“Daddy, the construction workers need to work faster.”
“What do you mean, kiddo?”
“We need more houses. There are too many homeless people living in tents.”
“Yeah. It’s complicated.” [Fighting back tears.]
The root causes of the humanitarian, health, and moral crisis deepening on our streets are decades-long in the making and overwhelming in number, complexity, and interconnectedness. It has morphed into a beast of a systems-level challenge that includes unintended policy consequences, selective law enforcement, poorly planned civic infrastructure, spiraling labor costs, ill-supported social services, and the decline of religious institutions — to name a few.
What’s troubling is how many of us in the Bay Area have responded: pointing our phone-fatigued fingers at politicians and billionaires as if exclusively to blame, assuming they alone block viable solutions with ineptitude, ignorance, and greed.
As commuters stroll by the destitution with headphones in place and eyes diverted, it’s easy to assume we don’t care (which is an unfair assessment; how can you walk by so many humans in utter depravity and not feel a pain in your gut?). It’s that we simplify our collective ills largely as issues of political leadership, income inequality, and social justice, when in fact it’s also a problem with what unifies much the Bay Area, from Atherton to Antioch: a common, liberal political philosophy.
This lone, unchecked, and unchallenged philosophy isn’t working. So long as we continue to prop up our monoculture while suppressing thoughtful conservative ideas and people, these issues will never get solved.
We have a political diversity problem.
The Bay Area needs sparring partners
Diversity writ large is inherently positive for us as humans. People living in more diverse communities are likelier to help out strangers in need. At work, it makes for dynamic, higher performing, more profitable teams. And let’s be honest, being surrounded by different people makes life more interesting. But diversity here is only framed in the context of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and age.
Why then, when we so vigorously celebrate it in the Bay Area, do we outright reject diversity of political persuasion?
At the risk of stating the obvious, having a sparring partner on any issue positively challenges beliefs and, at a community-level, can insulate against groupthink. Take dueling Harvard philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick, respectfully (and vociferously) liberal and libertarian. In Nozick’s seminole libertarian screed, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, he states of Rawls’ own defining work:
“A Theory of Justice is a powerful, deep, subtle, wide-ranging, systematic work in political and moral philosophy which has not seen its like since the writings of John Stuart Mill, if then. It is a fountain of illuminating ideas…Political philosophers now must either work within Rawls’ theory or explain why not…Even those who remain unconvinced after wrestling with Rawls’ systematic vision will learn much from closely studying it…It is impossible to read Rawls’ book without incorporating much, perhaps transmuted, into one’s owned deepened view…I am confident that my readers will have discovered for themselves its many virtues.”
This is more than rival respect. It’s an admission that Rawls’ ideas directly influenced Nozick’s own, despite their vast differences. It’s safe to say that neither would have delivered such brilliant text without one another, and the powerfully diverse community and relationship they forged over decades.
So, Bay Area, where are our sparring partners? To whom does our community look to challenge the dominant political philosophies underpinning our current policies, social sector approaches, and civic infrastructure? Where are the forums, political thinkers, and institutions that can improve liberal thought and policy-making — who aren’t themselves liberal? [Note: Divisions within the liberal political spectrum don’t count, and Peter Thiel (who recently moved away from the Bay Area) and Stanford’s Hoover Institution (a lone standout) as a response isn’t quite sufficient.]
I don’t have an answer, but I suspect there aren’t many and they’re hard to find. Possibly because they’ve been scared off and left town (metaphorically and literally speaking) due to intimidation and intolerance, some of whom now spend their days taking pot shots from the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal and The National Review.
The jabs conservatives take at California, and especially the Bay Area, are currently a one-way critique instead of a productive wrestling of ideas. This is largely because groupthink is now firmly entrenched here, and few — certainly not any of our progressive politicians — would want to be caught in conversation with a conservative think tanker for fear of the backlash. More broadly, can you recall any reflective policy discussions about the following inconvenient truths:
- Rent control doesn’t work. We celebrate 275 square foot housing at $1,000/month as a breakthrough solution, without acknowledging that well-intentioned-yet-market-distorting policies have led us to this point.
