visit lasts less than a minute. The first 10 seconds are critical for users’ decision to stay or leave. The probability of their leaving is very high during these seconds. They’re still highly likely to leave during the next 20 seconds. It’s only after they have stayed on a page for about 30 seconds that the chances improve that they will finish it.
25 Is the web making us stupid?
Writers like Nick Carr are convinced that it is. He thinks that fewer people engage in contemplative activities because the web distracts them so much. “With the exception of alphabets and number systems,” he writes, “the net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.” But technology giveth and technology taketh away. For every techno-pessimist like Carr, there are thinkers like Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, Yochai Benkler, Don Tapscott and many others (including me) who think that the benefits far outweigh the costs.
John Naughton’s From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg is published by Quercus
Ex–Wall Street bros, hacker hostels, self-loathing techies: dispatches from a city, newly flushed with wealth, that doesn’t quite know what to do with itself.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment that San Francisco morphed into bizarro-world New York, when it went from being the city’s dorky, behoodied West Coast cousin to being, in many ways, more New York–ish than New York itself—its wealth more impressive, its infatuation with power and status more blinding. Maybe it was this past November, when New York elected a tax-the-rich progressive as mayor and, two days later, Twitter, a company that had been courted by San Francisco politicians with a Bloombergian combination of municipal tax breaks and mayoral flattery, went public at around a $25 billion valuation. Maybe it was when, after the crash, bonus-starved Wall Street bankers started quitting their jobs and heading to the Bay Area in droves to join the start-up gold rush. Or maybe it was when San Francisco became the new American capital of real-estate kvetching, thanks to supra-Manhattan rents and gentrification at a pace that would make Bushwick blush.
For me, the epiphany came in December, when I attended a party at a seven-story San Francisco townhouse. The house—used as an office and party pad by a young entrepreneur who had sold his start-up for millions a few years earlier—was the kind of bachelor pad Richie Rich might have set up for himself, had he been 23 and a Burning Man regular. The walls were covered in inspirational phrases (FOLLOW YOUR HEART, HOLISTIC MINDFULNESS & WELLNESS), and the party was centered on a split-level pool and hot tub that took up the entire middle section of the house. Five inflatable killer whales floated idly in the water. A bearded man was giving out back massages at water’s edge using a pair of repurposed automotive buffers, one in each hand. And loaner swimsuits—washed between wearings, we were assured—were provided for all.
As the hours ticked on and the booze kicked in, some shed their Louboutin heels and jumped in the pool; others marinated in the hot tub and told start-up war stories. It was the kind of bash you’d have found in Easthampton circa 2006, or West Egg circa 1922. And as if to cement San Francisco’s newfound place at the center of a certain social universe, the person greeting newcomers at the door was Julia Allison, the notorious glam blogger, whose smile had dotted the New York party scene just a few years earlier.
It’s no secret that New York is having a bit of an identity crisis these days. Wall Street lost its swagger during the crash and hasn’t gotten it back despite the market’s broader recovery. Big banks are adding employees in Bangalore and Salt Lake City while cutting them in Manhattan. New York City’s budget wonks expect the city to add only 67,000 jobs this year, a sluggish number that faster-growing cities like Denver and Austin will look upon with pity. The city’s culture seems to be changing, too: Greenpoint and “normcore” are in, stilettos and pinstripes are out; junior bankers now get Saturdays off; “work-life balance” is no longer a euphemism for sloth.
Meanwhile, certain pockets of San Francisco have become the sort of gilded playground that New York once was. Brand-new Teslas with vanity plates like DISRUPTD drift down the streets of the Mission District, where pawnshops and porn stores used to be. Paper millionaires spend their nights at the Battery, a members-only club with a tech-heavy roster and a $10,000-per-night penthouse suite. Upscale restaurants pop up at regular intervals, each with a more elite clientele and a more Portlandia-esque menu—everything from the $4 artisanal toast that sparked a citywide craze to the underground supper clubs serving kombucha pairings with sustainable-seafood dinners. Finding an affordable apartment in the city has become, as one tech worker lamented to me recently, “a Hunger Games scenario.”
In many ways, San Francisco is the nation’s new success theater. It’s the city where dreamers go to prove themselves—the place where just being able to afford a normal life serves as an indicator of pluck and ability. I had lunch the other day with a Harvard Business School student who belonged to a 90-person section, of whom 12 were start-up entrepreneurs. You can imagine the whole dozen packing their bags for the West Coast after collecting their M.B.A.’s, thinking: If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.
Which isn’t to say that San Francisco has pulled off this transition effortlessly. The city still has its lefty legacy, after all, and as the tech sector has grown into an economic powerhouse, so has resentment toward its elites. Protesters, angry about Silicon Valley’s effect on the local economy, are blockading tech-employee shuttles in the streets; in Oakland last year, a Google bus had its window shattered by a rock. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, long suspected of being in the tech industry’s pocket, is accused of not doing enough to help the working class cope with rising costs and widening inequality. Although most right-thinking one-percenters cringed when venture capitalist Tom Perkins compared the treatment of the rich in San Francisco to the treatment of Jews by Nazis on Kristallnacht, the hostility he felt is real. Silicon Valley is exploding, as Wall Street did in the 1980s, as Detroit did in the 1940s. And as in those booms, not everyone is going along for the ride.
Of course, San Francisco won’t truly become New York, and not just because New York’s economy is nearly twice as big as the country’s next biggest (that’s L.A.’s, not San Francisco’s, which ranks eighth). San Francisco is too earnest, too eager to be liked, to truly wallow in its wealth like Bloomberg’s New York. (If Martin Scorsese had made The Wolf of Silicon Valley, it would have been two hours of Leonardo DiCaprio apologizing for spilling the Dom Pérignon.) The utopian streak of the tech sector paints a thick veneer of do-gooderism over even the rawest capitalistic conquests, and coupled with a desire to appease the locals, it’s what keeps San Francisco’s ruling class from really letting go.
My New York friends tend to brush off what’s happening in San Francisco with one word: bubble. After all, people flocked to Silicon Valley in 1999, they say, only to be flung back to New York when the start-up scene burst. But what if this tech bubble doesn’t end in sock puppets and Schadenfreude? What if, as MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee recently wrote, we’re not just dealing with a temporary tech craze but the dawn of a “second machine age” that will fundamentally realign the entire global economy? And what if most of the technology that powers that revolution is made in California?
Whatever the Silicon Valley gold rush has done or will do, it’s already given us an entirely new species of yuppie mogul: the one who stockpiles bitcoin and speaks in hacker pidgin, the one who wears Uniqlo on a Gulfstream and obsesses over single-origin coffees. The kind, in other words, who plays the underdog even while sitting on top of the world.
Below you’ll find, first, a lengthy first-person prologue exploring the loss and grief many of us are experiencing — at accelerated paces — as our communities, cities, and loved ones are stolen from us, sometimes through the inevitability of change and death, yet too frequently these days from systemic “unnatural” disasters. Then you’ll find the heart of this piece: a love poem for a city trampled by the forces of what’s called gentrification, interspersed with photos. For news, analysis, and organizing related to evictions, in particular, in San Francisco, see http://evictionfreesf.org/.
For three weeks in August-September 2013, I returned to San Francisco for what was supposed to be an eight-week respite from caretaking my mom, whose rare form of cancer seemed to be relatively under control. My dad had died about three months earlier, on May 16, after nine months on “life” support, the ghastly outcome of a tiny mosquito bite that gave him a rare illness as well: severe West Nile, a by-product in large part of capitalist-generated climate catastrophe. The acceleration and proliferation of cancers and viruses is, in no small measure, another by-product of contemporary capitalism. We should then add in all the ways in which the medical-pharmaceutical complex, a phenomenally profitable growth industry today, manufactures all sorts of extra health woes once one is sick — so-called side effects. It also “extends life” by producing near-lifeless bodies to warehouse in prison-like institutions even as it pays low, precarious wages to “care worker” bodies to deal, quite literally, with shit.
I’d been caretaking both my parents since late August 2012, mostly in mid-Michigan, their longtime home, where second-generation downward mobility seems to have ground people into quiet acquiesce concerning their own social suffering. San Francisco was meant to be a break, with a stay in my beloved collective home at 16th and Mission streets. In March 2013 when I briefly visited San Francisco over the anarchist bookfair weekend, I’d felt such unexpected relief from the crushing weight of being responsible for my parents’ lives and deaths that I assumed spending more time in the Bay Area in late summer would offer the same sense of temporary lightness.
I hadn’t counted on state and capital to be quite so fierce, though.
On my first day back in August, I walked the length of Mission Street from 16th and 24th, and could hardly comprehend the transformations that had taken place since my last stroll just shy of six months earlier. I swung back on Valencia, then through SOMA and alongside Mission Creek into China Basin, past the AT&T stadium and along the bay-front walkways, over to the Ferry Building, and then along Market Street, winding my way back to 16th and Mission streets, all the while experiencing vertigo from the amount of changes. Giant metal cranes had settled into menacing perches all around the city, aiding and abetting so-called developers to rip the remaining heart from San Francisco. Shiny, anonymous, lavishly expensive new buildings — a mix of “work place live” structures — had mushroomed up everywhere, including around the blocks that house (for now) the scrappy 16th Street BART plaza.
My mind could not take in the ability of wealth and power to distort a city so quickly, so completely, in such a short period. This structural adjustment had been taking place in bits and pieces over time, for sure, but capitalist destruction/construction backed up by policy and police was now operating at a speed matching the source of its underwriter: the social media machinery. Within a short span this year, for instance, the financial hurricane called evictions — hard and soft, legal and illegal — was able to swiftly uproot most of San Francisco’s inhabitants, especially the “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breath free” who had long called this city their home, and just as swiftly replaced them with an Autonomatronics-like, ultra-hip-rich populace — trendy pop-up humans to match the trend toward pop-up stores.
The next day after my arrival and long walk, I went to a meeting of Eviction-Free Summer, composed of San Franciscans valiantly embracing a solidarity model to openly contest their displacement. While I’m partial to Don Quixote efforts to fight the windmills of commodification, it was obvious that using direct action tactics to try to mutually aid two or three households at a time from being evicted in the face of the mass de/repopulation of this city was plainly too little, too late. But how could resistance have been “earlier,” given the warp speed of what gets called gentrification these days? And what would the strategic targets have been — targets that would be immediately recognizable to and garner sympathy from large numbers of impacted people, and potentially then coalesce them into a social movement? Sitting down at the front of the Google bus? Throwing a wrench in, say, the new bike lanes and glitter-sprinkled sidewalks, or the decorative kale outside offices and indigenous-vegetation-filled green spaces, that civic and corporate elites systemically used, among other pretty tools, to rearrange the urban landscape as a clubhouse for themselves? Occupations of social media spaces such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram? Gluten-free, vegan, locally sourced, organic bread riots?
After one too many poignant stories at the Eviction-Free Summer meeting, from people I knew would soon be without their homes, without their city — people who needed their homes because of AIDS or permanently paralyzed bodies, for example — I cried my way back to the one place that’s ever really felt like home to me, with the nagging knowledge that it, too, will likely soon be only a memory. A couple days later, I went to Eviction-Free Summer’s hastily called demonstration, which felt more like a wake, at the corner of Mission and 17th streets after the eviction of one of San Francisco’s last autonomous collective spaces, and felt angry (even though I knew they weren’t to blame) at all those anarchists who gave up without a fight and moved, a bit too gladly, to Oakland, the newest cutting-edge/edgy city for antiauthoritarians (for my longer tale of this demonstration, written at the time, see http://cbmilstein.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/change-isnt-the-problem-capitalism-is/). The might of perhaps the greatest wealth consolidation in history is cornering us all into a series of bad, worse, and far worse “choices.” I waved my powerless fist in the air with others, listened to multiple tales from English-as-a-second-language voices of their impending evictions from the Mission, and then couldn’t take it anymore, walking away from this act of witnessing with, yet again, tears in my eyes.
My “break” quickly became the source of revealing my own brokenness, of adding further sorrow and loss to all the losses I was being battered by in mid-Michigan. Here, so clearly, was this new loss of a city I loved — a city that represented, for me and so many others, a place of radical experimentation, countercultures and subcultures, refuge, and queerness, but also a place that was home to misfits and immigrants, the poor and working class, the undocumented and outlaw, because it was affordable and “progressive.” It was able to be shaped by the social fabrics of strong Latino, black, Chinese, and Japanese communities, among others; it was able to be shaped by strong communities of anarchist and feminist spaces, to name two, and a long tradition of resistance and social movements to fight against all the ways in which poverty, displacement, and various forms of oppression also shaped this city. The land below San Francisco had certainly been stolen from peoples before — first inhabitants and first nations, followed by waves of those who weren’t wanted elsewhere, who were exploited as laborers, and/or were seen as undesirable and dangerous. Gentrification isn’t new; it’s gone by other names, like colonialism, and has erased other histories, harming, breaking, and killing a too-long list of other people. But it’s usually been a slower process, over years or decades, able to be battled (even if lost) and grieved (even if never replaceable).
Now, it seemed, capitalism had won out before people even knew what hit them, with far-too-much self-satisfaction on the now far-too-homogeneous face of this flattened, upscaled landscape — as if there had never been another San Francisco, and never will be. And San Francisco, in turn, now looked like too many other global cities, also abruptly expropriated and refashioned. If it weren’t for the hills in the distance, one could just as easily walk through parts of Manhattan, for instance, and be confused about which hyper-privatized metropolis one was viewing (for surely, most of us cannot partake in any substantive way in the fruits of these places, even their “public” amenities, so we become more voyeurs than participants or inhabitants, assuming we can afford to return after being pushed out).
