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I, the Gentry

April 10, 2014, 3:34 am

Harvey Milk

A year ago, Rebecca Solnit wrote a “Diary” item for the London Review of Books titled “Google Invades”, complaining of the influx of moneyed Silicon Valley types, from Google, Apple, Facebook, Genentech, etc., into San Francisco. I sent in a short response, and the LRB published it (it’s appended to the piece online). Since then, the argument has grown livelier, and I’ve even heard from a couple of journalists. (See “The dawn of the ‘start-up douchebag’”, in the Independent. I’m not the douchebag — I almost wish I could boast I was.)  But I don’t think I’ve managed to get across what needs to change.

First, I should say that the problems Solnit and others are protesting are very real. Living is expensive, and getting worse. People without plush incomes have to weigh income against transportation distance, personal safety, schools, all the other elements of life. (In the San Fernando Valley, the morning buses are full of people riding two hours out from the places they can live to the places they can work, and I’m sure there are commutes like that here too, from Pinole or Richmond to Atherton or Ross.) And neighborhoods are changing: artists and bohemians can hardly find a foothold any more in the city that once identified itself with them.

I don’t deny these problems at all — but I do doubt that direct efforts to alleviate them can succeed. Rent control, for instance, while it seems to take on the worst of evictions and neighborhood change, tends over the decades to shrink the pool of rental housing, making the lucky beneficiaries the last of their class. And designated “jazz districts” and the like benefit tourists (including the local well-to-do), not actual musicians or ordinary inhabitants.

My prescription for what ails San Francisco, and much of the rest of the country, is simple — which is not to say, of course, that it’ll be easy to implement.

1. Taxes on high earners like me (and the many more above me) should go up, seriously up, to 1960s or 1950s levels. This would not reorder the economic ladder, but it would very significantly compress it. Whatever the gap is today between burger-flipper and CEO, it could be half of that tomorrow, with no harm done to either one’s self-esteem or motivation. If wealth consists mainly of positional goods, that position is largely relative, a matter of rank rather than level.

(Tangentially, this redistribution should be done in a way that is visibly broad-based. The 1% are the ones holding most of the the unjust surplus, so it’s tempting to target the increase at their pocketbooks alone, whether through income or capital gains taxes. That would be good policy — the special treatment of the latter is almost comically evil — but as we’ve seen, it’s vulnerable politically, too easily caricatured as an act of resentment or envy, or opportunism, on the part of the less rich. Plus, of course, the merely comfortable are doing pretty well these days too.)

2. We should build more. On the one hand, in San Francisco and other dense places where demand is great, the supply should simply be increased. (In SF, there’s a broad south and west of the city, with far less urbanistic vitality than the popular neighborhoods of the northeastern quadrant. Ocean Avenue, for instance, would greatly benefit from more pedestrians.)

And on the other hand, in all those cities which find themselves less fashionable at the moment, the urban fabric should be denser too. That’s what people want, what really attracts them to SF: yet in much of the country, zoning forbids it. As a proud adoptive San Franciscan, I enjoy feeling my city is special, but really, we’d all benefit from greater liveliness, across the country.

In the words of Watson and Crick, “It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible” application for the liberated funds. In short, I’m suggesting taking money with one hand and spending it with the other, on housing. Beyond that, of course, though, there are lots more good things to spend the money on to improve our common public life: education and public transportation (infrastructure altogether) have gone far too long neglected. And expansion in any of these areas would create real employment in percentiles other than the 99th.

Unsurprisingly, much of what I’m trying to say was anticipated by Marshall Berman. Searching at random, here he is in 2010, telling an interviewer that “once a city is gentrified, the people who most love it can least afford it.” He doesn’t quite mean, as Solnit does, those who are most worthy of it (in their activism or bohemianism, or whatever personal virtue), but those who value it most — a bit like the way that, in the art market, those for whom art is an ornamental luxury squeeze out those who give it their whole lives.

The city (in general, more than the City in particular) is a dream, an idea, for how people might share their goods and opportunities, through living next to one another in all diversity, and sharing common spaces and institutions. Like art, it isn’t just for the well-to-do; and as with art, we should take collective action to keep the rich from just walking away with it. That’s not to say we should try to keep them out of it, just to make sure their share isn’t exclusive. And as with progressive periods of the past, this change, if it comes, will be brought not by anarchists protesting at the homes of the unfairly lucky winners, but by the heavy hand of big government, guided and restrained we hope by all our hands civically and individually.

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