- When San Francisco raised its affordable residential requirements for new developments, the onerous policy had the opposite of its intended effect: residential development has ground to a halt: “All of these things sound great, but now we are getting zero. [We have made] housing economically infeasible. We end up with nothing.” (Todd David, San Francisco Housing Action Coalition)
- Carbon offset programs might not be so beneficial after all. For real. Who knew? Well, actually, we all know now.
It’s not like these are being reported in InfoWars, which I won’t dignify with italics. These are in MIT Tech Review and peer reviewed studies published by our finest academics at Cal-Berkeley and Stanford.
As thoughtful as we like to think we are, we can be deeply unreflective politically. So again, where are those sparring partners? Whether we realize it or not, we have indeed been searching for someone to wrestle with.
The only problem: we have, in bad faith, found the wrong partner in the wrong place — at the national level.
And it has come at a steep cost to us locally.
An illusory trolly problem of our own
I’m part of a local fathers group that gathers periodically to talk about dad stuff. A few months ago, due to my general angst on the topic of this article, I suggested we discuss politics, activism, and kids. Halfway through the conversation one of the fathers stated that too many of us in the Bay Area have become obsessed with national and international issues related to the current administration. He, instead, had been focusing his energy with his children on local issues. It’s all we talked about the rest of the evening.
As inspired as I was that night, I was brought back to reality the next morning by a KQED brief focusing almost exclusively on how Bay Area representatives were fighting the Trump administration on issues largely irrelevant to Bay Area residents’ daily lives. To be clear, I’m not suggesting these issues aren’t worthwhile. We have finite time and resources to allocate every day. At least for the past few years, where the humanitarian crisis on our streets has deepened, our communities have — not coincidentally — been prioritizing a disproportionate amount of attention toward national issues over which we have little control.
We have found a misguided, twisted comfort in shouting in unison at the Provocateur-In-Chief without much reflection on the opportunity cost.
It’s simply easier and more gratifying than engaging in an honest dialogue with political perspectives that could help us improve locally. Turns out it’s hard to look in the mirror, especially when there’s no partner to hold it up for us. We’re currently choosing to let the trolly trample thousands of our own, destitute and downtrodden in the Bay Area, under a false impression that we’re saving an untold number more by engaging instead on national issues that national organizations are largely handling anyway.
And what do we have to show for it in Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley, and beyond? More needles, feces, tents, medieval diseases, and thousands of people in desperate need of help — made worse by even more passive aggressive policies, produced by a political monoculture.
Rosanne Haggerty has higher expectations. Shouldn’t we?
The Rockefeller Foundation recently partnered with Malcolm Gladwell on a podcast called Solvable, aimed at better understanding how global leaders think about and tackle big challenges. Listening to Rosanne Haggerty — President and CEO of Community Solutions, which focuses on housing for vulnerable populations (she previously founded Common Ground, a proven leader in supportive housing and research-based practices ending homelessness) — discuss the solvability of homelessness was both inspiring and revealing. It was reassuring to hear her discuss the complexities involved, the “myth of the overwhelming nature of the problem” in larger cities, and the lack of solutions-oriented stories despite “the evidence [that this is clearly a solvable problem].”
Two points stood out:
1/ Expectations: “A different mindset about outcomes.”
She made reference to (what I assume she thinks should be) a shared, reflective goal of any region with this challenge: “Are we reducing [the number of homeless] and getting closer to zero?” And when describing communities that have addressed issues like this head-on, there appears to be a higher standard — in expected outcomes and urgency.
2/ Community: “What kind of community are we?”
Rosanne discussed two regions in particular. Bergen County, which has functionally ended chronic and veteran homelessness, “made it a community project” including “landlords, active citizens, libraries, and local police.” The Gulf Coast community (from Biloxi to Pass Christian) activated veterans organizations, small businesses, and church groups with vans “because they were able to mobilize the very long tradition of military service and patriotism in the region and say ‘This is about us…this isn’t about the homeless…what kind of a community are we?’” She continues: “What I really am describing..in communities is a cultural shift: Where you say ‘This is actually a solvable problem, and it’s on us…to be accountable for a result.’”
Let’s start with expectations for one Bay Area county (Alameda) and city (Oakland). After inquiring with my City Council Member’s office in Oakland as well as Alameda County about our homeless crisis, I was referred to an overwhelming number of strategic documents. Dating back to 2007, through to 2013, and at last 2018 (also this), Alameda County and Oakland’s goals have lacked ambition given their timescales: as far out as 15 years and never closer in than seven, without any dedication to reporting, reflection, or course-correction in the interim. With goals that far out, accountability and ownership have been actively designed out of the process.
It appears we might need “a different mindset about outcomes,” which often results from a political challenge — some type of political recourse for voters against the party in power, even at a local level. This, as we know, isn’t possible in Alameda County, where an anemic 10.8% of voters are registered Republicans. In San Francisco County, registered Republicans sit at 6.4%. Hmm.
The topic of community is more complicated. The Bay Area is comprised of a number of discrete communities, with many having been brutally carved up, literally, in ways that disproportionately impact people of color to this day. Many have been so disempowered one can’t reasonably “lay blame” at their doorstep in any way, nor look to inclusive policy making (a la Paolo Freire or bell hooks) alone as a silver bullet.
And yet, while there is no all-encompassing Bay Area community, I can’t help but wonder if our deficiency in certain enviable conservative values (e.g., not looking to government for solutions on complex matters, personal / community accountability, faith, and duty) is at play here. I continue to ask myself “what kind of a community are we?” and keep coming back to a caricature: one that points to government, says “Just tax it more and fix it!” — and when the problems persist we elect the same party, playing variations on a theme, ad nauseum.
Liberty, equality, and an uneasy equilibrium.
After graduating college and moving to New York City, my mother (now a California resident herself) believed I was growing too conservative (even though I identified as liberal, and do to this day). She bought me a subscription to Mother Jones, at the time a bi-monthly print publication. It shed light on issues like a vast empire of profiteering conflicts the Bush-Cheney regime embraced when arguing for the Iraq war, reporting I might not have otherwise encountered. From that point on I opened the aperture of my “idea consumption” as widely as possible.
Our national political fragmentation and polarization can’t be remedied by reading other perspectives alone (confirmation bias is a real thing, too). But we need to get back to a healthy tension, especially at local levels in places like the Bay Area, between conservative ideology (often framed through the lens of “Liberty”) and liberal outlooks (more positioned on matters of “Equality”).
“[Social and political collisions can be] minimised by promoting and preserving an uneasy equilibrium, which is constantly threatened and in constant need of repair — that alone, I repeat, is the precondition for decent societies and morally acceptable behavior, otherwise we are bound to lose our way.”
Diving a little deeper:
“Complete liberty is not compatible with complete equality — if men were wholly free, the wolves would be free to eat the sheep. Perfect equality means that human liberties must be restrained so that the ablest and the most gifted are not permitted to advance beyond those who would inevitably lose if there were competition.”
“So we must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals. I know only too well that this is not a flag under which idealistic and enthusiastic young men and women may wish to march — it seems too tame, too reasonable, too bourgeois, it does not engage the generous emotions.”
If it’s not sexy, exciting, and galvanizing to rally behind a practical engagement of ideas that lasts indefinitely (!), how do we get from our current disequilibrium to a more desirable, uneasy one? One that is neither tokenism on one end, nor “false balance” on the other?
What may come as a surprise, I’m a shameless optimist. I do have hope.
Some folks are stepping up in good faith, like the California Economic Mobility Collaborative, started by “twelve individuals (a few Democrats, a few Republicans and a few independents) [starting] a conversation about what (more) might be done to better connect California’s extraordinary and diverse resources to the vast yet dormant potential that our state’s full population represents.” It feels like a start, and there are likely many more doing the same.
We need more people like them. We need to step up, and make the Bay Area a more inclusive place for thoughtful conservative people and ideas. It’s time to extend our diversity umbrella to the political realm.
Our way of life depends on it.