San Francisco Should Pay Attention to This

Feb 26, 2014

Austin, TX, has beat out the Bay Area as the most attractive location for tech companies.

The article referenced below from the Austin Business Journal reports that Austin has passed San Francisco as the best city in which tech companies should locate, according to a survey by Savills, Plc, a major international property firm. Why? It’s a lot about affordability. It’s a lot about the amount of young talent, and that is highly dependent on the affordability of housing.

According to Forbes, the median home price in Austin is $221,000, while in SF, we have crossed the $1 million mark. Median income there is $53,000. Here it is not that much higher–$76,000. Consider the 50% gap between incomes vs the almost 500% gap between home prices. This translates into a much happier and plentiful lifestyle for young tech workers in Austin than in San Francisco, notwithstanding some weather advantages we enjoy. If I get paid only 33% less there, but my housing cost is almost 80% less, I’m smart enough to figure out that is a better life style.In fairness, other studies still show us still on top, but we are losing ground fast.

There are some of the wealthy who recognize the risk in allowing capitalism to simply run unfettered. The Patriotic Millionaires and Wealth for the Common Good may be among them, as well as a few Republican members of Congress. But the weight of Republican agenda does not recognize the need for redistribution, even if proceeds are to go for infrastructure, which benefits everyone. As Paul Krugman writes today, much Conservative rhetoric goes to blaming Obama or blaming the problems of schools for the dramatic rise in inequality. That’s not the explanation, and only part of the answer.

No one should doubt the sheer force of such economics in determining destination–haven’t we seen enough evidence in textiles and other forms of manufacturing to be aware? Business can move easily and rapidly now–to Austin or to Mumbai.

This is just a reminder to all–wherever you may feel your wealth is centered: better consider the ramifications of not addressing inequality. For San Francisco wealth, there is not only a consequence to the quality of life we enjoy here, but also a negative consequence to the wealth of those heavily invested in local technology.

I suppose the question is, do the investors in Bay Area tech ventures care enough to want to do something about it, given that wealth can easily follow the migration to Austin,and then to Tel Aviv or Stockholm, which also rank high on the list of attracting tech companies?

But if that migration happens, what are the rest of us left with here in San Francisco? Imagine a local recession which could be quite painful.


Personal Observations

Personal Observations

Feb 13, 2015

It’s one thing to argue the economics of inequality. The reality is that there are different and conflicting interpretations of the data and the theories. There is ambiguity. Personal biases play in. Some feel the most important thing is to allow motivation to be undisturbed by taxation, that opportunity abounds, and others feel the wealthy should help the underprivileged in one way or another.

It’s entirely another thing to experience the realities of the world around us on a daily basis. Sometimes, what we see with our own eyes, in the halls and on the streets of our city, on the back roads of the world, tells us more, with no ambiguity. There is a reality.

Yesterday, I had the privilege to attend a San Francisco Symphony performance. Herbert Blomstedt, now about 87, was conducting Sibelius and Mozart.

I found a hall filled to about 2/3 capacity at 10am on a weekday, tickets very cheap ($40) at this “open rehearsal,” in which we could see and hear this elderly icon graciously instruct his large orchestra, and then conduct them through the complex and beautiful compositions.

I felt deeply moved by the music and by the whole scene. Blomstedt, without a glance at his music, so clearly calling out with his hands to the oboes, then the bassoons, and to each section of instruments, calling up their volumes in one and down in another. The musicians, each with an accomplished specialty, some in their twenties, some in their seventies, each in complete command of their unique instruments and roles.  All of it coming together in a way that transcends the imagination of just how–how the composer dreamed it up and wrote it down, a different score for each of the dozens of instruments and individual parts; how the conductor memorized it and knows each part, adding his own interpretation; how the musicians have been able to devote their entire careers to playing a viola or a french horn, with excellence. All for our pleasure, and for a short period of almost touching the essential beauty of life.

As I listened and watched, I considered the cost of all this–the hundreds of musicians and support staff coming from all over the Bay Area, maintenance of the great hall, and all of it. The hundreds of years of devotion to these exquisite compositions.

I reflected on how fortunate I am, having the privilege to be touched by such accomplishment and beauty. I thought of those in The Ukraine, in Nigeria, in Syria and Iraq, in rural India, and in the homeless shelters of our own cities, some only a few blocks from this great hall. We have 45 million in poverty in our country. I imagine none of them would regard even the $90 for two tickets to this performance to be inconsequential in their daily survival needs.

