“I just took [my son] to our local Walgreens to buy him a toy. While there, a man shoved past me so firmly that he sent me into the shelving. Then he proceeded to fill a brown paper bag with Halloween candy and waltzed out of the store. This is one of five Walgreens stores in SF that will be closing in the next two months, in part because of rampant theft. And our city leaders all keep insisting crime is down.”
I didn’t need to read Michael Shellenberger’s new book, San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities, to know what has happened to the city on the Bay. The above quotation is taken from an email from a former student, herself a San Francisco native. Earlier she reported that a homeless man had defecated in front of her townhouse.
San Francisco’s mainstream media and political elite have tried to downplay such stories. But the trends are impossible to ignore. California is one of just a handful of states to see dramatic increases in its homeless population. Between 2015 and 2020, San Francisco’s homeless population grew by 32%, despite the city tripling its funds to address homelessness. Public health and safety have been jeopardized. The entire state has witnessed a spike in shoplifting, particularly in San Francisco. Meanwhile, homeless encampments have become breeding grounds for all sorts of diseases, some of them distinctly medieval.
Some say it’s the mild weather that drives this growth. But other warm-weather places like Houston, Phoenix, and Miami have all reduced their homeless populations, and their percentages of unhoused people are just a fraction of San Francisco’s. As Shellenberger shows, the blame lies not with climate, but with policies and politics.
San Fransicko lays out in precise detail the growth of homelessness and disorder in San Francisco and other West Coast cities, and how the efforts by progressive governments—from liberal drug policies to a deliberate reduction in punishments for minor property offenses—have simply made things worse.
Shellenberger suggests that many of the homeless in San Francisco are not people down on their luck, but those who, quite rationally, move to places where they are free to camp, avoid prosecution for property crimes, receive the occasional hotel room, and even access to free drugs and alcohol. Progressive politicians and policymakers, Shellenberger notes, live in a kind of dreamworld, where the public can build housing for anyone who wants to come to the Bay, a fiscal impossibility in the country’s most expensive city.
But San Fransicko is no right-wing screed about Democratic failure. Shellenberger, a long-time environmental activist, was a socialist in his youth and worked with radicals to protest “economic globalization.” He is part of a dissident movement from within liberal ranks that includes Bill Maher, Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, Batya Ungar-Sargon, and many others.
Perhaps it’s his familiarity with the Left that explains Shellenberger’s keenest insights: how postmodernist ideology undermines the basic order necessary for urban life.
Shellenberger traces some of California’s urban dystopia to the writings of Michel Foucault, who challenged the very idea of incarceration and ascribed crime not to personal failings, but to social oppression. Thus seeing in the homeless an advertisement for “social justice,” progressives are reluctant to admit that many homeless people are actually drug-addicted or mentally ill, people whose needs must be addressed by professionals. They sanction even the most demeaning behaviors, like shooting up, masturbating, or defecating in public—now considered “victimless crimes” by San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, whose main priority is not fighting crime but “deincarceration.”
The pervasiveness of this postmodern ideology explains how social crisis is not just another Californian lunacy. Rioting, rising crime, and civic disorder can be found in cities under similar ideological sway. Some of the most progressive (and incidentally whitest and most educated) American cities, such as Minneapolis, Portland, and Seattle, have all experienced rising crime and racial disorder—sometimes for months on end, although recent elections showed some definite pushback even in these cities. Once, these places were widely considered urban role models. Yet few people today would hold out downtown Portland—arguably our most dysfunctional big city, now suffering record homicides—as an urban exemplar today.
Leaders in these cities may genuflect to “Black Lives Matter” and hold the common belief that racial minorities must rely on constant political agitation because of racism. But in reality, progressives have presided over a kind of ethnic cleansing. In the core of San Francisco’s metropolitan area, the Black community has declined from one-in-seven to barely one-in-20 over the last 40 years, with most now ensconced in public housing. Black San Franciscans constitute 37% of the homeless and are now so marginal that one filmmaker even made a movie called “The Last Black Man In San Francisco.” Los Angeles and Portland have also experienced drops in their minority populations.
Progressivism in its postmodern guise produces a dystopic demography. Once solid middle- and working-class communities either gentrify or become zones for homeless camps, open-air drug markets, and petty crime—this in cities where families with incomes of $117,000 are officially considered poor. The Bay Area, along with southern California, now ranks among the worst places for first-time home buyers, meaning that, if people move to buy a house, they must move further out.
The result is cities dominated by the rich, the poor, and a youthful, largely childless population. They have experienced the spread of high-poverty neighborhoods and a shrinking middle class. San Francisco has the nation’s lowest percentage of children of any major American city while Los Angeles has seen its youth population plummet and even managed to lose its foreign-born population in the last decade. No surprise then that middle-class families are going extinct.
Shellenberger does not dwell on the underlying economics driving these trends. Increasingly, these dense cities offer vanishingly little opportunity for working- and middle-class residents. Once, San Francisco had a widely diverse economy, with a specialty manufacturing sector, a thriving port, and until recently several large firms—like McKesson, Chevron, and Schwab—that employed many mid-level, white-collar workers. Now these firms, and many others, have departed, leaving California totally dependent on the highly volatile tech sector.
With the rise of remote work, the tech industry has only accelerated the urban exodus. Workers at firms like Facebook, Salesforce, Microsoft, Google, LinkedIn, and Twitter now have the option of working either from the safety of the suburbs or even further out in San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Merced counties in the San Joaquin Valley. San Francisco is now seeing rising office vacancies, three times its pre-pandemic levels—enough to fill 17 Salesforce Towers. Things should improve eventually, but most area companies expect employees to come to the office three days a week or less, with barely one-in-five ever anticipating a return to “normal.”
One might think the new hegemons would push back against the policies driving these trends. But unlike the corporate old guard, the tech moguls—like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey—often see themselves as rich, but woke, radicals, donating millions to left-wing organizations and committing their companies to progressive social causes. For all their supposed altruism, San Francisco’s elite is generally not doing what earlier generations might have done, like pushing to improve performance in schools or restoring basic public order. Such moves would discomfit their allies in the teacher’s unions and anti-police activist groups.
Perhaps it’s because these oligarchs have no fundamental stake in the city. Their wealth insulates them from the worst urban problems and allows them to maintain numerous residences. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley’s significant reliance on the H-1B visa program’s temporary foreign workers reduces any interest in the native population.
Is there a way back from dystopia for once-great cities like San Francisco? “Heroism,” Shellenberger writes, “is not the absence of victimization but the overcoming of it.” Cities can come back, but they first must become civil. They can overcome the rise of telework, just as they have bounced back from past crises and outbreaks of disorder, by improving conditions on the ground. Only by making urbanity safer and cleaner and by addressing the economic concerns of the many rather than appeasing the discordant fewer, can cities restore their promise in the coming decade.
But as Shellenberger notes, that will require as much as a change of mind as a change of policy.
San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities, by Michael Shellenberger (Harper, 416 pp., $28.99)
[Correction: An earlier version of this article implied that nearly three-quarters of tech workers in Silicon Valley are employed under the H-1B visa program. According to the study cited, 71% of tech workers in the Valley are foreign-born, but not necessarily participants in the H-1B program.]