San Francisco is a Microcosm of America’s Future

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San Francisco is a strange place.

In one part of town—on any given weekday—you can see tens of thousands of 20-50 year-olds scurrying to their top 5% jobs.

They are educated, they have careers, and their minds are on their work, their hobbies, and a search for meaning in it all.

tenderloin garbage

But walk for 10-20 minutes and you can be surrounded by a complete breakdown in society. The sidewalks are littered with human feces and drug paraphernalia. There is garbage everywhere. And people are gathered together without anywhere to go or anything to do. Naturally, it’s a center for suffering and crime.

This area doesn’t just cover a few blocks like most think. It’s actually a massive part of the heart of the city—a city that’s much smaller than people imagine.

homeless camps

This is getting some attention, of course. The media has been highlighting the homeless encampments, the crime, the drugs, the bad roads, the lack of affordable housing, etc.

But the craziest part about this isn’t actually how bad it is. It’s how bad it is just a few blocks from the richest place in the world, with the people there completely ignoring it.

Police—when they are there at all—stand in these areas as if they’re in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. They completely ignore drug use, mentally deranged people, overt littering, and much worse. It’s invisible to them, like everything is ok.

And the privileged people with—you know—jobs and careers and stuff—we do the same. We walk through these areas casting whatever spells in our minds that keep us sane.

We should be doing more to help these people.

This is a travesty. We should be ashamed.

I wish someone would just take all these people somewhere and clean this all up.

This is why I am ok with paying higher taxes; that’s my way of helping.

I need to do more to help with this, but I don’t know what to do.

poverty patronus

The Poverty Patronus

We mutter these incantations like a Poverty Patronus that protects us from crumpled bodies on the street, shuffling zombies looking dead-eyed at us as we pass, and all the other poop-shaped affronts to our civilized nature.

Then the phone rings, or we get to work, and it’s time to prepare for that next meeting.

Everything is fine. Nothing to worry about. It was all a bad dream.

Except it’s not. It’s not fine. It’s not ok. And some people—the people you passed actually—didn’t actually wake up from the dream. They’re still living it.

So that’s one point: the people in the top 5% live right next to the people at the bottom, yet neither society (the city, the police, etc.) nor the people (you and me) do much to improve it.

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The second point is that this is happening all over the country. Hayes Valley and the Business District are the vibrant coastal cities, and The Tenderloin is becoming everywhere else in America.

We’re producing violent disharmony in this country right now. Disharmony in education, in job opportunities, and in lifestyle. And those divides are like tectonic plates: sooner or later they will make noise and snap back in place.

We saw some of that in 2016, and I think we’re likely to see a lot more in 2020.

If you look at the stock market, the tech sector, and the thriving businesses at ski resorts and meditation retreats, things look quite healthy. We’re doing amazing!

Well, no. We’re not.

You are. I am. But we’re not America.

We’re in the Business District. We’re in Hayes Valley. We’re in the top 20%.

The rest of the country is quietly suffering. They need multiple jobs to pay rent. They are getting pillaged by profit-focused healthcare pricing. And their children have grim options even if they do go to college.

America is becoming Downtown SF surrounded by The Tenderloin, and we step over those bodies on the way to work at our own peril.

As Piketty tried to tell us, the Patronus will only hold for so long.

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