How can we avoid being reminded vividly of the privilege of our lives here, realizing that much of the world will not have this opportunity in their lifetimes? Here in San Francisco, one of the wealthiest cities in the US, the wealthiest country in the world. Maybe it’s easy to be remain oblivious, surrounded as we are by such privilege and wealth.

Branko Milanovic, noted scholar of inequality at the World Bank, has analyzed available global data to conclude the following: some 50-60% of your economic destiny today is pre-determined by the country in which you happen to have been born; another 20% is pre-determined by the wealth of your parents. Thus, almost 80% of your economic destiny is pre-determined. And, he speculates that when the data permits analysis of gender, race, religion and other factors which are givens at birth, the percentages will be far higher.

For those who haven’t seen this conclusion before, it doesn’t mean there is no chance for pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, even if one was born of color, female, in Uganda, of poor parents, or an equivalent set of pre-determined obstacles. Some do. However, the data clearly shows that the “chance” of your “making it” with such birth handicaps is far lower than for the rest of us. It is “almost” impossible. My parents were relatively poor, but I was born in the USA. I’m male, Caucasian, Protestant. And, that was a very different time, a very different political scene, and a very different economy than today. There was more opportunity.

Some in this area who live in poverty, some who are working with very tight budgets, some who have been forced to move to the distant suburbs of our San Francisco by our increasingly unaffordable housing, many, many, will not be able to experience the Symphony. Ever. And, as Milanovic says, the vast majority of those born in the wrong country of poor parents, never will. Ever.

I have a wonderful young couple who clean my home biweekly. They are immigrants. They work very hard, do an excellent job for me, always willing to do anything extra that I need. As I was recording these thoughts today, the husband arrived , and with great trepidation took me aside to ask whether I could consider an advance on future cleaning of my home, so that he could buy the little things they need for the new baby they are soon expecting.

Republicans and Inequality

Republicans and Inequality
Feb 9 2015

There can be no dispute that we are seeing a staggering rise in inequality in the US. This has rightfully become a political issue worth debating (and resolving).

When a right wing academic chides his own side of the political spectrum for disingenuously promoting a political solution to inequality, his analysis deserves reading, and he deserves recognition for intellectual honesty. This is the message from Ramesh Ponnuru of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, in today’s NY Times.

He’s pointing out that Republicans have started blaming the Obama administration and the Democrats for the significant rise in inequality, and have even been so bold as to suggest that Republicans will provide a solution, less inequality, if only we elect a Republican President in 2016, giving them control of all three chambers of our federal government. If ever there was, this is truly the pot calling the kettle black!

Ponnuru explains–there is no real interest among the consensus of Republicans in addressing inequality.  There are no visible Republican proposals which would improve inequality. It’s worse. He goes on to explain a critical variable: That the Republican economic centerpiece is just economic growth. That’s all. He clearly explains that when growth is strong, everything else constant, guess what?  Inequality increases! So, in essence, the Republican agenda is indisputably inconsistent with improving inequality. It’s really that simple.

I’m impressed with this accurate and honest explanation, and most especially coming from a sound voice on the Right. He advises Republicans to give it up–it’s dishonest.

On the other hand, Republicans can honestly argue that they might be able to make the economy grow faster than Democrats can. Comparisons between Democratic and Republican administrations’ growth records across the Twentieth Century would not lend credence to that argument, at least not based on history. Nevertheless, I would trust Republicans might honestly believe they can do that.

However, they may not be able to pull it off.  As Ponnuru suggests, removal of some of the restrictive, burdensome and ineffective regulations would be helpful (although many have been added under Republican administrations, as well as Democratic).  So, they will find me with an open mind, interested, if they think they can grow the economy faster. I would listen to their proposals. Growth is good, beneficial. But, growth alone will not reduce inequality.

Ponnuru accurately observes that the American population still seems more interested in jobs and opportunity than in measures to reduce inequality. Faster growth might improve opportunity. Wages might increase. But wealth and income disparity will not diminish–it will worsen, unless there is some form of redistribution.  I believe it indisputable that at some extreme of inequality, depending (of course) on other variables, any country will eventually face revolution. I suppose the Republicans who really understand economics and history are banking on the hope that inequality will (somehow) level out on its own. This is known as the “Kuznets curve,” no longer believed by most economists. And in the meantime, they are betting that improving jobs and wages (a little) will suffice. The real questions are (a) is it getting worse? (b) at what rate? and (c) and how far are we from the precipice?

