Michael Shellenberger, “San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities”

When I finished Michael Shellenberger’s provocatively-titled 400-page book, I was astonished to realize it had taken me only a few sessions over a couple of days to do so. It was, in other words, a page-turner. Clearly, something about it resonated with me. I started the book because, as a resident of Berkeley for over 30 years, I’ve long wondered why, in a city run by self-styled “radicals” and “progressives,” the quality of public space has steadily and dramatically declined. Berkeley’s problems, and the arrangement of political forces, are like San Francisco’s, so perhaps, I thought, what explains the latter will apply to the former.

Shellenberger characterizes the decline of public space in the Bay Area as “the breakdown of civilization on America’s West Coast.” In support of this thesis, he cites the rise in San Francisco’s drug overdose deaths from 19 per 100,000 people in 2014 to 81 in 100,000 in 2020; the 16.2% rise of unsheltered homeless from 2007 to 2020; the practice of mob looting – crowds who ransack stores, seemingly without fear of arrest or prosecution; the proliferation of encampments of drug addicts and alcoholics; open-air drug markets; and the ubiquitous presence of human excrement in the streets and on the sidewalks.

More significant than the public defecation, however (which is becoming more and more common in downtown Berkeley), is how easily residents adjust to the practice. No one, it seems, believes anything can, will, or even should be done about it. We discuss deviant behavior is if we were discussing the weather – a storm, a heat wave, and a soiled sidewalk may be unpleasant, but nothing is called for beyond trying to avoid them.

This, by the way, is the attitude Nietzsche recommended. Rather than holding people responsible for their behavior, he thought, we should assume that they could not have done otherwise and treat them, in the words of the Minister of the Interior in A Clockwork Orange, “on a purely curative basis.” But we’re not doing that either. Instead, as Shellenberger points out, we believe that it would be wrong to hold victims of injustice (as the homeless are believed to be) to the same standards as the “privileged.”

We can debate the more remote causes of homelessness, but the efficient cause of people living in and defecating on the streets is that we want them to. After all, laws against public defecation could be enforced, and mandates to sleep in shelters could be issued. New York has done this, and as a result the unsheltered homeless there are 5%, as opposed to 70% in California.

But for progressives, Shellenberger writes, requiring members of certain groups (such as the homeless) to behave in socially acceptable ways is a form of domination:

Behind … progressivism is … a religion, victimology, one that divides the world into victims and oppressors, promotes learned helplessness, and promotes anxiety, depression, and polarization.

Is Berkeley ready for some anti-progressive “de-programming”? I see no sign of that. Part of the problem is that to people like me, it can seem that the declining quality of public space means only that we find ourselves going downtown less and less often. Shellenberger, though, is optimistic:

The good news is that the backlash against the excesses of progressivism is already underway. We are still in the early stages of it, but the signs are everywhere. There are recall efforts against San Francisco school board members, San Francisco’s District Attorney, and California’s governor. There is growing resistance by students and parents to the obsession with race in schools.

One can hope, but nothing like that is happening in Berkeley.

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