Debunking Farhad Manjoo's Version of the Tech Boom -- Again
As a rebuttal of a rebuttal of a rebuttal is always a dicey proposition, I'll start off by echoing the words of Farhad Manjoo. I respect him and his work, and I'm flattered that he took the time to tear apart one of my pieces.
Still, Manjoo's rebuttal of my rebuttal of his current San Francisco Magazine cover story is, in large part, a grand exposition on the minutiae of San Mateo's municipal budget. I argued that tech is not wholly responsible for economic gains in San Mateo. Manjoo argues that tech is at least partly responsible for economic gains in San Mateo.
Yet, after all of that, he still fails to defend his story's thesis.
His original article begins with an inspiring anecdote about Austen Allred, a bright-eyed, 23-year-old startup founder who chooses to live in his Honda Civic, rather than brace the rising rents in San Francisco. Though the story itself is exceptional, Manjoo deploys it as an allegory of tech writ large -- proof that rugged individuals like Allred are being stymied by civic institutions right as they try to pursue the American Dream.
In his story (and afterward, on the Internet) Manjoo conjoins the plights of car-camping tech wizards with the sadly ubiquitous masses of involuntary, chronically homeless people. He advocates for "community centers and low-cost housing units aimed at both poor residents and bootstrapping entrepreneurs; or the encouragement of co-working spaces that allowed for sleeping in."
With all due respect, this is taking a fanciful notion and carrying it disturbingly far. There simply aren't "groups" of whiz kids living in their vehicles; certainly not enough to commence crafting public policy with this "group" in mind. It's borderline insulting to equate this largely nonexistent entity to society's most unfortunate.
Manjoo appears to adamantly believe that his article's protagonist is somehow representative of a real subset of the population. He doubles down on this dubious premise by advocating that the Allreds of the world -- an elusive bunch -- should be entitled to a chunk of the already inadequate housing supply allotted to the homeless.
It's one thing to argue for social services for those unable to care for themselves. It's another to call for housing and social services for voluntarily homeless techies. Who may or may not exist.
That leads into Manjoo decrying Palo Alto's recently imposed vehicle-dwelling ban, which we both oppose, albeit for different reasons. Manjoo sees this ban as persecution of bootstrap techies (in addition to the rare non-techie sleeping in a vehicle). I would argue, again, that even if the former population exists, it's distinct from the folks you tend to find sleeping in cars in the South Bay.
Manjoo is going awfully far to portray straightforward NIMBYism as an insidious anti-tech backlash -- in Palo Alto, of all places. It's hard to believe the same city that harbors Stanford University -- the Mustang Ranch for tech investors -- would enact municipal policy serving as a veiled crackdown on young startup founders.
Unlike Allred, most folks aren't happy to live in a 2002 Honda. So, when they run out of money, they drive that car to cheaper neighborhoods. That's what happened in the places Manjoo holds up as benefiting most from the tech boom.
The now oft-quoted Sustainable San Mateo County study reveals that 7,000 middle- and low-income households were displaced over a recent five-year period, while the number of affluent homes grew by 10,000. It's no secret that the Peninsula can no longer accommodate the less fortunate; indeed, San Francisco has seen an out-migration of families, working-class folks, and non-whites in recent years, even as it continues to build upward and outward.
It would be nice if a simple jolt in construction could solve or even attenuate that problem. But that's wistful thinking at best, and it makes for facile policy prescriptions.
Manjoo is inarguably right that the current tech boom will alter San Francisco's ecosystem permanently. Yet he fails to account for its uneven effects; its rewarding of a privileged few at the expense of the many; and that, as others have pointed out, it's not even a meritocracy.
Austen Allred provides a compelling parable, but he doesn't herald a larger paradigm shift. If anything, he shows how this ever-romanticized boom has forced us all to live in such close quarters that a car might actually be more desirable. And that's not the stuff dreams are made of.