Yes, what’s happening (or rather, has happened) to San Francisco isn’t so different from the sorrow of what’s happening to big cities on this continent, like Vancouver and Seattle, Montreal and Brooklyn, and even “livable” smaller cities like Madison, Wisconsin, not to mention metropoles around the globe. But there’s also a way in which we fail to see the particularities of how state and capital impacts different places and different people in different, often vastly disproportionate ways, and how we fail to spotlight the structural forces that determine and implement what comes to be known as gentrification. Those particularities are crucial to highlight, even if they seem like minor details against the gargantuan homogeneity that destroys them. They are holders of the differentiation in each of these and other places — their histories, struggles, memories, lives, accomplishments, pleasures and pains, festivals, foods, inventions and traditions, arts, and so on. They are markers of those things that make us recognize these cities and their inhabitants as distinct, unique, and loved — as ours, but also as others from whom this same land was stolen in the past. And thus, they hold the key to how to both make this centuries-long theft visible and fight its systemic logic now, in ways — I hope — that are honest to the dilemmas embedded in any solidarity and resistance aimed at developing communities of care instead.
Several years ago, a variety of organizers — indigenous, immigrant, anarchist, queer, feminist, people without homes, people with a variety of access needs, and others — came together under the banner “No Olympics on Stolen Native Lands” in the Unceded Coast Salish Territories (so-called Vancouver) to contest the historical and current thief of these specific lands — along with lives and cultures, bodies and minds — under the subterfuge of the winter Olympic games. Besides forging social bonds and trust, however fragile, among peoples divided by decades and centuries of loss, the week of demonstrations and direct actions was an effort to begin to understand what it might mean to move toward a future that recognized all the ways in which urban spaces have been stolen, from nationalist colonialism and industrial capitalism to settler colonialism and hipster capitalism. The convergence attempted to find a different route — dignified, ecological, holistic — and forge different social relations among people/groups often pitted against each other by the murderous hierarchies and exploitation foisted on them. It was also structured around the particular history/present of the Unceded Coast Salish Territories, and illuminated it via the targets and symbols chosen that week, precisely because the Olympics was again stealing lands and spaces from indigenous peoples in particular, all the while engaging in cultural appropriation/co-optation of various indigenous bands to try to hide the economic appropriation that was handing the city over to the rich — and nonindigenous — through the building frenzy to showcase the Olympics.
Many tales could be told here for each of the cities and spaces being lost at this historical moment, but let me share just one more. It comes from Brooklyn, the new “New York” (or is it the new “Oakland,” or is Oakland the new “Brooklyn”?), and Bed-Stuy in particular. A sixty-year-oldish black woman passed along this story during a panel on dreams/schemes to take land and housing in New York out of market relations, returning them to use value. The panel took place in a new anarchist(ic) social center in Bushwick, on lands stolen long ago from the Lenape peoples, across from the borough called Manhattan that, when first stolen by the Dutch from the Lenape, included upward of one-quarter African slaves among its initial “New World” population. Those slaves, once some of their stolen bodies were permitted some “freedom,” were given land for farming and burial, but that too was eventually stolen, as described so movingly in the recently created museum at the recently “discovered” African burial grounds — “lost to history due to landfill and development,” as the official Web site notes — near Wall Street. But back to my retelling, likely poorly, of this Bed-Stuy woman’s story.
When she was a young girl, she used to walk through beautiful Bed-Stuy with her grandmother. They knew everyone, and everyone knew them, and the neighborhood was safe and clean. And mostly black. One day during their stroll, she tried to toss some garbage into one of the city-supplied trash containers on every corner, and realized they were suddenly all gone. The city has taken them all away, overnight. Neighbors soon organized to place their own garbage cans on each corner and then collect the trash weekly to mix in with their own trash at home for municipal pickup there. Soon, the city stopped emptying out the neighborly corner garbage bins. So neighbors organized again, this time to collect anyone’s trash right front of their own houses and again mix it in with their weekly city garbage pickup. The city then stopped collecting garbage from the neighborhood altogether, turning the neighborhood, for all intents and purposes, into a dumping ground. The message, of course, was: we see you as garbage. That incident, to paraphrase this woman’s tale, is how institutionalized racism mixes with structural transformation to first destroy communities — treating black people and their neighborhoods as dirty and worthless — and then later (as in now) sets about cleaning it up (public trash cans reappear and are emptied regularly, sidewalks and roads suddenly get fixed, bike paths and new street lighting are added, etc.), expropriating it, and reselling it to the highest bidder.
Most people, increasingly the majority of people, lose out in this process. Knowing the context and histories of these losses, though, not only honors them and perhaps permits us to learn from them but also might offer us better road maps to sharing, using, and enjoying land and housing, communities and cities, in ways that don’t replicate the same colonialist and capitalist logics that are “socialized” into our minds and bodies from birth.
Ah, but I stray from my own route, so let’s return to the streets of San Francisco.
To soothe the pain of this devastation, political and personal, I decided to play a perverse game with myself during my short and alas foreshortened August-September 2013 visit (I had to rush back to Michigan unexpectedly for what became the last three weeks of my mom’s life; she died well and in her room, thanks to the care and dignity of hospice, on October 3). One has to walk toward and through grief; it doesn’t merely go away on its own accord. So I continued to wander far and wide at random through San Francisco, but tried to pinpoint some of the specificity of the changes wrought (and for that matter, bought) by capitalism. Whenever I chanced on something that seemed to capture the high-tech-funded landgrab of San Francisco, I boiled it down to the 140 words or less of a tweet.
I rarely make use of Twitter, but in my sluggish depression, those 140 words or less were about all I could muster, and at first it felt like the equivalent of an angry outburst — nearly pointless and likely unconvincing, but damned cathartic. I started off by numbering the tweets, with the notion of creating a top-ten list, then top-twenty or two-dozen list, then. . . . And then it struck me: Twitter the form was perfect as a means to mourn the loss of this city to Twitter the corporation and its now-billionaire compatriots, the new ruling class that’s shaping and benefiting from the compulsion of contemporary capitalism. Twitter encapsulates the specific neo-enclosure taking place in San Francisco: at once seemingly opening up space for all and yet thoroughly closing off possibilities for most of humanity — materially, politically, ecologically, and even linguistically.
What better poetic form to use, ironically of course (because irony, too, became almost a structural component in this new stage of displacement), for attempting to grasp all that I hate about San Francisco’s gentrification, and make my little game ever more perverse? If I was going to bury my dead, killed off by this system, why not use the master’s tools as one last painful stab into my own already-bludgeoned heart?
Tweets, after all, are the new poetry for our age — an age in which the superpowerful global few are reducing the whole of the world and thus selling off the future, to the point where everyone and everything is threatened with mass destruction. They appear to do the poetic work of offering up emotional responses to the range of experiences, from joy and love to tragedy and suffering, that make us human. Yet by ultimately reducing our communication and dialogue to near-meaninglessness in that always-constrained 140 words or less, tweets reduce us and our humanity too. The tradition of rebellious poetry — on paper and the streets — that tagged San Francisco as a place of experimentation with communal and qualitative social relations is now being buffed over by “revolutionary” app developers and “creative” capitalists drunk on kimbucha and their own power to “change the world,” with near-meaninglessness attached to their aspiration.
By imposing the 140×140 cage of this form on myself, at best I was attempting to see if I could be precise about this thing called gentrification and what we’re up against; at worst, I was acknowledging and maybe exposing the damage done to us all, myself included, simply due to the mere fact of “living” in this social-media-mediated society. What words do we have left for all that’s been take away from us, ranging from our ability to remember how to speak with each other in meaning-filled words all the way down the line to our very future? Or is there a way to make each and every word count, and for us to really reflect on, listen to, hear, comprehend, dialogue about, and then collectively contest the twenty-first-century’s terrain of pleasure for a miniscule elite and pain for everyone else, and strive instead for ubiquitous, egalitarian social goodness?
So my new goal was to “pen” a Tweeter poem, with broad brushstrokes of irony:
* 140 lines of 140 words or less
* the lines were actually posts, with each one typed on my smartphone with one finger during my various dérives through San Francisco
* none of the lines were created in any coherent order, or with any coherent order in mind; they are chronological, following the order in which I stumbled across something that seemed tweet worthy — or tweet possible
* all of the lines were the result of letting myself be drawn, willingly or not, into the shiny-nouveau-riche landscape of San Francisco or city news of the day, fleetingly here now and gone tomorrow from our memory banks and Tweeter feeds
* once written, each line was instantaneously whisked into the public cybersphere as a post to instantaneously appear on my Twitter and Facebook pages, all the while knowing that Instagram is where it’s now “at” (or was, when I was creating my 140×140 poem), but I’m not good — yet — at thinking in squares
* I did, however, use my smartphone’s camera, and so have sprinkled various photos throughout my 140×140 poem below, partially to add to the fractured, disorienting, ADD quality of navigating the world today, electronic and “real,” thereby making it almost impossible for us to find solid ground from which to act
Grieving what’s lost is part and parcel of the practice of loving. If death and dying, grief, and grieving, have been taken from us, hidden from view as commodity forms, it is not only because they are now immensely profitable. It is also because they are the stuff of life, illuminating the meaning within life for its own sake, lives and communities worth living in, including and especially the meaning of forms of love that haven’t been privatized, commodified, and enclosed. Love and loving as commons. And that entails the bold, rebellious practice of stealing back and making visible not only life and love but also, concurrently and as part of our everyday lives, death and grief.
So here is the gift of my love poem — straight from a heart that isn’t sure it can weather much more loss, but knows it likely will have to — for all that’s been lost in San Francisco, “thanks” to forces that I hate.
Note: Like any good anarchist, I broke the rules when those rules didn’t make sense. In this case, while I tweeted 140 characters or less for each of these 140 reasons why I hate San Francisco’s gentrification, that meant leaving the period off the end of about a half-dozen reflections. In the interest of consistency and good grammar, I’ve added periods to all the sentences in my poem, thereby making some of them 141 characters. So I figured I could also squeeze in a rule-breaking reason #141 — parenthetically, though, for those who want to ignore it in favor of the “purity” of the 140×140 poetic form.
Things I Hate about San Francisco’s Gentrification: A Love Poem
1. You can now get poutine in the Mission, or, nothing becomes special to or about specific places.
2. So much new housing, from eco-sleek-hip-pricey condos to cart-cardboard “tiny homes” on streets.
3. Rehab of 24th St BART plaza, another infrastructure link in displacing, is dubbed “improvement.”
4. A guy starts a friendly chat w/me in a cafe, only to ask my view of his new hi-tech product design.
5. I don’t run into tons of people I know, because no one can afford to live here anymore.
6. A lot more folks are talking to themselves, electronically (if rich) & into the air (if poor).
7. Cranes of the animal kind appear to have been replaced by cranes of the metal kind.
8. Small-batch is beautiful — and expensive.
9. Startups are the new upstarts.
10. The narcissism of the e-nouveau riche prefers huge glass windows, not mirrors.
11. The palette for street art is one’s entrepreneurial body.
12. Plaques commemorating working-class history make great additions to new upscale constructions.
13. People begin despising buses because of Google (et al.) instead of Google (et al.).
14. The nostalgia it generates for the “kinder, gentler” gentrification of the dot-com days.
15. For many, collective living becomes a painful necessity not a political or pleasurable choice.
16. There seems to be a direct relation between the rise of “artisanal” food and a neo-feudalism.
17. The public parks are increasingly enclosed by playgrounds built for the rich kids.
18. Eviction as first-world structural adjustment program & lucrative business model.
19. Mutual aid is about savvy evictors freely sharing their newfound expertise with each other.
20. It’s the avant-garde of gentrification-to-come elsewhere.
21. Someone hugged & kissed a friend good-bye on the street, then said, “Make lots of money today.”
22. Cardboard is more often the stuff of homelessness (for signs or shelter) than protests.
23. Direct action doesn’t seem to get the goods (“We are losing”).
24. $8.95 burritos are replacing $5 ones; creme brûlée trucks are replacing taco trucks.
25. Unemployment is down ’cause the unemployed have to leave town to find work or cheap(er) homes.
26. It’s both hyperbole and lived reality that Steve Jobs started a revolution.
27. The industry around supplying dogs with all the creature comforts, including gyms.
28. Beneath the paving stones installed with glitter & Mexican art motifs, lost & stolen cultures.
29. A Bay Area health clinic defines “low income” as someone making $88,000 or less.
30. Twitter’s new headquarters seems less an office & more an anchor to flip another neighborhood.
31. Yoga at the airport.
32. Bikes’ use value is transformed into bikes as accessories for a lean, green, costly lifestyle.
33. Social media as city planner & developer, arbiter of cool, news, social reality, insta-life.
34. The number of square blocks of “they’ll never be able to clean up that area” gets less & less.
35. The self is both the means & product of production.
36. The enormous slogans on sleek high-rise housing construction projects, like “Life above All.”
37. Longtime huge, grungy, $ thrift shops kicked out for ever-changing tiny, cutesy, $$$$ vintage.
38. The re-marketization of Market Street.
39. The dizzying, disorienting, ever-accelerating speed of it.
40. Creation of sweatshops for high-tech workers from low-wage countries for nearly no wages here.
41. “Soft evictions,” ejecting the vulnerable under the radar of statistics so they don’t count.
42. “Public” parklets (but don’t sit or lie unless you buy).