Redistribution is the only answer to reducing inequality. There is no other answer. Redistribution can come in many forms, however. Some are particularly painful to conservatives–like taxing the rich to provide welfare to the unemployed. But, there are more palatable forms of redistribution. Schools and infrastructure would be good places to start. We shouldn’t even be debating these priorities. They contribute to opportunity for all, which Republicans claim they support. These are properly called redistribution when the wealthy pay for more than their share of the benefit. But isn’t that better than wondering whether your children or grandchildren will have the wherewithal to hire enough vigilantes to protect their gated homes?

The rationale for the continuing tolerance among Americans (and for Chinese and other unequal developed nations) for rising inequality is perhaps best explained by a parable from the noted economist Albert Hirschman in 1973. Paraphrased by Debraj Ray, this is it:

“You’re in a multi-lane tunnel, all lanes in the same direction, and you’re caught in a serious traffic jam.

After a while, the cars in the other lane begin to move.  Do you feel better or worse? At first, movement in the other lane may seem like a good sign: you hope that your turn to move will come soon, and indeed that might happen. You might contemplate an orderly move into the moving lane, looking for suitable gaps in the traffic. However, if the other lane keeps whizzing by, with no gaps to enter and with no change on your lane, your reactions may well become quite negative. Unevenness without corresponding redistribution can be tolerated or even welcomed if it raises expectations everywhere, but it will be tolerated for only so long. Thus, uneven growth will set forces in motion to restore a greater degree of balance, even (in some cases) actions that may thwart the growth process itself.”

Americans and Chinese are still believers in the Horatio Alger story, but reality for the great majority is that bootstrapping it is harder than ever.

It’s not so easy to get into that fast lane. The traffic there is moving faster and faster these days. Those Bentleys and Rolls Royces only seem to brake to admit those of their own kind. Expensive private high schools in my neighborhood, feeders to Ivy League Universities, cost $35-40,000 per year, while the San Francisco public schools must get by on a budget amounting to about $9,000 per student.

The Republican stance on key economics defies rationality. For example, to promote growth, few would disagree that appropriate spending on our infrastructure is needed and would greatly benefit growth. Here we are talking about worn out roads and highways, bridges, tunnels, inadequate fast rapid transit, tired airports, our power grids, and even our internet (slower than many other nations). Note the powerful correlation between public investment and economic growth:

Paul Krugman has argued the key point repeatedly and does so again in today’s NY Times. Essentially, it comes down to the Republican attitude of severe austerity–that reducing debt and meanwhile reducing government (continuously) is the answer. Europe is demonstrating now that this cannot be the entire answer. I argue that the Obama administration (and the Federal Reserve) deserve great praise for rather miraculously dragging our economy to this stage of growth while continuously restrained in proper tools to do so, by Republican excessive adherence to austerity. Maybe austerity can be understood for Japan, with astronomical debt, but certainly not for the largest economy in the world, the reserve currency of the world.

If we are to continue across the next few years with Republican control of the purse strings, just how are they going to grow the economy? Removing regulations alone will simply not do it.

A better statement from Republicans can be suggested: “We don’t think inequality is important to fix. It is simply a factor of motivation, which is a good thing for everyone. As to those with motivation who have obstacles to their achievement, we’re sorry, but we simply can’t distinguish between those who really want to work and those who don’t, so we don’t favor any form of redistribution. We will only be able to contribute to improved opportunity for those who can take advantage of it. We hope you all continue to agree with us.”

I will close by acknowledging there are poor legislators on both sides of the aisle, as there are wise voices on both sides. However, it is now the Republican Party which has allowed itself to be hijacked by extremists on the far Right, such that it is unlikely Republicans can even stimulate growth. And, as Ponnuru so rightly states, Republicans have no interest in reducing inequality.

In just previous posts, I argue that Republican policies (neoliberalism) are largely responsible for the rise in inequality across the last 30 years.


Paul Krugman:

Ramesh Ponnuru:

Debraj Ray on Hirschman: