What if you took a bunch of ideas that all your most passionate pals agreed were either cool, edgy, just or moral, and mixed them together in a big pot? You would end up with San Francisco.
The basic problem is the steady collapse of livability. Across my home state, traffic and transportation is a developing-world nightmare. Child care and education seem impossible for all but the wealthiest. The problems of affordable housing and homelessness have surpassed all superlatives — what was a crisis is now an emergency that feels like a dystopian showcase of American inequality.
The problem with reducing problems to the “basic problem” is why Farhad Manjoo, and those who view their world with the facile simplicity that created this American Experiment in progress can stare their failure in the face and still fail to understand how everything went awry.
Just look at San Francisco, Nancy Pelosi’s city. One of every 11,600 residents is a billionaire, and the annual household income necessary to buy a median-priced home now tops $320,000. Yet the streets there are a plague of garbage and needles and feces, and every morning brings fresh horror stories from a “Black Mirror” hellscape: Homeless veterans are surviving on an economy of trash from billionaires’ mansions. Wealthy homeowners are crowdfunding a legal effort arguing that a proposed homeless shelter is an environmental hazard.
And there is no end in sight to such crushing success. At every level of government, our representatives, nearly all of them Democrats, prove inadequate and unresponsive to the challenges at hand.
The impulse to build a fence around San Francisco, and name it after this guy, Chesterton, would seem hard to resist to everyone who isn’t blinded by self-serving belief. Instead, Manjoo points the fickle finger of blame at the fashionable stalking horses, income inequality and NIMBYism.
It was another chapter in a dismal saga of Nimbyist urban mismanagement that is crushing American cities. Not-in-my-backyardism is a bipartisan sentiment, but because the largest American cities are populated and run by Democrats — many in states under complete Democratic control — this sort of nakedly exclusionary urban restrictionism is a particular shame of the left.
It’s impossible to escape the fact that San Francisco is a progressive paradise, controlled not only by Democrats, but a notably leftist strain, and so something must have screwed up the otherwise unassailable scheme to regulate every tiny inch of justice and morality for all. Much like the proponents of socialism explain, the problem isn’t socialism, but that it’s never been done properly because people just won’t stick with the program. They love humanity. It’s people they can’t stand.
So it’s the billionaires’ fault that they can’t build massive low-rent projects to provide affordable housing for the homeless, forcing them to shoot up and defecate down?
There are many threads in the story of America’s increasingly unlivable cities. One continuing tragedy is the decimation of local media and the rise of nationalized politics in its place. In America the “local” problems plaguing cities are systematically sidelined by the structure of the national media and government, in which the presidency, the Senate and the Supreme Court are all constitutionally tilted in favor of places where no one lives. (There are more than twice as many people in my midsize suburban county, Santa Clara, as there are in the entire state of North Dakota, with its two United States senators.)
And it’s America’s fault, having a system that doesn’t allow Santa Clara County to control the nation, because its local failures would be far more sufferable if everyone lived in the same dystopia? Manjoo blames the progressive billionaires for not “living by the values they profess to support at the national level.”
Is he mad? If they did, if all progressives did, they would give up their college seats, their Teslas and their house keys to the oppressed. There would be no billionaires, no millionaires either, because hoarding undeserved wealth is unjustifiable and inexcusable. There would still be homeless, but they would all be former billionaires. Then there would be new wealthy people treating the old formerly wealthy people like dirt because they don’t want them delivering feces on their front lawn.
Creating dense, economically and socially diverse urban environments ought to be a paramount goal of progressivism.
America, the dense, is the dream? A city reduced to its lowest common denominator? A nation where no one lives above the average so they can share whatever they’ve got to lift up everyone below the average, no matter why they’re down and out?
This is where some passionate wag throws out the challenge, “So what’s the answer, dumbass?” And some even more passionate wag snarks, “So, you support Trump, you racist shitlord?”
Cities are the standard geographical unit of the global economy. Dense urban areas are quite literally the “real America” — the cities are where two-thirds of Americans live, and they account for almost all national economic output. Urban areas are the most environmentally friendly way we know of housing lots of people. We can’t solve the climate crisis without vastly improving public transportation and increasing urban density. More than that, metropolises are good for the psyche and the soul; density fosters tolerance, diversity, creativity and progress.
There is no “answer.” Every “answer” carries with it new problems and trade-offs, which aren’t white-washed by fuzzy rhetoric like “good for the psyche and the soul.” Density fosters tolerance? It also fosters competition for scarce resources, like a little peace and quiet, the ability to enjoy one’s home and life without having your neighbor breathing down your neck.
But before we can begin to decide which choices, if any, would best serve our cities or our nation, we need to take a non-ideological and brutally honest look at the problems. Extolling the fuzzy virtues of social justice one notion at a time may be good enough for most insipid progressives, but the outcome is San Francisco, an American experiment in social engineering.
Tread carefully with progress so you don’t step on a needle or feces on your way out of this dystopian showcase. There’s not much point in being a billionaire if your life sucks. Like it or not, the goal is to improve one’s lifestyle, to attain a degree of wealth and comfort, which is why it’s easier to emote about social justice on social media than hand over the keys to the Ferrari to the next homeless guy who comes along.