43. One could nearly eat off the floors of the fancy auto repair shops filled with minis.
44. The back alleys are the new front doorsteps for the wealthy.
45. It isn’t chic to wear radical T-shirts, even if only for the ironic effect.
46. The city is so ecological one could almost forget about Fukushima’s radiation & climate change.
47. The boss must have gluten-free bread, but also single-origin espresso with hint of roses.
48. The de-Mexicification, as a friend put it, of architecture & public space.
49. The Eastern-tinged wellness infrastructure for selfie-actualization.
50. Poor & working-class people’s grub, like grits, is grist for boutiquey new & newer restaurants.
51. The yawning gap between min-wage service workers & those hot commodities called baristas.
52. The museum-like quality of bohemia & the counterculture.
53. Accessible City College ed under attack; wide-open embrace for exclusive app conferences.
54. Vacant storefronts whose windows were used for edgy art are now storefronts.
55. White guys carrying around skateboards that look like they’ve never been used.
56. It’s a punishable crime under municipal law not to recycle & compost.
57. Shit suddenly gets fixed up, like roads, bridges & sidewalks.
58. The steepest hill is barely a dramatic enough metaphor for the gap between the rich & poor.
59. Anything proudly declaring itself “local” looks suspiciously like it dropped from Mars.
60. What the abundance of scaffolding & plywood w/Post No Bills & bldg permit signs on them bodes.
61. That there is now a “tech class,” and it has lots & lots of power.
62. Gay-friendly heteronormativity replacing queer mecca.
63. City ban on plastic checkout bags ushers in fee for “bio” checkout bags “with a conscience.”
64. Diversity-friendly white supremacy replacing people of color, especially black people.
66. People are desirous of seeing the world through Google glasses.
67. Don’t like going to the office? Lease a creative space!
68. Some rich parents are now so extra rich they can afford the time to stroll their own babies.
69. Tinier & tinier & higher-tech surveillance cameras in more & more places, including on bodies.
70. Critical Mass looks like a showroom for the latest, greatest, costliest in bikes & components.
71. The “Live! Work! Play!” (& be happy!) revamp of what’s meant by a company town.
72. The use of the word “flexible” as means to mask the reality of “precarity.”
73. The fetishization with trying to stay forever young, as via, say, fountains of kimbucha.
74. That new words are created to describe the new people created by the new city, like “glasshole.”
75. The beauty (& price list) makeover for barber shops.
76. The only “trickle down” is the further displacement that gets increasingly shifted to Oakland.
77. That SF is likened to NYC & Oakland to Brooklyn, mostly because all are becoming unaffordable.
78. Lusty Lady, the world’s only unionized worker-owned peep show co-op, gets screwed by eviction.
79. Adding value by making visible & aestheticizing sites of production.
80. Wealthy corps ask caterers to dress in their own clothes while serving so as to feign equality.
81. The beauty of unadorned expanses of wood is adornment for expensive urban interior design.
82. Whiskey not PBR, or says an SF distiller, “[Certain] people are drinking less, but better.”
83. The “foreign” language I randomly overhear most often on the streets is British English.
84. The class divide between stores that still use cash registers & those that use tablets instead.
85. Using an entire city to beta test the privatization of abundant excess for a few.
86. Tech workers who bemoan loss of quinoa as subsistence crop in Bolivia & ignore hunger here.
87. Property developers/owners as part vanguard, part schoolyard bully.
88. Murals look more sanctioned & sanitized.
89. Transformation of cafes from social centers & political hotbeds to centers of cyber industry.
90. Farm markets with nary a farmworker in eyesight.
91. Shift from festival waterfronts, problematic as they were, to fitness waterfronts.
92. It pays to be progressive.
93. The masses only seem to rise up over professional sports team victories.
94. The conspicuous consumption of minimalism.
95. That it instills a perverse eagerness to visit the social media giants’ campuses/headquarters.
96. Life imitates memes.
97. The history that is now shaping this place sounds too conspiracy-theory-like to be believed.
98. The big social media companies’ private inter-social-media sites house today’s old boys’ club.
99. Updates are instantly outdated, fulfilling Levi’s current ads, “The future is leaving.”
100. Full-on, sanctimonious implementation of LSD-induced, hippie dream of cybernetics utopia.
101. Primitive accumulation by turning ex-offices bldgs into “physical social space” offices.
102. Glimpses of institutional mechanisms to make Chinatown too costly for Chinese to live there.
103. The blurred (erased?) line between tools & toys.
104. The glow on the street at nite of thousands of tiny, twinkling electronics like e-cigarettes.
105. As the “dual power” of private transit works its magic, BART becomes a scraggly underdog.
106. Tourists seem even more well-heeled & annoying than in the recent past.
107. Smugness among too many East Bay anticapitalists about not coming over to SF much anymore.
108. City & capital seem to triumphantly believe they need fewer (visible) cops & security guards.
109. Less evidence of generalized antagonism toward police, not to mention state & capital.
110. “Support ‘heart’ local business” signs gracing the latest interloper niche-shops on the block.
111. Use of “romantic” things of the past, like typewriters & books, as product display material.
112. The neocapitalists are lean, serene, and smile a bit too much.
113. Capitalism here has brought most of Starhawk’s vision from “The Fifth Sacred Thing” to life.
114. Absurdly profitable pastiche of high & low eco-tech (& blind eye to its unsustainability).
115. Experiment in forging a whole city into a golden-gated community sans gates.
116. Publicly funded posters at bus stops turning social movement history into kaleiodoscopic mush.
117. That one can still see the contours of a refreshed capitalism from the heights of Twin Peaks.
118. Openness as the newest enclosure.
119. Organized religion, perhaps predictably, collaborates on evictions.
120. Folks are busily seeking tech to capture ever-smarter data, the better to social control us.
121. Calm spots to sit by the bay waters are disturbed by monetized spectacles like America’s Cup.
122. Expensively yet understatedly attired, multitasking joggers appear to have won the rat race.
123. The painted-lady Victorian homes are a gaudy theme park for an era of clearer exploitation.
124. Distinct neighborhoods increasingly look indistinguishable.
125. Already-anachronistic anarchist bookstore can’t find enough volunteers to even be open much.
126. The private accumulation generated from ensuring a lack of privacy or trying to protect it.
127. Junky “Made in China” dollar stores are reanimated as crisp-clean-cool Japanese $1.50.
128. Veneer of reharmonizing urban/rural via, say, inedible edible landscaping & barnboard facades.
129. The ultra-concentration of power & privilege facilitated by “democratic” technologies.
130. Systematic erasure of history, so that there’s only the now, which is also already the future.
131. One sees few peace signs, even fewer circle-As & where oh where have all the unicorns gone?
132. Social prestige (& price tag) of trendy tiny stuff, from cars to itty-bitty grapes.
133. The big footprint of hardware/software innovations allowing for a lightweight lifestyle.
134. Much of the populace looks like lookalike “beautiful,” “perfect-looking” 3-D versions of ads.
135. Hubris of social contract & social engineering (under)written & directed by high technologies.
136. Intentionally not-well-kept-secret secret spaces for with-it elites to meet, greet & consume.
137. In contrast to the film “Freaks,” the monstrous, greedy “normal” people deform the deviates.
138. Ex-mom-&-pop shop signage is repurposed, w/no regard for meaning, to mark new “no logo” biz.
139. The bay is packed w/luxury boats, the loot of a piracy where the few rich rob the many poor.
140. The comforts of this remade city are, like the LED art install on the Bay Bridge, mesmerizing.
* * *
Dedicated with unending love to Station 40 and my parents.
* * *
If you’ve run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com. Share, enjoy, and repost — as long as it’s free as in “free beer” and “freedom.”
(Photos by Cindy Milstein, San Francisco, August-September 2013)
- Zoë Corbyn
- The Observer, Saturday 22 February 2014
Poet and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti came to San Francisco in 1951 because he heard it was a great place to be a bohemian. He settled in the Italian working-class neighbourhood of North Beach with its cheap rents and European ambience. And before long he put the city on the world’s counter-cultural map by publishing the work of Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. But despite his status as world and local literary legend, the 94-year-old co-owner of the renowned City Lights bookshop and publishing house doesn’t feel so at home in the City by the Bay anymore.
He complains of a “soulless group of people”, a “new breed” of men and women too busy with iPhones to “be here” in the moment, and shiny new Mercedes-Benzs on his street. The major art galley in central San Francisco that has shown Ferlinghetti’s work for two decades is closing because it can’t afford the new rent. It, along with several other galleries, will make way for a cloud computing startup called MuleSoft said to have offered to triple the rent. “It is totally shocking to see Silicon Valley take over the city,” says Ferlinghetti, who still rents in North Beach. “San Francisco is radically changing and we don’t know where it is going to end up.”
Until recently, San Francisco, California – a small city of around 825,000 poised on the tip of a peninsular on America’s western edge that sprang up during the 1840s gold rush – wasn’t thought of as a centre for business. Rather, it was famed as an artistic, bohemian place with a history of flowering counter-cultures that spilled over and changed America and the world, from the beats in North Beach to the hippies in the hilly region of Haight- Ashbury to the gay rights movement in the Castro neighbourhood. Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner called it “49 square miles surrounded by reality”.
But times have changed in Ferlinghetti’s city. San Francisco has become the hype- and capital-fuelled epicentre of America’s technology industry, which has traditionally centred on the string of suburban cities known as Silicon Valley 40 miles to the south. In 2011, Mayor Ed Lee introduced tax breaks for Twitter and several other tech companies to encourage them to settle in and revitalise the downtown San Francisco neighbourhood South of Market, or Soma, and help the city climb out of the recession. Soma has become home to some of the most important companies in the new economy, such as Twitter and Dropbox, and many small startups hoping to challenge them. AngelList, a networking site for investors, now lists 5,249 tech startups in San Francisco, each worth $4.6m (£2.8m) on average and offering an average salary of $105,000 (£64,000).
In one sense, San Francisco is thriving. The unemployment rate is just 4.8%, compared to 8.3% for California as a whole. In 2013 job growth in San Francisco County led all others in the nation. But the influx of so many young, rich tech workers has caused significant tensions. Starting in mid-2011, rents and house prices began to soar. Eviction rates soon followed as property speculators sought to cash in by flipping rent-controlled apartment buildings into flats to sell. Evicted residents have found themselves unable to afford to live in their city anymore and many businesses and non-profits have been squeezed. “There is only a handful of cities in the world that have such an extreme problem of gentrification,” says Richard Walker, an urban geographer at the University of California, Berkeley.
The facts are stark. The median household income of the San Francisco Bay Area is now higher than anywhere else in America, and San Francisco has twice as many billionaires per capita as London (financial analysts PrivCo estimated that Twitter’s stock market launch in November 2013 created more than 1,600 new millionaires in a single day, mostly employees). The median monthly rent is already the highest in the country and is still increasing at a rate three times the national average. Based on official figures from the San Francisco Rent Board, the San Francisco Tenants Union estimates that no-fault evictions displaced nearly 1,400 renters in 2013. About a third of those evictions were under California’s Ellis Act, which allows landlords to evict tenants and sell their apartments. A City study from October 2013 says Ellis Act evictions increased by 170% from 2010 to 2013. There are also untold numbers who have left the area after accepting buyouts.
It isn’t as if San Francisco hasn’t seen a tech boom before. Silicon Valley’s dotcom boom of 1998 to 2001 also led to significant displacement in San Francisco. But this latest one is focused on the city and visibly changing it faster. Many long-time San Francisco residents worry not only about being forced out of the city they love, but also that their city is being changed for the worse. Critics say that San Francisco’s communities of alternative culture, ethnic or otherwise – the soil of its creative mojo and legendary social movements – are being turned into playgrounds for rich people. If San Francisco’s soul is its social and economic diversity and status as a refuge for those outside the mainstream, then it is being lost.
Artist Zeph Fishlyn, aged 47, came to San Francisco in 1988 and settled in the working-class Hispanic Mission District, drawn by the large lesbian community there. In late 2012 she and 16 other artists who were part of the Million Fishes Art Collective were kicked out of the studio space they had lived and worked in for almost a decade. Rents have soared in the Mission, which is conveniently located for the freeways to Silicon Valley and has become a fashionable place to live. A new landlord had bought the building and, citing non-compliance with zoning laws, kicked them out.
Unable to afford to stay in San Francisco, Fishlyn moved east across the bay to Oakland, where the burgeoning art and activism scene is buoyed by a steady flow of economic refugees. “Anybody spending their time doing something that doesn’t come with a big pay cheque is having to move,” says Fishlyn, “and that includes the creative sector and any kind of social justice work.” So many creative types have relocated to Oakland that Oakland’s mayor, Jean Quan, recently likened the city to Brooklyn (San Francisco was Manhattan); San Francisco-based street artist Eclair Bandersnatch, whose stencil portrait of Edward Snowden recently featured in the Guardian, says so many of her friends have moved away that she feels like an anomaly. The irony, she notes, is that “with money you get people who are more into the arts”.
The Mission and Ferlinghetti’s North Beach are “ground zero” for gentrification, says Ted Gullickson, director of the San Francisco Tenants Union. Others have already been subsumed including, he says, the Castro district, the world famous “gayborhood” synonymous with progressive hero Harvey Milk. The area was hit badly by evictions in the first dotcom boom, he says, and has been finished off by the latest tech surge. “It is more homeowner and much straighter, much whiter and much more conservative.” In late 2012, the elected representative of the Castro introduced a measure to ban public nudity outside of festivals in San Francisco – despite, or perhaps because of, male nudity being commonplace in the Castro for decades.
There are others who see what is happening in San Francisco in a different light. Fred Turner, an American cultural history professor at Stanford University, argues that gentrification driven by white, middle-class newcomers to the city is nothing new, and has even underpinned its famous counter-culture movements. The arrival of the bohemians in North Beach began the displacement of the working-class Italians; the arrival of the hippies in Haight-Ashbury displaced some of the long-standing working-class residents; and the Castro had a large working-class Irish population before it became a gay mecca. The latest incarnation – digital workers displacing working-class Latinos and artists from the Mission District who themselves were already gentrifying it – is not radically different. “Nearly everything that is said about them – the taking of public resources, the pushing out of poor folks and different ethnic minorities – was said about the hippies of the 1960s and not without good reason,” says Turner.
