My high-level impression… Suppose that a dystopian science fiction novel published in the 1950s had imagined a city in which fabulously rich people lived in new gleaming towers, getting marijuana delivered to them by runners on electric skateboards. The rich people who work stroll on sidewalks that are half covered in tents in which the “homeless” (but not “tentless”) reside. When they get to work they’re in a bullpen that is packed tighter than a commodities trading pit. If they need to make a phone call while at work they’ll duck into a soundproof transparent pod.
People who read a book like that circa 1950 would have said “This author has a great imagination, but none of this could ever happen. Even in the Great Depression people didn’t simply pitch tents on downtown sidewalks. And an employer wouldn’t have valuable workers distracted by noise and crowding.”
Yet that imagined future has been fully implemented by San Franciscans today! What are people saying as they live and visit this unusual place? Some miscellaneous sentiments gathered from around the Bay Area during a recent trip…
A friend has been complaining about unfairly low tax rates (“you didn’t build that”) since Bill Clinton left office. He and his wife said that they wanted to see a big tax rate increase on “the rich.” This trip was my first opportunity to talk to him since the late 2018 tax law change. Due to the fact that this couple can’t deduct their California state income tax (13.3 percent max rate) or the property tax on their $4 million home from their income for federal tax purposes, he believes that his effective tax rate has actually gone up. This is his dream of higher tax rates fulfilled? Apparently not since he is hopping mad about it!
In response to my saying that I’d finished a book on naval battles of World War II, friends in Berkeley said that they considered the U.S. to be the world’s most evil nation currently, committing acts comparable to what the Germans and Japanese did during the very darkest parts of World War II. What exactly was the U.S. doing? Separating children from one or both parents during the migration/asylum process. What about the fact that their neighbors, in availing themselves of California family law‘s no-fault divorce and winner-take-all custody provisions, regularly separated children from the loser parent? “That’s different. Children don’t need two parents. Trump is separating children from both parents.”
Folks in the suburbs and exurbs complained about the poor condition of the highways, which were indeed rough (therefore noisy) and potholed. “There is no frost here,” a friend in Napa noted. Gasoline in the suburbs was almost exactly 2X the cost that I had paid in Bentonville, Arkansas:
Complaints about Trump were ubiquitous. One knock against the dictator was that he lied (previous American politicians were paragons of truth!) and therefore the U.S. was no longer a role model to nations around the world.
Expressed concern for the environment was high, but nearly every buildable surface in Silicon Valley is covered. See this photo from the XNA-SFO flight just before landing (incidentally, if you want to know how to run an enterprise with H-1B visa holders, the Bentonville to San Francisco flight holds all of the folks that you need to talk to).
Do folks in the Bay Area actually have valuable lessons to teach the rest of the nation (and the world!) on how to live in harmony with Mother Earth? Bentonville certainly seemed like a place where the Earth was still in some sort of recognizable condition, e.g., with a lot of farms growing hay.
Expressed concern for the homeless and/or “vulnerable” is high. And expressed support for increased immigration is high, including low-skill undocumented immigration. Yet one drives by homeless encampments in Berkeley on the way to $20 per-person diner breakfast. One common explanation for this apparent contradiction is that homeless people are mentally ill. But for their mental illness, they would be commuting 4 hours round-trip each day to a job and using the money earned to pay for a modest exurban apartment. Would they then support screening immigrants for mental illness? “Of course not!”
Expressed faith in the virtue of higher minimum wage was universal. It will get people off welfare. Taxpayers won’t be subsidizing evil low-wage employers with Medicaid, welfare, public housing, and other means-tested programs for which low-income folks may qualify. In 2018, the income limit for government-allocated “inclusionary” public housing was $236,800 for a family of four in San Francisco, $165,800 for a single person. Thus, based on a 40-hour week, minimum wage for a childless worker would have to be more than $80/hour before he or she wouldn’t be entitled to welfare subsidies.
[If a higher minimum wage is the silver bullet for cutting welfare expense, why wouldn’t at least one of the 50 states deploy it in a serious way? If the Bay Area minimum wage believers are correct, a state could set minimum wage to $25 or $50 per hour, for example, and enjoy massive savings and robust economic growth. I don’t think that the answer is “It can only work at a national scale because otherwise it is too easy for employers to move to another state” because, due to NAFTA, at the national scale it would be almost as easy for employers to move a factory to Mexico or Canada.]
Enthusiasm for a gynecocracy remains undimmed despite Hillary Clinton’s defeat. From the (Fairmont) hotel gift shop:
Partly due to my passions for art museums and dim sum, I still like San Francisco as a place to visit, though I’m noticing that the entire northeast quadrant is essentially without parks or other greenspace. It is a concrete jungle like Lower Manhattan. A lot of the folks with whom I talked have grown to hate the city and try to minimize their time in San Francisco itself. One 30-year-old work colleague will go so far as to stay in a hotel in Daly City and commute in. No 30-year-old guy in the 1980s would have preferred to be in Daly City!