What's Wrong With the TechBus Protests

December 20, 2013

tl; dr;

The protests are xenophobic and illogical. They do serve a useful purpose in sparking discussion about important issues (e.g. the Ellis Act, housing, cultural change in SF, etc), but the impact of that is very limited when there isn't coherence about the issues and the desired changes. The protests may even be counter-productive to their cause.

Effective Protest

I was born and raised in Cochabamba, Bolivia, a place where protest is our bread and butter. A few hundred people marching to “la plaza” barely makes the evening news because it happens so often. Hunger strikes, road blocks…you name it, we do it on the regular. What tends to happen with most protests is that the public at large is so apathetic (because there are so many) that the movements just dissipate and no change is effected. However, every now and again, big changes are effected by way of protest and outcry. One of the better known examples of this is the so-called Guerra del Agua. That one has been deservedly studied at length because the challenge was so big and the people won. There have been countless other successful movements and protests – governments overthrown, laws reversed, you name it.

What sets successful movements apart from the ones that just fade away is that they make sense. What's wrong is made clear in a simple way and the desired change is made clear in a simple way. To go with the example of la Guerra del Agua, what was wrong is that the public water-utility was being privatized under likely corrupt conditions and the new privatized utility would increase prices dramatically and have dubious rights to rainfall and private wells. The desired change: stop the privatization process. Different factions and organizations, of course, had more complicated agendas, but that was the lowest common denominator. It was clear and it made sense: the price increases would have made for a profitable company, but were not acceptable in a place where so many are so poor. Privatization may have its merits, but having the mayor just hand over the water utility to a private consortium under conditions in which he stands to profit greatly is not a valid political process. And so on.

I don't mean to say that successful protests are the ones where everyone agrees, I just mean that they make logical sense. The critical mass needed to effect a change that makes sense is much smaller than the majority.

Xenophobia

Protesting the right of a group of people to live where they want to live is xenophobic. “FUCK TECHIES” is xenophobic. But we do have freedom of speech and everyone is entitled to their opinions. If you think that people who work for tech companies should be made to leave San Francisco because you don't like how much money they make or their aesthetic or their dietary preferences, that's fine. You're entitled to that. But, expect that to be a controversial view that is not shared by most people. As such, it is detrimental for any social movement to adopt that kind of a slogan or to make their cause xenophobic because in the US (and in SF) xenophobia is viewed very negatively.

Logic

Even the people giving the speeches at the protest have a hard time making the logical connection between evictions and specific wrongdoings of tech companies. Two examples, (taken from this video):

“we are against the ellis act … we see that as related to tech and we want the ruling class which is becoming the tech class to listen to our voices”

“we are against the tech money that has caused evictions of seniors and people with disabilities throughout the community”

The Ellis Act

The Ellis Act is a state law. It seems that it is easy to abuse. What does that have to do with tech? The only link seems to be that the Ellis Act allows some landlord to evict a tenant in order to get market-rate rent for their property and that is only desirable for the landlord because of the influx of population due to the growth in the tech industry. That's a mouthful and quite a bit of a stretch. But more importantly flawed: why shouldn't a landlord use whatever legal mechanisms are available to get market-rate rent? I agree that this may be unkind, tragic, and maybe plain evil. However, that's the way property rights work, for better or worse, in the United States. Renting is not owning.

If the Ellis Act is flawed or easy to abuse, protest for repelling it or for stopping its implementation. And fair enough, that is one of the talking points of one of the speeches: “put a moratorium on all evictions”. That would be a fantastic agenda for a movement to have: “put a moratorium on all Ellis Act SF evictions”. Then we can have a logic discussion around the merits of that. I have my doubts that the issue is as clear-cut as the protesters present it, but it may be. If that's the desired outcome, make everything about that, and stop the buses and march down market street with that slogan. Heck, I might even go to that march. Add techie xenophobia or misguided outrage that the buses use public bus stops and you lose both the cause and a large chunk of support.

All of this is missing the elephant in the room, though, the simpler idea of allowing more housing to be built so that there is room for everyone.

Housing Affordable and Not

At the heart of the issue is the fact that rents in San Francisco are soaring and this causes a lot of people a lot of hardship. Heck, I'm in the tech industry and still nearly priced out of living in San Francisco. The current housing situation is really an outrage and shows a huge failing of urban-planning, city politics, and housing regulation. The bigger failing, though, is not understanding the basic nature of a market. If housing supply is constrained by policy and the population grows prices will go up. It is possible to attempt to regulate that away, but that kind of legislation is remarkably difficult to craft without it having unintended consequences. At the same time, it is clear that “simply” increasing the housing stock of the city would alleviate the issue by a wide margin.

That is the real lowest common denominator in all this: techies, locals, activists, and everyone else would like lower rents and the “simple” way to accomplish that is to build housing.

To the city's credit, the pace of housing development does seem to be increasing.

Benefits and Responsibilities of the Tech Industry

“They don't see them active in the local school or helping the local merchants or helping with the local playground,” – David Campos

It is a widespread view that tech companies don't spend enough resources on or do enough for “the community”. While I'd argue that they do: for example, the buses are one such thing since they reduce the infrastructure burden that otherwise commuters would impose; even if they didn't, why should any set of companies or industries be responsible for public infrastructure or social programs? That is the role of government.

I would wager that just about any metropolitan area would go to great lengths to convince the biggest 10 tech companies to move there all at once. Why? Because having an active and growing local economy is good for the people who live in it. Cities, in general, like to have big employers and active industries in them simply because it is the greater good. Tech companies, in particular, are highly beneficial to local economies because their operations are global, but the majority of their workers are local. This means that profits made globally flow into the local economy. Both in the form of taxes and in the form of economic activity. This is the sort of calculation the authorities make when giving tech companies tax-breaks and other incentives to stay in SF.

Whether such policies should come to pass is a valid debate and cause. If there is a coherent case for why we shouldn't give a tax-break to twitter, please by all means, make it and get attention to it. Make that the slogan and have it be clear why is it bad. But I don't see these protests doing that. At best they just decry the tax-break as if it was automatically and self-evidently bad.

Culture

There is no denying that the influx of tech workers changes culture. Duh. And such phenomena are worth studying and considering, but it is futile to attempt to stop cultural change. No entity controls culture. Trying to rally people on the premise that the culture changes that newcomers bring are unwelcome is just xenophobia.

In my few years in San Francisco, I've seen 24th street change quite a bit. The cultural change is obvious. However, it is change I welcome: personally, I would rather live in a neighborhood where La Victoria and Casa Lucas are a block away from Humphry Slocombe and Sugarlump. Saying that one of those has the right to exist more than the others because it serves one or another demographic is saying that less cultural diversity is somehow better. If that is an unwelcome change to some, so be it, but neither of us controls the culture – it is an emergent behavior that will continue to emerge with our without our approval.

Discussion on /r/sanfrancisco. I'll be reading and responding to comments there.

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