In his book From Counterculture to Cyberculture, he even argues that today’s tech culture is a direct descendant of the hippy movement. The techies are far richer and aren’t a counter-culture, but like some hippies they have the same sense of social mission to transform the world for the better with technology. Likewise the way that tech culture mixes work and play and emphasises personal growth has echoes of hippy life. “The same logic that was driving the counter-culture – and that continues to drive much of San Francisco today – is the very logic that drives Google,” says Turner. “In a limited sense, the 1960s are turning around to bite San Francisco.”
Stewart Brand, who personified the link between San Francisco’s 60s flower power and the emerging technological hub of Silicon Valley, lives on a houseboat in Sausalito, just across the Golden Gate Bridge. He is watching with pleasure as the tech boom enfolds San Francisco. Now 75, Brand came to the Bay Area in 1956 and became famous for publishing the counter-cultural bible the Whole Earth Catalog which recommended the tools, technology and attitudes hippies would need to advance themselves and society as a whole.
As Brand sees it, history is being made again in the city. There is the suburban version of Bay Area cyber-business and there is a new urban version being created in San Francisco. “Market Street has been this sleepy dead street for a long time,” says Brand, referring to the thoroughfare that bounds Soma. “Well, it is lively and exciting again now, thanks to the tech guys… A creative form is a creative form.” Brand is convinced that the injection of so many young people with technical skills, money to play with and no family ties will spawn new ideas in San Francisco, a well-heeled, much needed creative renaissance.
He has little sympathy for those displaced along the way. San Francisco is a small corner of the Bay Area, he points out, and the rest still has significant economic diversity. Even if San Francisco becomes a Manhattan-like redoubt of the rich, the area as a whole will see benefits. “One side effect of this may well be that Oakland, which is pretty damn interesting, becomes even more interesting.”
Curiosity drew Zeph Fishlyn back to Million Fishes’s old building last year. She found it occupied by a startup called Bloodhound that had moved in mid-2013 and was paying two and a half times the old rent. The company designs apps to make exchanging contact details with people easier in work situations. Its founder and CEO is Anthony Krumeich, a 27-year-old dropout from Stanford University’s Symbolic Systems course, which has produced senior executives for companies such as Google, Facebook and LinkedIn. On Twitter, he describes himself as: “Inventor, dog owner, free and present thinker, entrepreneur, drop-out, sailor.”
Originally from suburban New York, Krumeich has curly hair, thick-rimmed glasses and wears a plaid shirt – standard urban hipster uniform. He arrived in San Francisco in late 2010, after a couple of years trying to get Bloodhound going in Silicon Valley. The company now has 15 employees and nearly $5m in investment funding including from Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and the first investor in Facebook. Bloodhound has revenues but not profits and Krumeich moved his company to the Mission from Soma in search of lower rents and some soul. The office’s aesthetic is white space, wood and large Apple computers. It overflows with signs of a start-up culture – there are also soft furnishings, a table-tennis table and a copy of the tech entrepreneurs‘ bible The Lean Start-up. Employees who commit to not driving get a custom-made bike from a local bike shop and three days a week a chef cooks the office a wheat- and dairy-free lunch.
Krumeich and I walk the one block to Lower 24th Street, San Francisco’s most vibrant centre of Hispanic culture and commerce. It has the highest concentration of Latino businesses in the city, an eclectic mixture of speciality stores, Mexican bakeries, grocers and butchers. But 24th Street is in transition. High-end coffee shops and restaurants are poking in, along with a fashionable Jewish deli selling $13 sandwiches. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who has a second home in the Mission, has been spotted there.
Krumeich is busy with the kind of project that Brand claims will define San Francisco’s future. Inspired by the housing crisis, he and his companion – a Boxer dog – have just moved into what he calls an “alternative living situation”, a shipping container on a flatbed truck. Krumeich is converting it into an off-grid, mobile living space that he says will be self-sustaining in its finished form. Solar panels provide electricity and a system of plants is to be used to recycle grey water. He thinks more mobile living might be the future.
But unlike Brand, Krumeich believes new San Francisco doesn’t have to eradicate the old. The big ground-floor windows of his office are currently exhibiting canvases painted by an Oakland-based artist. A couple of weeks ago he held his first “artists’ showcase”, where he opened the doors to passers-by and had various local artists show their work – and he is thinking about a new kind of app to connect artists with potential buyers.
All this was inspired by finding out that Million Fishes had been in the space before, courtesy of Fishlyn. “They had an interesting place,” he says, and while he is determined not to suffer from “tech guilt” he is thinking about the role he can play in his community. “I don’t have a lot of preconceived notions about how this should work, but I am just going to start from: I care about other people; I am trying to do interesting and good things; I would like my presence here to be a contribution.”
That kind of tech-led mission might be possible, but perhaps first an endangered species needs to be saved from extinction. Since late 2013, neighbourhood marches and blockades against Google’s commuter buses have captured local, national and international attention. Tenant and neighbourhood organisations are working on proposals to be taken to San Francisco voters in November – suggestions include a moratorium on no-fault evictions. In January, the mayor responded to the growing pressure, urging people to stop demonising tech workers while announcing a seven-point housing plan which includes a target of 30,000 new homes by 2020, at least a third of which will be affordable. More immediately, he plans to try to reform the state’s Ellis Act.
The San Francisco peninsular is where the world’s new dominant industry – information technology – is most concentrated. Its tensions between highly paid tech workers and the communities that came before them may be a preview for other places. “What happens here may well happen in similar ways elsewhere, such as the emerging tech zones in London and Berlin,” says Turner. “San Francisco is a canary in a coal mine.” What reinvented San Francisco will look like when the dust settles is difficult to predict. But the nature of urbanity is that people packed in together do encounter each other and discover history and traditions. “Cities are more resilient than you might think,” says Richard Walker. It’s unlikely to be all doom for old San Francisco.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for one, is still convinced that the San Francisco he knows ultimately can’t be engulfed by Silicon Valley, seeing too strong a connection to its geography, with water on three sides. “It still has an island mentality,” he says. “At nearly 95, all I can say is good luck!”
- theguardian.com, Saturday 22 February 2014 08.30 EST
As San Francisco‘s class war rages on, contested rumors go a-flying. Google just allegedly snapped up a large building in the Mission District. The Mission, sometimes called “gentrification ground zero,” is a historically Latino community that’s been attracting lots of tech newcomers – and lots of anti-tech protests. One San Francisco-born friend commented wryly about the purchase: “Google just doesn’t get it, do they?”
Before I continue, I’ll note that I love the internet – and some internet-colonizing companies – with an absurd passion. When I served in the Peace Corps, I spent one-sixth of my stipend on smartphone airtime because there was no local wired internet. My Peace Corps friends used to (nicely) tease me about it: After an accident destroyed most of my possessions, my Country Director first asked whether my electronics had been spared.
I am now privileged to live in San Francisco and work for an internet company. From the home I share with a nest of techies in the Mission, I have a front-row seat on the clash between “high tech” and “local San Francisco.”
Nowadays, I pay a lot less for my internet fix. But I still recall frameworks I learned from the Peace Corps and other social justice organizations. With humility – and with the understanding that none of us have The One Right Answer – I want to outline what I see here and offer thoughts about moving forward.
We already know that complex local problems need better handling. The gentrification juggernaut has led to enormous financial hardship, including unjust evictions. Local writer Rebecca Solnit recently described one eviction map as “a map of bruises, like a city being punched by money.” Activists paste posters on doors and sidewalks that say: “A family has been evicted from this home.”
Two blocks from my home, a mural was recently constructed: First, the wall was papered with activists’ family eviction posters. Then a silhouetted funeral procession was painted on top of the posters, with dark pallbearers carrying a coffin labeled “La Misión.”
Other activists have created angrier symbols, like by picketing the Twitter building on the day of the company’s $25bn initial public offering, or publicly destroying effigies of Google’s luxury buses.
Gentrification is just a single, local example of how High Tech is starting to feel itself a “public enemy.” And “public enemy” is a tough pill to swallow for a largely optimistic industry, where “change the world” is such a common phrase that it’s even mocked and used ironically.
I talk regularly to tech industry people who feel shocked by San Franciscan anger, who are struggling to figure out how to feel and what to do. A lot are trying to understand how to help. Yet signs of this clash surfaced long before any tech buses got boarded by shouting protesters. And Bay Area High Tech would have seen the signs sooner if it weren’t so out of touch with the communities surrounding it.
I’m not saying that everyone in local High Tech has been paying zero attention to the non-tech world. Just most of us. The buses that ferry employees of Google, Apple, Genentech and other tech corporations are potent symbols for several reasons, but the biggest thing that makes them hate-able is that they are so very exclusive. They are visibly luxurious and can only be used by the tech elite. The buses highlight class and culture separations between riders and other San Franciscans.
In the Peace Corps, the main lesson that was hammered into us was that we wouldn’t do any good without understanding and participating in the communities we served. You can’t just move in and say you’re going to Change The World. If you try, you rarely accomplish much, and also you look like an arrogant jerk.
What would it be like if Bay Area High Tech, as a community, started thinking about improving its members’ cultural awareness before Changing The World? I don’t just mean individuals: How could companies take this on, beyond a few token donations?
If we can improve our connection with the larger communities around us, then maybe we’ll spot cultural problems soon enough to mitigate them, and maybe we’ll see larger problems we can help with. (For a company like Google or Facebook, whose product is used by just about everybody, this could even be seen as a market-centered approach!)
Real community engagement is unbelievably hard; if it were easy, more people would do it. Simply finding a starting point is hard. But one place we might learn from is the SF-based organization Code For America, which is a bit like a tech Peace Corps (although it primarily serves American cities). CFA exposes its year-long Fellows directly to the workings of various governments and local communities.
Crucially, Fellows gain months of exposure before they even start thinking about solutions they can build. As Catherine Bracy, CFA’s Director for Community Organizing, told me: “The point is to start with the problem and not with the technology.”
“My fellowship year clarified more problems than solutions,” writes one Code For America Fellow in a blog post. I felt encouraged reading that, because it exalts a cautious learning process.
As far as I know, the CFA Fellowship is the only program of its kind, and it’s overwhelmed with applications. Hundreds of people apply for 30 one-year-long Fellowship slots. So CFA also runs a program they call the Code for America Brigade, which helps tech folks learn more about and contribute to local communities for a few hours every week. Code For America is not the only game in town, but it’s worth knowing about.
I often think about how lucky I am to be part of this vibrant, gorgeous, extraordinary city. I also believe myself lucky to be in this industry. Techies work hard, and sometimes create truly great things. But this industry could also be a source of great social change – if we’re able to listen carefully to the worlds we’re changing.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Konstantin L
Rome lived upon its principal till ruin stared it in the face. Industry is the only true source of wealth, and there was no industry in Rome. By day the Ostia road was crowded with carts and muleteers, carrying to the great city the silks and spices of the East, the marble of Asia Minor, the timber of the Atlas, the grain of Africa and Egypt; and the carts brought out nothing but loads of dung. That was their return cargo.
—“The Martyrdom of Man” by Winwood Reade (1871)
There is the visible government situated around the Mall in Washington, and then there is another, more shadowy, more indefinable government that is not explained in Civics 101 or observable to tourists at the White House or the Capitol. The former is traditional Washington partisan politics: the tip of the iceberg that a public watching C-SPAN sees daily and which is theoretically controllable via elections. The subsurface part of the iceberg I shall call the Deep State, which operates on its own compass heading regardless of who is formally in power. 
During the last five years, the news media have been flooded with pundits decrying the broken politics of Washington. The conventional wisdom has it that partisan gridlock and dysfunction have become the new normal. That is certainly the case, and I have been among the harshest critics of this development. But it is also imperative to acknowledge the limits of this critique as it applies to the American governmental system. On one level, the critique is self-evident: in the domain that the public can see, Congress is hopelessly deadlocked in the worst manner since the 1850s, the violently rancorous decade preceding the Civil War.
As I wrote in “The Party is Over,” the present objective of congressional Republicans is to render the executive branch powerless, at least until a Republican president is elected (a goal which voter suppression laws in GOP-controlled states are clearly intended to accomplish). President Obama cannot enact his domestic policies and budgets; because of incessant GOP filibustering, not only could he not fill the large number of vacancies in the federal judiciary, he could not even get his most innocuous presidential appointees into office. Democrats controlling the Senate have responded by weakening the filibuster of nominations, but Republicans are sure to react with other parliamentary delaying tactics. This strategy amounts to congressional nullification of executive branch powers by a party that controls a majority in only one house of Congress.
Despite this apparent impotence, President Obama can liquidate American citizens without due processes, detain prisoners indefinitely without charge, conduct “dragnet” surveillance on the American people without judicial warrant and engage in unprecedented — at least since the McCarthy era — witch hunts against federal employees (the so-called “Insider Threat Program”). Within the United States, this power is characterized by massive displays of intimidating force by militarized federal, state and local law enforcement. Abroad, President Obama can start wars at will and engage in virtually any other activity whatever without so much as a by-your-leave from Congress, to include arranging the forced landing of a plane carrying a sovereign head of state over foreign territory. Despite their habitual cant about executive overreach by Obama, the would-be dictator, we have until recently heard very little from congressional Republicans about these actions — with the minor exception of a gadfly like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Democrats, save for a few mavericks like Ron Wyden of Oregon, are not unduly troubled, either — even to the extent of permitting seemingly perjured congressional testimony under oath by executive branch officials on the subject of illegal surveillance.
These are not isolated instances of a contradiction; they have been so pervasive that they tend to be disregarded as background noise. During the time in 2011 when political warfare over the debt ceiling was beginning to paralyze the business of governance in Washington, the United States government somehow summoned the resources to overthrow Muammar Ghaddafi’s regime in Libya, and, when the instability created by that coup spilled over into Mali, provide overt and covert assistance to French intervention there. At a time when there was heated debate about continuing meat inspections and civilian air traffic control because of the budget crisis, our government was somehow able to commit $115 millionto keeping a civil war going in Syria and to pay at least £100m to the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters to buy influence over and access to that country’s intelligence. Since 2007, two bridges carrying interstate highways have collapsed due to inadequate maintenance of infrastructure, one killing thirteen people; during that same period of time, the government has spent $1.7 billion constructing a building in Utah that is the size of seventeen football fields. This mammoth structure is intended to allow the National Security Agency to store a yottabyte of information, the largest numerical designator computer scientists have. A yottabyte is equal to 500 quintillion pages of text. They need that much storage to archive every single electronic trace you make.
Yes, there is another government concealed behind the one that is visible at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose. My analysis of this phenomenon is not an exposé of a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day. Nor can it be accurately termed an “establishment.” All complex societies have an establishment, a social network committed to its own enrichment and perpetuation. In terms of its scope, financial resources and sheer global reach, the American hybrid state, the Deep State, is in a class by itself. That said, it is neither omniscient nor invincible. The institution is not so much sinister (although it has highly sinister aspects) as it is relentlessly well entrenched. Far from being invincible, its failures, such as those in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, are routine enough that it is only the Deep State’s protectiveness towards its higher-ranking personnel that allows them to escape the consequences of their frequent ineptitude. 
How did I come to write an analysis of the Deep State, and why am I equipped to write it? As a congressional staff member for 28 years specializing in national security and possessing a top secret security clearance, I was at least on the fringes of the world I am describing, if neither totally in it by virtue of full membership nor of it by psychological disposition. But like virtually every employed person, I became to some extent assimilated by the culture of the institution I worked for, and only by slow degrees, starting before the invasion of Iraq, did I begin fundamentally to question the reasons of state that motivate the people who are, to quote George W. Bush, “the deciders.”
Cultural assimilation is partly a matter of what psychologist Irving L. Janis called “groupthink,” the chameleon-like ability of people to adopt the views of their superiors and peers. This syndrome is endemic to Washington: the town is characterized by sudden fads, be it biennial budgeting, grand bargains, or invading countries. Then, after a while, all the town’s cool kids drop those ideas as if they were radioactive. As in the military, everybody has to get on board with the mission, and it is not a career-enhancing move to question the mission. The universe of people who will critically examine the goings-on at the institutions they work for is always going to be a small one. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
A more elusive aspect of cultural assimilation is the sheer dead weight of the ordinariness of it all once you have planted yourself in your office chair for the ten thousandth time. Your life is typically not some vignette from an Allen Drury novel about intrigue under the Capitol dome. Sitting and staring at the clock on the off-white office wall when it’s eleven in the evening and you are vowing never, ever to eat another piece of take-out pizza in your life is not an experience that summons the higher literary instincts of a would-be memoirist. After a while, a functionary of the state begins to hear things that, in another context, would be quite remarkable, or at least noteworthy, and yet they simply bounce off one’s consciousness like pebbles off steel plate: “You mean the number of terrorist groups we are fighting isclassified?” No wonder few people are whistleblowers, quite apart from the vicious retaliation whistleblowing often provokes: unless one is blessed with imagination and a fine sense of irony, it is easy to grow immune to the curiousness of one’s surroundings. To paraphrase the inimitable Donald Rumsfeld, I didn’t know all that I knew, at least until I had had a couple of years away from the government to reflect upon it.
The Deep State does not consist of the entire government. It is a hybrid of national security and law enforcement agencies: the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Justice Department. We also include the Department of the Treasury because of its jurisdiction over financial flows, its enforcement of international sanctions, and its organic symbiosis with Wall Street. All these agencies are coordinated by the Executive Office of the President via the National Security Council. Certain key areas of the judiciary belong to the Deep State, like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, whose actions are mysterious even to most members of Congress. Also included are a handful of vital federal trial courts, such as the Eastern District of Virginia and the Southern District of Manhattan, where sensitive proceedings in national security cases are conducted. The final government component (and possibly last in precedence among the formal branches of government established by the Constitution) is a kind of rump Congress consisting of the congressional leadership and some (but not all) of the members of the defense and intelligence committees. The rest of Congress, normally so fractious and partisan, is mostly only intermittently aware of the Deep State and when required usually submits to a few well-chosen words from the State’s emissaries.
I saw this submissiveness on many occasions. One memorable incident was passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act of 2008. This legislation retroactively legalized the Bush administration’s illegal and unconstitutional surveillance first revealed by The New York Times in 2005, and indemnified the telecommunications companies for their cooperation in these acts. The bill passed easily: all that was required was the invocation of the word “terrorism” and most members of Congress responded like iron filings obeying a magnet. One who responded in that fashion was Senator Barack Obama, soon to be coronated as the Democratic presidential nominee at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. He had already won the most delegates by campaigning to the left of his main opponent, Hillary Clinton, on the excesses of the war on terrorism and the erosion of constitutional liberties.
As the indemnification vote showed, the Deep State does not consist only of government agencies. What is euphemistically called private enterprise is an integral part of its operations. In a special series in The Washington Post called “Top Secret America,” Dana Priest and William K. Arkin described the scope of the privatized Deep State, and the degree to which it has metastasized after the September 11 attacks. There are now 854,000 contract personnel with top secret clearances — a number greater than that of top secret-cleared civilian employees of the government.While they work throughout the country and the world, their heavy concentration in and around the Washington suburbs is unmistakable: since 9/11, 33 facilities for top-secret intelligence have been built or are under construction. Combined, they occupy the floor space of almost three Pentagons — about 17 million square feet. Seventy percent of the intelligence community’s budget goes to paying contracts. And the membrane between government and industry is highly permeable: the Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper, is a former executive of Booz Allen, one of the government’s largest intelligence contractors. His predecessor as director, Admiral Mike McConnell, is the current vice chairman of the same company; Booz Allen is 99 percent dependent on government business. These contractors now set the political and social tone of Washington, just as they are increasingly setting the direction of the country, but they are doing it quietly, their doings unrecorded in the Congressional Record or the Federal Register, and are rarely subject to congressional hearings
Washington is the most important node of the Deep State that has taken over America, but it is not the only one. Invisible threads of money and ambition connect the town to other nodes. One is Wall Street, which supplies the cash that keeps the political machine quiescent and operating as a diversionary marionette theater. Should the politicians forget their lines and threaten the status quo, Wall Street floods the town with cash and lawyers to help the hired hands remember their own best interests. The executives of the financial giants even have de facto criminal immunity. On March 6, 2013, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Eric Holder stated the following: “I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy.” This from the chief law enforcement officer of a justice system that has practically abolished the constitutional right to trial for poorer defendants charged with certain crimes. It is not too much to say that Wall Street may be the ultimate owner of the Deep State and its strategies, if for no other reason than that it has the money to reward government operatives with a second career that is lucrative beyond the dreams of avarice — certainly beyond the dreams of a government salaryman. 
The corridor between Manhattan and Washington is a well-trodden highway for the personalities we all got to know in the period since the massive deregulation of Wall Street: Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers, Henry Paulson, Timothy Geithner and many others. Not all the traffic involves persons connected with the purely financial operations of the government: in 2013, General David Petraeus joined KKR (formerly Kohlberg Kravis Roberts) of 9 West 57 Street, New York, a private equity firm with $62.3 billion in assets. KKR specializes in management buyouts and leveraged finance; General Petraeus’s expertise in these areas is unclear; his ability to peddle influence, however, is a known and valued commodity. Unlike Cincinnatus, the military commanders of the Deep State do not take up the plow once they lay down the sword. He also obtained a sinecure as a non-resident senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. The Ivy League is of course the preferred bleaching tub and charm school of the American oligarchy. 
Petraeus, and most of the avatars of the Deep State — the White House advisers who urged Obama not to impose compensation limits on Wall Street CEOs, the contractor-connected think tank experts who besought us to “stay the course” in Iraq, the economic gurus who perpetually demonstrate that globalization and deregulation are a blessing that makes us all better off in the long run — are careful to pretend that they have no ideology. Their preferred pose is that of the politically neutral technocrat offering well-considered advice based on profound expertise. That is nonsense. They are deeply dyed in the hue of the official ideology of the governing class, an ideology that is neither specifically Democrat nor Republican. Domestically, whatever they might privately believe about essentially diversionary social issues like abortion or gay marriage, they almost invariably believe in the “Washington Consensus:” financialization, outsourcing, privatization, deregulation and the commodification of labor. Internationally, they espouse twenty-first century American Exceptionalism: the right and duty of the United States to meddle in every region of the world, coercive diplomacy, boots on the ground, and the right to ignore painfully-won international norms of civilized behavior. To paraphrase what Sir John Harrington said over 400 years ago about treason, now that the ideology of the Deep State has prospered, none dare call it ideology.  That is why describing torture with the word torture on broadcast television is treated less as political heresy than as an inexcusable lapse of Washington etiquette: like smoking a cigarette on camera, these days it is simply “not done.”
After Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent and depth of surveillance by the National Security Agency, it has become publicly evident that Silicon Valley is a vital node of the Deep State as well. Unlike military and intelligence contractors, Silicon Valley overwhelmingly sells to the private market; but its business is so important to the government that a strange relationship has emerged. While the government could simply dragoon the high technology companies to do the NSA’s bidding, it would prefer cooperation with so important an engine of the nation’s economy, perhaps with an implied quid pro quo. Perhaps this explains the extraordinary indulgence the government shows the Valley in intellectual property matters — if an American “jailbreaks” his smartphone (i.e., modifies it so that it can use another service provider than the one dictated by the manufacturer), he could receive a fine of up to $500,000 and several years in prison; so much for a citizen’s vaunted property rights to what he purchases. The libertarian pose of the Silicon Valley moguls, so carefully cultivated in their public relations, has always been a sham. Silicon Valley has long been tracking for commercial purposes the activities of every person who uses an electronic device; it is hardly surprising that the Deep State should emulate the Valley and do the same for its own purposes. Nor is it surprising that it should conscript the Valley’s assistance.
Still, despite the essential roles of Lower Manhattan and Silicon Valley, the center of gravity of the Deep State is firmly situated in and around the Beltway. The Deep State’s physical expansion and consolidation around the Beltway would seem to make a mockery of the frequent pronouncements that governance in Washington is dysfunctional and broken. That the secret and unaccountable Deep State floats freely above the gridlock between both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue is the paradox of American government in the twenty-first century: drone strikes, data mining, secret prisons and Panopticon-like control on the one hand; and on the other, the ordinary, visible parliamentary institutions of self-government declining to the status of a banana republic amid the gradual collapse of public infrastructure.
The results of this contradiction are not abstract, as a tour of the rotting, decaying, bankrupt cities of the American Midwest will attest. It is not even confined to those parts of the country left behind by a Washington Consensus that decreed the financialization and deindustrialization of the economy in the interests of efficiency and shareholder value. This paradox is evident even within the Beltway itself, the richest metropolitan area in the nation. Although demographers and urban researchers invariably count Washington as a “world city,” that is not always evident to those who live there. Virtually every time there is a severe summer thunderstorm, tens — or even hundreds — of thousands of residents lose power, often for many days. There are occasional water restrictions over wide areas because water mains, poorly constructed and inadequately maintained, have burst.  The Washington metropolitan area considers it a Herculean task just to build a rail link to its international airport — with luck it may be completed by 2018.
It is as if Hadrian’s Wall was still fully manned and the fortifications along the border with Germania were never stronger, even as the city of Rome disintegrated from within and the life-sustaining aqueducts leading down from the hills began to crumble. The governing classes of the Deep State may continue to deceive themselves with their dreams of Zeus-like omnipotence, but others disagree. A 2013 Pew Poll that interviewed 38,000 people around the world found that in 23 of 39 countries surveyed, a plurality of respondents said they believed China already had or would in the future replace the United States as the world’s top economic power.
The Deep State is the big story of our time; it is the red thread that runs through the war on terrorism, the financialization and deindustrialization of the American economy, the rise of a plutocratic social structure and political dysfunction. Washington is the headquarters of the Deep State, and its time in the sun as a rival to Rome, Constantinople, or London may be term-limited by its overweening sense of self-importance and its habit, as Winwood Reade said of Rome, to “lived upon its principal till ruin stared it in the face.” Living upon its principal in this case means that the Deep State has been extracting value from the American people in vampire-like fashion.
We are faced with two disagreeable implications. First, that the Deep State is so heavily entrenched, so well protected by surveillance, firepower, money and its ability to co-opt resistance that it is almost impervious to change. Second, that just as in so many previous empires, the Deep State is populated with those whose instinctive reaction to the failure of their policies is to double down on those very policies in the future. Iraq was a failure briefly camouflaged by the wholly propagandistic success of the so-called surge; this legerdemain allowed for the surge in Afghanistan, which equally came to naught. Undeterred by that failure, the functionaries of the Deep State plunged into Libya; the smoking rubble of the Benghazi consulate, rather than discouraging further misadventure, seemed merely to incite the itch to bomb Syria. Will the Deep State ride on the back of the American people from failure to failure until the country itself, despite its huge reserves of human and material capital, is slowly exhausted? The dusty road of empire is strewn with the bones of former great powers that exhausted themselves in like manner.
But there are signs of resistance to the Deep State and its demands. In the aftermath of the Snowden revelations, the House narrowly failed to pass an amendment that would have defunded the NSA’s warrantless collection of data from U.S. persons. Shortly thereafter, the president, advocating yet another military intervention in the Middle East, this time in Syria, met with such overwhelming congressional skepticism that he changed the subject by grasping at a diplomatic lifeline thrown to him by Vladimir Putin. 
Has the visible, constitutional state, the one envisaged by Madison and the other Founders, finally begun to reassert itself against the claims and usurpations of the Deep State? To some extent, perhaps. The unfolding revelations of the scope of the NSA’s warrantless surveillance have become so egregious that even institutional apologists, such as Senator Diane Feinstein, have begun to backpedal — if only rhetorically — from their kneejerk defense of the agency. As more people begin to waken from the fearful and suggestible state that 9/11 created in their minds, it is possible that the Deep State’s decade-old tactic of crying “terrorism!” every time it faces resistance is no longer eliciting the same Pavlovian response of meek obedience. And the American people, possibly even their legislators, are growing tired of endless quagmires in the Middle East.
But there is another more structural reason the Deep State may have peaked in the extent of its dominance. While it seems to float above the constitutional state, its essentially parasitic, extractive nature means that it is still tethered to the formal proceedings of governance. The Deep State thrives when there is tolerable functionality in the day-to-day operations of the federal government. As long as appropriations bills get passed on time, promotion lists get confirmed, black (i.e., secret) budgets get rubber stamped, special tax subsidies for certain corporations are approved without controversy, as long as too many awkward questions are not asked, the gears of the hybrid state will mesh noiselessly. But when one house of Congress is taken over by Tea Party wahhabites, life for the ruling class becomes more trying.
If there is anything the Deep State requires it is silent, uninterrupted cash flow and the confidence that things will go on as they have in the past. It is even willing to tolerate a degree of gridlock: partisan mudwrestling over cultural issues may be a useful distraction from its agenda. But recent Congressional antics involving sequestration, the government shutdown and the threat of default over the debt ceiling extension have been disrupting that equilibrium. And an extreme gridlock dynamic has developed between the two parties such that continuing some level of sequestration is politically the least bad option for both parties, albeit for different reasons. As much as many Republicans might want to give budget relief to the organs of national security, they cannot fully reverse sequestration without the Democrats demanding revenue increases. And Democrats wanting to spend more on domestic discretionary programs cannot void sequestration on either domestic or defense programs without Republicans insisting on entitlement cuts. So, for the foreseeable future, the Deep State must restrain its appetite for taxpayer dollars: limited deals may soften sequestration but it is unlikely agency requests will be fully funded anytime soon. Even Wall Street’s rentier operations have been affected: after helping finance the Tea Party to advance its own plutocratic ambitions, America’s Big Money is now regretting the Frankenstein’s monster it has created. Like children playing with dynamite, the Tea Party’s compulsion to drive the nation into credit default has alarmed the grownups commanding the heights of capital; the latter are now telling the politicians they thought they had hired to knock it off.
The House vote to defund the NSA’s illegal surveillance programs was equally illustrative of the disruptive nature of the Tea Party insurgency. Civil-liberties Democrats alone would never have come so close to victory; Tea Party stalwart Justin Amash (R-MI), who has also upset the business community for his debt-limit fundamentalism, was the lead Republican sponsor of the NSA amendment, and most of the Republicans who voted with him were aligned with the Tea Party.
The final factor is Silicon Valley. Owing to secrecy and obfuscation, it is hard to know how much of the NSA’s relationship with the Valley is based on voluntary cooperation, how much is legal compulsion through FISA warrants and how much is a matter of the NSA surreptitiously breaking into technology companies’ systems. Given the Valley’s public relations requirement to mollify its customers who have privacy concerns, it is difficult to take the tech firms’ libertarian protestations about government compromise of their systems at face value, especially since they engage in similar activity against their own customers for commercial purposes. That said, evidence is accumulating that Silicon Valley is losing billions in overseas business from companies, individuals and governments that want to maintain privacy. For high-tech entrepreneurs, the cash nexus is ultimately more compelling than the Deep State’s demand for patriotic cooperation. Even legal compulsion can be combatted: unlike the individual citizen, tech firms have deep pockets and batteries of lawyers with which to fight government diktat.
This pushback has gone so far that on Jan. 17, President Obama announced revisions to the NSA’s data collection programs, including withdrawing the NSA’s custody of a domestic telephone record database, expanding requirements for judicial warrants and ceasing to spy on (undefined) “friendly foreign leaders.” Critics have denounced the changes as a cosmetic public relations move, but they are still significant in that the clamor has gotten so loud that the president feels the political need to address it.
When the contradictions within a ruling ideology are pushed too far, factionalism appears and that ideology begins slowly to crumble. Corporate oligarchs like the Koch brothers are no longer entirely happy with the faux-populist political front group they helped fund and groom. Silicon Valley, for all the Ayn Rand-like tendencies of its major players, its off-shoring strategies and its further exacerbation of income inequality, is now lobbying Congress to restrain the NSA, a core component of the Deep State. Some tech firms are moving to encrypt their data. High-tech corporations and governments alike seek dominance over people though collection of personal data, but the corporations are jumping ship now that adverse public reaction to the NSA scandals threatens their profits.
The outcome of all these developments is uncertain. The Deep State, based on the twin pillars of national security imperative and corporate hegemony, has until recently seemed unshakable, and the latest events may only be a temporary perturbation in its trajectory. But history has a way of toppling the altars of the mighty. While the two great materialist and determinist ideologies of the twentieth century, Marxism and the Washington Consensus, successively decreed that the dictatorship of the proletariat and the dictatorship of the market were inevitable, the future is actually indeterminate. It may be that deep economic and social currents create the framework of history, but those currents can be channeled, eddied, or even reversed by circumstance, chance and human agency. We have only to reflect upon defunct glacial despotisms like the USSR or East Germany to realize that nothing is forever.
Throughout history, state systems with outsized pretensions to power have reacted to their environment in two ways. The first strategy, reflecting the ossification of its ruling elites, consists of repeating that nothing is wrong, that the status quo reflects the nation’s unique good fortune in being favored by God, and that those calling for change are merely subversive troublemakers. As the French Ancien Régime, the Romanov dynasty and the Habsburg emperors discovered, the strategy works splendidly for a while, particularly if one has a talent for dismissing unpleasant facts. The final results, however, are likely to be thoroughly disappointing.
The second strategy is one embraced to varying degrees and with differing goals by figures of such contrasting personalities as Mustafa Kemal Attatürk, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle and Deng Xiaoping. They were certainly not revolutionaries by temperament; if anything, their natures were conservative. But they understood that the political cultures in which they lived were fossilized and incapable of adapting to the times. In their drive to reform and modernize the political systems they inherited, their first obstacles to overcome were the outworn myths that encrusted the thinking of the elites of their time.
As the United States confronts its future after experiencing two failed wars, a precarious economy and $17 trillion in accumulated debt, the national punditry has split into two camps: the first, the declinists, sees a broken, dysfunctional political system incapable of reform and an economy soon to be overtaken by China. The other camp, the reformers, offers a profusion of nostrums to turn the nation around: public financing of elections to sever the artery of money between the corporate components of the Deep State and financially dependent elected officials; government “insourcing,” to reverse the tide of outsourcing of government functions and the conflicts of interest that it creates; a tax policy that values human labor over financial manipulation; and a trade policy that favors exporting manufactured goods over exporting investment capital.
All of that is necessary, but not sufficient. The Snowden revelations, the impact of which have been surprisingly strong; the derailed drive for military intervention in Syria; and a fractious Congress, whose dysfunctions have begun to be a serious inconvenience to the Deep State, show that there is now a deep but as yet inchoate hunger for change. What America lacks is a figure with the serene self-confidence to tell us that the twin idols of national security and corporate power are outworn dogmas that have nothing more to offer us. Thus disenthralled, the people themselves will unravel the Deep State with surprising speed.
 The term “Deep State” was coined in Turkey, and is said to be a system composed of high-level elements within the intelligence services, military, security, judiciary and organized crime. In British author John le Carré’s latest novel, “A Delicate Truth,” a character describes the Deep State as “ … the ever-expanding circle of non-governmental insiders from banking, industry and commerce who were cleared for highly classified information denied to large swathes of Whitehall and Westminster.” I use the term to mean a hybrid association of elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern the United States without reference to the consent of the governed as expressed through the formal political process.
 Twenty five years ago the sociologist Robert Nisbet described this phenomenon as “the attribute of No Fault. … Presidents, secretaries and generals and admirals in America seemingly subscribe to the doctrine that no fault ever attaches to policy and operations. This No Fault conviction prevents them from taking too seriously such notorious foul-ups as Desert One, Grenada, Lebanon and now the Persian Gulf.” To his list we might add 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
 The attitude of many members of Congress towards Wall Street was memorably expressed by Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL), the incoming chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, in 2010: “In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks.”
 Beginning in 1988, every U.S. president has been a graduate of Harvard or Yale. Beginning in 2000, every losing presidential candidate has been a Harvard or Yale graduate, with the exception of John McCain in 2008.
 In recent months the American public has seen a vivid example of a Deep State operative marketing his ideology under the banner of pragmatism. Former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates — a one-time career CIA officer and deeply political Bush family retainer — has camouflaged his retrospective defense of military escalations that have brought us nothing but casualties and fiscal grief as the straight-from-the-shoulder memoir from a plain-spoken son of Kansas who disdains Washington and its politicians.
 Meanwhile, the U.S. government took the lead in restoring Baghdad’s sewer system at a cost of $7 billion.
 Obama’s abrupt about-face suggests he may have been skeptical of military intervention in Syria all along but only dropped that policy once Congress and Putin gave him the running room to do so. In 2009, he went ahead with the Afghanistan “surge” partly because General Petraeus’s public relations campaign and back-channel lobbying on the Hill for implementation of his pet military strategy pre-empted other options. These incidents raise the disturbing question of how much the democratically-elected president — any president — sets the policy of the national security state, and how much the policy is set for him by the professional operatives of that state who engineer faits accomplisthat force his hand.
Booming technology firms are now
at the centre of worries about inequality
THE barons of high-tech like to think of themselves as very different creatures from the barons of Wall Street. They create cool devices that let us carry the world in our pockets. They wear hoodies, not suits. And they owe their success to their native genius rather than to social connections—they are “the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in square holes”, in Steve Jobs’s famous formulation.
But for many people in San Francisco this is a distinction without a difference. For months now protesters have been blockading the fleets of private buses that Google and other technology giants use to ferry their employees to and from Silicon Valley 40 miles to the south. They are particularly incensed that the buses pay almost nothing to use public stops, often blocking city buses. Protesters are also angry that an influx of well-paid geeks has pushed up property prices and rents.
This resentment turned a recent awards ceremony—the Crunchies, sponsored by a website called TechCrunch—into a festival of tech-bashing. Outside, protesters held their own mock ceremony, the Crappies, with a golden toilet brush for “tax-evader of the year” to Twitter’s boss, Dick Costolo (a reference to a legal but controversial tax break it got from City Hall). Inside, John Oliver, the comedian hosting the official awards, gave the assembled billionaires a dressing-down. “You already have almost all the money in the world,” he said. “Why do you need awards as well?” He suggested that the next iteration of Martin Scorsese’s new film, “The Wolf of Wall Street”, should be set on the West Coast with “all the money, all the opulence and about 10% of the sex”.
Last month Tom Perkins, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, compared critics of the tech elite to Nazi stormtroopers on Kristallnacht—thereby handing ammunition to those who accuse that elite, of which he is a member, of being arrogant and out of touch. Nevertheless, much of the criticism is nonsense. San Francisco has more than its fair share of professional protesters—including those who think they have a right to live in one of the world’s most desirable places even if they can’t rub two pennies together. The much-maligned private buses are providing workers with an energy- and time-efficient alternative to private cars. The much-abused tech money-tree is scattering riches on lower-paid industries too. During the gold rush, Levi Strauss made a fortune by providing the “forty-niners” with jeans. Modern-day equivalents will undoubtedly make fortunes providing geeks with organic food, “dress-pants sweat pants” (a cross between pyjamas and jeans, apparently), and, if one Kickstarter-funded venture pays off, “ten-year hoodies”, made to last a decade.
Tech titans have also suffered from backlashes before: Bill Gates was once vilified as a modern robber baron before he transformed himself into the world’s greatest philanthropist. Most people outside San Francisco still look on its tech firms with admiration, not disgust. But it would be a mistake to ignore the backlash by the bay entirely. It is being driven by two developments which will eventually reshape attitudes across the world.
The first is the end of tech-exceptionalism. Silicon Valley’s elite has always cherished its roots in the counter-culture—in the world of home-brew computer clubs, Utopian cyber-gurus and damn-the-establishment hackers. But it also had a conventional side: Hewlett-Packard may have been started in a garage but soon became a corporate behemoth; tech firms’ links to the military establishment were highlighted when Dave Packard became deputy secretary of defence in the Nixon administration. The current protests symbolise a growing recognition that tech is an industry like all others: mostly run by corporate stiffs—square pegs in square holes in Jobs’s language—and driven by the need to maximise profits. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, has become a billionaire despite not having founded the company. Apple’s success has created huge numbers of manufacturing jobs, almost all in cheaper places than the United States.
Some of the most savage criticisms of the tech industry are inspired by the contrast between its self-image as a haven of hooded nonconformists and the reality of ruthless capitalism. Valleywag, a website, pokes fun at its affection for ostentatiously wacky corporate titles: AOL has a digital prophet, Tumblr has a fashion evangelist and LinkedIn a hacker-in-residence. It also exposes the Valley’s addiction to politically correct consumption and frictionless capitalism. Tesla electric cars start at $62,000. Google Glass lets its wearers, “Glassholes”, consult the internet as they walk down the street. TaskRabbit, a website, lets geeks contract out domestic chores to the lowest bidder.
The second development is the triumph of the meritocracy. This is not to say that tech is entirely merit-based: women and non-Asian minorities are clearly under-represented. But its logic is nevertheless meritocratic: you can’t program a computer or develop an app without a high IQ and a specialised education. So the tech industry is heightening the relationship between IQ, education and reward: young tech geniuses earn many multiples of the service workers who reply to their ads on TaskRabbit.
Succeed, then secede
Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s labour secretary and now an academic at Berkeley, once complained about the “secession of the successful”, as the monied elite moved into gated suburbs. But today’s money-gorged young techies want to enjoy the perks of city life. Thus they buy up, occupy and gentrify whole urban districts: they are seceding in plain sight. This inevitably creates tensions as the service class sees a parallel world being constructed before their eyes. San Francisco has a history of anticipating cultural earthquakes, from the hippies of the 1960s to the greenies of the 1980s. The wolves of the world wide web should beware.
The tech boom has made San Francisco’s real estate the most expensive in the nation. Tech companies, from startups to Fortune 500 firms, are cleaving more and more income for themselves out of the U.S. economy, mainly through advertising, smartphones, and tax shams. As the preferred domicile of the tech workforce, and now even as a choice address for tech offices, San Francisco’s housing and commercial space is in hot demand from buyers who have seemingly unlimited cash. This has pushed up prices considerably. Add the background effects caused by several years of bond buying by the U.S. Federal Reserve —the rise in all real estate values nationwide— and you’ve got a city where the median home price topped $1 million last year, and monthly rent for a one bedroom is averaging just shy of $3,000.
Into this maw of demand the developers are shoveling units and square feet. Take a look at the development pipeline (available online courtesy of the San Francisco Planning Department) and you’ll see a map of the 49 square miles of the city, much of it, especially the eastern half, is crowded with projects packing in housing, retail, and office footage. There’s 50,600 proposed units of housing coming to San Francisco. Approximately 27,000 of these housing units have already been approved by officials, with 6,100 currently under construction. Most of the housing being built is “market rate,” meaning that it’s priced for those who can afford to spend roughly $36,000 a year on rent, or who have a quarter million in cash to drop on a down payment. Despite the popular myth that “nimby” forces have retarded growth, San Francisco is a real estate development beast.
Beast is the operative word. Landlords, developers, and their lawyers are mauling thousands of lower-income renters. The crisis is displacement. The tech boom has conspired with rising housing prices to create an incredibly profitable incentive for landlords to push out low-income tenants and replace them with wealthy buyers, in spite of all the new units coming to market. The favorite tool, although it’s unclear how widely it’s used, is a quiet buyout, telling renters to just leave, and offering a tidy little cash sum to help them say yes. Maria Zamudio, a community organizers with Causa Justa, Just Cause, says many of these so-called “self evictions” are coerced. “Really when your landlord is calling you every night and pressuring you, is it really a choice to leave?,” Zamudio rhetorically asks.
But if they go on their volition, the renters go quietly into the night, and the landlord can do practically whatever they want with the apartment, or the building. They can jack up rents, or convert to condos, or go for the clean slate demolition to build taller and more luxurious. No one, not the city, nor the state, nor any community organization has a handle on how many of these kinds of evictions there are.
The increasingly common tool wealthy investors use to unlock value in San Francisco real estate is the Ellis Act. Speculative investors are buying small apartment buildings and invoking the 1986 law to remove rental buildings from the city’s housing stock. The Ellis Act is named after State Senator Jim Ellis, a conservative San Diego Republican who framed the law as a defense of beleaguered landlords who were just trying to keep Big Government off their backs. “Ellising” a building allows landlords to convert apartments into condos. During the Dotcom boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s there was a rash of Ellis Act evictions across San Francisco.
Ted Gullicksen of the San Francisco Tenants Union says Ellis Act evictions have risen this past year to another crisis point. “People are terrified,” he told a gathering of tenants and activists recently. “We know that if we lose our homes we will be forced out of the city, or in the worst case onto the streets.” According to Gullicksen Ellis Act evictions were up 140 percent in 2013 from the previous year.
The only problem for investors seeking to use the Ellis Act is that in San Francisco condo conversion was strictly controlled for years through a lottery that awarded only 200 permits a year. So instead many of the buildings emptied of their renters were converted into what’s called a tenancy-in-common, or TIC. TICs are an otherwise obscure and inconvenient form of real estate ownership, but it has become strangely common in San Francisco: such is the thirst to eliminate rentals and sell housing in a form that captures enormous profit through capital gains. In a TIC a buyer purchases a percentage interest of ownership in an entire building, concurrently with the other residents. Thus the property records of many buildings in San Francisco are now a tangle of deeds deeming small fractions of undivided ownership interests in whole parcels.
Because of their complexity and illiquidity, TICs are costlier and more difficult to finance than condos. The big banks and mortgage lenders don’t like them. In San Francisco a small group of banks have made financing TICs among their core business. Sterling Bank & Trust is among the top TIC lenders, and its executives and employees are a large source of campaign cash for San Francisco’s politicians. For Sterling Bank & Trust TICs are a multi-hundred million dollar market opportunity. Any restrictions would eat into profits, so the cash flows readily into political races.
In 2013 Stephen Adams of Sterling Bank & Trust dealt out the maximum allowable contributions to Supervisors Mark Farrell and Scott Weiner’s re-election committees, $500 a pop. He also gave $250 to Supervisor Jane Kim’s reelection committee, and another $250 to Supervisor Malia Cohen. In fact, look into almost any recent or upcoming San Francisco campaign and there will be money from Sterling Bank & Trust funding one, or both sides of the race. Since 2004 the Sterling Bank & Trust has spent at least $26,000 on San Francisco elections, according to campaign finance data. Mayor Ed Lee got $9,000 from Sterling Bank & Trust and its employees since 2011.
Just how much Sterling Bank & Trust has earned financing TIC mortgages is unknown. Sterling is a private bank, owned by Scott Seligman, the son of wealthy Detroit industrialist. One of Sterling’s main offices is in the ground floor of a San Francisco financial district boutique office mid-rise owned by the Hearst Corporation (Hearst owns the San Francisco Chronicle, and some very valuable real estate parcels in downtown San Francisco). Seligman is also a co-owner of the San Francisco Giants Baseball Club, as are other major San Francisco real estate entrepreneurs.
Supervisors Weiner and Farrell are widely seen as the most real estate industry-friendly elected officials. In 2013 they co-sponsored legislation that would have allowed thousands of TIC units to be converted to condos. Owners would have paid a one time fee, but from then on they’d own very lucrative slices of the urban market, carved into the more marketable unit than the undivided share: the lot.
Tenant advocates pushed the rest of the Board of Supervisor’s to intervene. “It was an extremely disastrous measure that would have furthered condo conversions,” says Sara Shortt of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco. “We pulled some amazing jiu-jitsu on that.”
The resulting legislation, modified by David Chiu and fellow Supervisor Norman Yee, allowed for some TIC conversions, but put in place serious restrictions, so serious that the real estate industry backed off, as did Weiner and Farrell who withdrew their support for the bill. It passed anyway. The conversions are allowed for units that were eligible in 2012, but the previous condo-conversion lottery will be suspended for ten years. The law effectively shut down the manufacturing line that banks like Sterling, and dozens of developers have been using to first turn apartment buildings into TICs, and then into condos. Still the TICs proliferate, as do other real estate deals that further erode the affordability and security of housing in San Francisco.
As the real estate market heats up, investors, developers, and landlords are sowing cash into local political races in hopes of gaining more influence over policy. One in every four dollars raised by Supervisor Scott Weiner last year for his reelection bid came directly from the real estate industry. Campaign finance disclosure forms filed by Weiner reveal that both small and large landlords, real estate developers, property managers, and dozens of brokers and agents put $37,000 in Weiner’s bank account in 2013. Many of these contributors have business pending before the city’s Planning Board, or awaiting decisions by the Board of Supervisors and various city departments. Some of the largest landlords in the city like Vanguard Properties and Herth Real Estate, Zephyr Real Estate, California Property Services, and Flynn Investments are backing Weiner.
Supervisor Mark Farrell raked in $29,000 from the real estate industry in 2013 according to campaign disclosure filings. One of Farrell’s backers is Thomas Coates, a millionaire who lives in a three-story mansion just a stone’s throw from the Marina Green, part of Farrell’s district which includes several of the wealthiest zip codes in the nation. Coates is infamous for spending $950,000 in 2008 to promote Proposition 98, a ballot initiative that would have phased rent control out across California. (Shortly after receiving unfavorable press about his role in bankrolling Proposition 98, Coates wrote in an open letter that his motivation had more to do with restricting cities’ power to use eminent domain, something the law would have also accomplished. He added that while he does own a lot of real estate, none of it is in the form of San Francisco apartments.)
Coates is also a recent contributor to Weiner, having given the Castro District Supervisor $500 last October. It’s all chump change so far compared to what Coates expended in San Francisco’s 2010 elections, $200,000 funneled through independent committees to supported Farrell, Weiner, and another candidate who was not elected. It’s likely, however, that as the November 2014 election nears, real estate industry partisans like Coates will intensify their efforts to shape the outcome.
About 15 percent, or $19,000, of Supervisor Jane Kim’s campaign cash raised in 2013 came directly from real estate interests, according to an analysis of her recent campaign disclosure filings. Among the single biggest sources was the Emerald Fund, a development company run by Marc Babsin. Emerald Fund builds giant apartment buildings. Babsin and his team control some of the most valuable property in the city. The city Planning Commission has green-lighted Emerald Fund to build a 13 story, 162 unit apartment high rise at 101 Polk Street, tucked between the Civic Center and Market Street in what is said to be the hottest spot for development in the whole city. Emerald Fund also controls parcels directly across Hayes Street, and nearby on Van Ness, and has sketched out plans to build upwards of 900 units. The area is considered choice because of its proximity to Twitter’s headquarters and several high-rise luxury apartment buildings already under construction that are being marketed to the industry’s affluent employees. Emerald Fund staff gave Jane Kim’s re-election committee $2,000 last year, and the wife of the company’s president Alastair MacTaggart put in $500 more. Emerald Fund gave another $2,000 to Weiner, and $1,500 to Malia Cohen.
Other big developers giving cash to San Francisco’s politicians include Forest City, AGI Capital, TMG Partners, and Group I. AGI Capital employees have given Supervisor Cohen $2,000 over the past year. Jack Sylvan, Forest City’s vice president who is leading up the company’s massive Pier 70 project, 1,000 condos and apartments and over 2 million square feet of office space designed to attract large tech companies, has written $500 checks to Supervisors Weiner, Farrell and Cohen. Employees of Group I, a developer and landlord with office space in the Mid-Market Twitter-zone that it fills with “start-ups” and “venture capitalist” firms, according to the company’s web site, have given $2,000 to Supervisor Jane Kim, and $500 to Scott Weiner over the past year.
Landlords who have recently used the Ellis Act, and who have even been targeted by tenants and protesters, haven’t been shy about putting their money into San Francisco’s political races. For example, Ashok Gurjal, a very active San Francisco property speculator, wrote a $250 check to Supervisor Scott Weiner in October of 2013. Gurjal recently moved to evict residents of a ten unit apartment building in the Mission District, according to the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, an activist group that tracks investor activity.
Dennis and Russell Flynn of Flynn Investments have already written checks to Weiner and Cohen for $1,000 for their 2014 re-election committees. In 2013 employees of Flynn Investments gave $9,000 to San Franisco politicians, including $1,500 to City Attorney Dennis Herrera, $1,500 to Supervisor London Breed, $1,000 to Assessor Carmen Chu, and $3,000 to Supervisor Katy Tang. Flynn Investments is one of the largest landlords in San Francisco, with a portfolio of apartments estimated around 3,500. The Flynns have the distinction of pursuing the most grandiose eviction and TIC conversion in San Francisco history, turning the Park Lane building, a ritzy 1925 address atop Nob Hill into pads that are selling for $3 million.
While the real estate industry has the money, San Francisco’s tenants still have quite a bit of power. Tenants have their allies on the Board of Supervisors, especially John Avalos, David Campos, Eric Mar, and David Chiu. Last Saturday over one thousand San Franciscans gathered in the Tenderloin Elementary School’s gymnasium for a city-wide tenants convention. To ring in the gathering they chanted, “when landlords use the Ellis Act, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!” Attendees brainstormed over proposals to reign in real estate speculation, including a moratorium on no-fault evictions, and even an anti-speculation tax that would dramatically reduce profits, creating a disincentive for landlords to carve up apartment buildings into TICs and condos.
“There’s this myth that it’s really difficult to evict tenants in San Francisco,” said Tyler Macmillan of the Eviction Defense Collaborate, a legal office that helps tenants in distress. “We need to write better laws that keep people in their homes. Those policies that we can’t get through the Board of Supervisors, we’re gonna put on the ballot for the people to vote on.” Others at the convention spoke in more direct and forceful tones about taking direct action to stop evictions.
The room listened somberly as Gum Gee Lee, a 74 year-old elder of San Francisco’s Chinatown community recounted her family’s eviction from their home of 30 years, an apartment on Jackson Street where converted TICs now sell for $1 million and up. “It was a time of pain, I couldn’t sleep,” said Lee. “I though to myself, is this how I’m going to live my last days?”
Cheers erupted when Lee shook off the sense of defeat saying resolutely, “for all those being evicted, friends, you need to stick together and fight!”
Darwin Bond-Graham, a contributing editor to CounterPunch, is a sociologist and author who lives and works in Oakland, CA. His essay on economic inequality in the “new” California economy appears in theJuly issue of CounterPunch magazine. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion
The young woman at the blockade was worried about the banner the Oaklanders brought, she told me, because she and her co-organisers had tried to be careful about messaging. But the words FUCK OFF GOOGLE in giant letters on a purple sheet held up in front of a blockaded Google bus gladdened the hearts of other San Franciscans. That morning – it was Tuesday, 21 January – about fifty locals were also holding up a Facebook bus: a gleaming luxury coach transporting Facebook employees down the peninsula to Silicon Valley. A tall young black man held one corner of the banner; he was wearing a Ulysses T-shirt, as if analogue itself had come to protest against digital. The Brass Liberation Orchestra played Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams’ as the television cameras rolled.
The white buses took up most of the four lanes of Eighth Street at Market, and their passengers were barely visible behind the tinted windows, scowling or texting or looking at their laptops for the half-hour they were delayed by the blockade. GET OFF THE BUS! JOIN US, another banner said, and the official-looking signs from the 9 December blockade were put up at either end of the Facebook bus: WARNING: INCOME GAP AHEAD the one at the front said. STOP DISPLACEMENT NOW, read the one at the back. One protester shook a sign on a stick in front of the Google bus; a young Google employee decided to dance with it, as though we were all at the same party.
We weren’t. One of the curious things about the crisis in San Francisco – precipitated by a huge influx of well-paid tech workers driving up housing costs and causing evictions, gentrification and cultural change – is that they seem unable to understand why many locals don’t love them. They’re convinced that they are members of the tribe. Their confusion may issue from Silicon Valley’s own favourite stories about itself. These days in TED talks and tech-world conversation, commerce is described as art and as revolution and huge corporations are portrayed as agents of the counterculture.
That may actually have been the case, briefly, in the popular tech Genesis story according to which Apple emerged from a garage somewhere at the south end of the San Francisco Peninsula, not yet known as Silicon Valley. But Google set itself up with the help of a $4.5 million dollar government subsidy, and Apple became a giant corporation that begat multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns and overseas sweatshops and the rest that you already know. Facebook, Google, eBay and Yahoo (though not Apple) belong to the conservative anti-environmental political action committee Alec (the American Legislative Exchange Council).
The story Silicon Valley less often tells about itself has to do with dollar signs and weapons systems. The industry came out of military contracting, and its alliance with the Pentagon has never ended. The valley’s first major firm, Hewlett-Packard, was a military contractor. One of its co-founders, David Packard, was an undersecretary of defence in the Nixon administration; his signal contribution as a civil servant was a paper about overriding the laws preventing the imposition of martial law. Many defence contractors have flourished in Silicon Valley in the decades since: weapons contractors United Technologies and Lockheed Martin, as well as sundry makers of drone, satellite and spying equipment and military robotics. Silicon Valley made technology for the military, and the military sponsored research that benefited Silicon Valley. The first supercomputer, made by New York’s Remington Rand, was for nuclear weapons research at the Bay Area’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
The internet itself, people sometimes remember, was created by the military, and publicly funded research has done a lot to make the hardware, the software and the vast private fortunes possible. Which you wouldn’t know from the hyperlibertarian language of the tech world’s kings. Even the mildest of them, Bill Gates, said in 1998: ‘There isn’t an industry in America that is more creative, more alive and more competitive. And the amazing thing is that all this happened without any government involvement.’ The current lords talk of various kinds of secession, quite literally at the Seasteading Institute, an organisation that’s looking into building artificial islands outside all national laws and regulations. And taxes. Let someone else subsidise all that research.
The same morning the buses were stopped in downtown San Francisco, some hellraisers went to the Berkeley home of a Google employee who, they say, works on robots for the military. (Google recently purchased eight robotics companies and is going in a lot of new directions, to put it mildly.) After ringing his doorbell, they unfurled a banner that read GOOGLE’S FUTURE STOPS HERE, and then blockaded the Google bus at one of its Berkeley stops. ‘We will not be held hostage by Google’s threat to release massive amounts of carbon should the bus service be stopped,’ their statement said.
So there’s a disconnect in values and goals: Silicon Valley workers seem to want to inhabit the anti-war, social-justice, mutual-aid heart of San Francisco (and the Bay Area). To do so they often displace San Franciscans from their homes. One often hears objections: it isn’t the tech workers coming here who are carrying out the evictions. But they are moving into homes from which people have been evicted. Ivory collectors in China aren’t shooting elephants in Africa, but the elephants are being shot for them. Native sons and daughters also work in the industry, and many of the newcomers may be compassionate, progressive people, but I have seen few signs of resistance, refusal to participate, or even chagrin about their impact from within their ranks.
2013 may be the year San Francisco turned on Silicon Valley and may be the year the world did too. Edward Snowden’s revelations began to flow in June: Silicon Valley was sharing our private data with the National Security Agency. Many statements were made about how reluctantly it was done, how outraged the executives were, but all the relevant companies – Yahoo, Google, Facebook – complied without telling us. These days it appears that the NSA is not their enemy so much as their rival; Facebook and Google are themselves apparently harvesting far more data from us than the US government. Last year, Facebook’s chief security officer went to work for the NSA, and the New York Times said the move
underscores the increasingly deep connections between Silicon Valley and the agency and the degree to which they are now in the same business. Both hunt for ways to collect, analyse and exploit large pools of data about millions of Americans. The only difference is that the NSA does it for intelligence, and Silicon Valley does it to make money.
The corporations doing this are not the counterculture, or the underground or bohemia, only the avant-garde of an Orwellian future.
City of Refuge, a church serving people of colour and queer people, left San Francisco, a city that has long considered itself a refuge, last September and moved to Oakland. ‘It became clear,’ its pastor said, ‘what the neighbourhood was saying to us: This is not a haven for social services.’ The current boom is dislodging bookstores, bars, Latino businesses, black businesses, environmental and social-services groups, as well as longtime residents, many of them disabled and elderly. Mary Elizabeth Phillips, who arrived in San Francisco after getting married in 1937, will be 98 when she is driven out of her home of more than half a century.
In many other places eviction means you go and find a comparable place to live: in San Francisco that’s impossible for anyone who’s been here a while and is paying less than the market rate. Money isn’t the only issue: even people who can pay huge sums can’t find anything to rent, because the competition is so fierce. Jonathan Klein, a travel-agency owner in his sixties living with Aids, jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge last year after being driven out of his home, with his business in the Castro facing eviction. ‘EVICTION = DEATH’, a sign at the memorial said, echoing the old ‘SILENCE = DEATH’ slogan of the Aids-activist era.
When it comes to buying a home, your income needs to be nearly one and a half times higher in San Francisco than in the next most expensive city in the US. What began as vague anxiety a couple of years ago has turned into fear, rage and grief. It has also driven people to develop strategies aimed at changing the local and statewide laws that permit the evictions.
When a Google bus was surrounded on 9 December, it made the news all over the English-speaking world. Though what the blockaders wanted wasn’t so easily heard. They were attacked as people who don’t like carpools, by people who don’t get that the buses compete with public transport and that their passengers displace economically vulnerable San Franciscans. It’s as though death came riding in on a pale horse and someone said: ‘What? You don’t like horses?’ Many of the displaced then become commuters but they don’t have luxury coaches pulling up in their neighbourhoods to take them to their jobs and schools in San Francisco: they drive, or patch together routes on public transport, or sink into oblivion and exile. So the Google bus and the Apple bus don’t reduce commuting’s impact. They just transfer it to poorer people.
San Francisco was excoriated again and again by lovers of development and the free market for not being dense enough, on the grounds that if we just built and built and built, everyone would be happily housed. ‘Let San Francisco have the same housing density as Tokyo & Taipei, both earthquake zones, then watch rental costs crater,’ a tech worker tweeted. (His feed also features photographs of a toy mule, the mascot of the company he works for, and occasional outbursts aimed at Edward Snowden.) Another day he insisted with the blithe confidence Silicon Valley seems to beget (as well as the oversimplification Twitter more or less requires): ‘Higher minimum wage and looser, pro-development zoning laws, housing problem in San Francisco goes away. Simple as that.’ (Minimum wage would have to be more than $50 an hour for someone to be able to buy a house in San Francisco, or to ensure that a $3200 a month rent accounted for no more than a third of their pre-tax income.)
San Francisco is already the second densest major metropolitan area in the US, but this isn’t mentioned much, nor is the fact that the densest, New York, is also unaffordable and becoming more so even in its outer boroughs, despite a building boom. Meanwhile San Francisco developers are building 48,000 more units of housing in the few cracks and interstices not already filled in, mostly upscale condominiums far out of most people’s reach, and most of which won’t be available in time to prevent the next round of evictions.
How do you diagnose what is wrong with San Francisco now? People bandy about the word ‘gentrification’, a term usually used for neighbourhoods rather than whole cities. You could say that San Francisco, like New York and other US metropolises, is suffering the reversal of postwar white flight: affluent people, many of them white, decided in the past few decades that cities were nice places to live after all, and started to return, pushing poorer people, many of them non-white, to the margins.
You can also see the explosion as a variation on the new economic divide, in which the few have more and more and the many have less and less: a return to 19th-century social arrangements. (It gets forgotten that the more generous arrangements of the 20th century, in much of Europe and North America, were made in part to sedate insurrectionary fury from below.) It’s the issue to which Occupy Wall Street drew our attention.
It is often said that this city was born with the Gold Rush and that the dot-com boom of the late 1990s bore a great deal of resemblance to this current boom: lots of young technology workers wanted to live here then as now. The dot-commers were forever celebrating the internet as a way to never leave the house and never have random contact with strangers again and even order all your pet food online. But it turned out that many of them wanted exactly the opposite: a walkable, diverse urban life with lots of chances to mingle, though they mingled with their own kind or at least with other young, affluent people in the restaurants and bars and boutiques that sprang up to serve them. Then it all collapsed and quite a few of the tigers of the free market moved back in with their parents, and for several years San Francisco was calm again.
You can think of these booms as half the history of the city: the other half is catastrophe, earthquake, fire, economic bust, deindustrialisation and the scourge of Aids. And maybe you can think of them as the same thing: upheavals that have remade the city again and again. Though something was constant, the sense of the city as separate from the rest of the country, a sanctuary for nonconformists, exiles, war resisters, sex rebels, eccentrics, environmentalists and experimentalists in the arts and sciences, in food, agriculture, law, architecture and social organisation. The city somehow remained hospitable to those on the margins throughout its many incarnations, until now.
But people talking about the crisis don’t talk about urban theory or history. They talk about the Google bus: whether the Google bus should be regulated and pay for the use of public bus stops, and whether it’s having a damaging effect on public transport. There were municipal transport studies on the Google bus, which is shorthand for all the major Silicon Valley tech shuttles that make it possible to commute forty miles down a congested freeway and back daily in comfort, even luxury, while counting the time as being at work (the buses have wifi; the passengers have laptops). In New York Magazine Kevin Roose pointed out that the Google bus was typical of the neoliberal tendency to create elite private solutions and let the public sphere go to hell. A Google bus song was released on YouTube (which belongs to Google), with mocking lyrics about its cushiness and the passengers’ privilege.
A recent bus decoration competition called Bedazzle a Tech Bus seemed to be suggesting that artists could love tech and tech could love artists: the prize was $500. That’s about enough to buy some aspirin or whiskey and pay for a van to take you and your goods to one of the blue-collar cities on the periphery of the Bay Area that are, like most of the US, still struggling in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. The artist Stephanie Syjuco began soliciting proposals from friends and acquaintances and swamping the competition with scathing mock-ups. One showed a bus bearing advertisements for the 1849 Gold Rush; in another, a bus was wrapped in Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa; in a third, a photograph of a homeless encampment was pasted on one of the sleek white buses with tinted windows that transport the well-compensated employees to their tech campuses, as we now call these corporate workplaces. (There are also a lot of badly compensated employees in Silicon Valley, among them the bus drivers, who work for companies that contract their services to the tech giants; the security guards; the people who photograph the innumerable books Google is scanning, whose mostly brown and black hands are occasionally spotted in the images; and the janitors, the dishwashers and others who keep the campus fun for the engineers.)
The winner of the competition submitted a Google Street View photograph of the neighbourhood: not of a generic spot, but of the hallowed charity shop Community Thrift and the mural-covered Clarion Alley next to it. The murals are dedicated to the neighbourhood and to radical politics, and have been painted by some of the city’s best artists of the last twenty years. Against their express wishes, the competition would have their work become the décor – or, as the organisers put it, ‘camouflage’ – for a multinational corporation’s shuttle bus.
On the afternoon of 21 January, the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency held a meeting to discuss putting in place a pilot programme to study the impact of the buses and limit them to two hundred bus stops in the city. As the San Francisco writer Anisse Gross has pointed out, if you evade your fare on a bus, you get fined $110; if you pull a car in at a bus stop, you get fined $271; if you just pay your fare it’s $2 per person. But if you’re the Google bus you will now pay $1 to use the public bus stop. This pissed off a lot of people at the hearing. Not everyone, though. Google had dispatched some of its employees to testify.
The corporation’s memo to the passengers had been leaked the previous day. The memo encouraged them to go to the hearing on company time and told them what to say:
If you do choose to speak in favour of the proposal we thought you might appreciate some guidance on what to say. Feel free to add your own style and opinion:
My shuttle empowers my colleagues and I to reduce our carbon emissions by removing cars from the road.
If the shuttle programme didn’t exist, I would continue to live in San Francisco and drive to work on the peninsula.
I am a shuttle rider, SF resident, and I volunteer at …
The idea of the memo was to make it seem that the luxury buses are reducing, not increasing Silicon Valley’s impact on San Francisco. ‘It’s not a luxury,’ one Google worker said of the bus: ‘It’s just a thing on wheels that gets us to work.’ But a new study concludes that if the buses weren’t available, half the workers wouldn’t drive their own cars from San Francisco to Silicon Valley; nearly a third wouldn’t be willing to live here and commute there at all.
There’s a new job category in San Francisco, though it’s probably a low-paying one: private security guard for the Google bus.