San Fransicko: How Progressives Ruin Cities By Michael Shellenberger • Harper • 2021 • 416 pages • $28.99
Homeless Jesus,” a bronze sculpture by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz, was first installed near the University of Toronto in 2013. The statue is of a male human figure asleep on a park bench, covered by a shroud, with only his wounded feet exposed. Hundreds of casts of the statue have been placed in communities around the world. In the Ohio town of Bay Village, within 20 minutes of installation, a man dialed 911 to complain about the homeless person befouling the park (“it doesn’t look good”). The absurdity of calling the police about Jesus, or any statue, generated national headlines, including a Saturday Night Live Weekend Update satire in which the police responded and shot the statue 15 times.
While St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Bay Village was installing this statue, author and noted environmentalist Michael Shellenberger was writing San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities, an almost 300-page dive into the causes of, and solutions to, San Francisco’s homelessness crisis. The book is a dizzying mix of hyperbolic rhetoric, selective research, philosophy, compelling first-person interviews, and arguments that on digestion run the full gamut from reactionary to refreshing. Readers, who are likely to approach the book from various starting places on homelessness and California politics, will leave with whiplash from the book’s framing, which swings from bullying to persuasive, and its contents, which are alternately informing and misleading.
Prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, over a quarter of all of the people experiencing homelessness in the United States were in California, though only 12 percent of the total population lives there. And almost three-quarters of Californians experiencing homelessness were unsheltered, a higher share than in any other state, and particularly notable given that, nationwide, a majority are in shelters or transitional housing.
While alarming, these facts are not new—the recent surge in homelessness in the state is a return to pre-Great Recession levels. The conventional explanation for this long-burning crisis is the cost of housing. In San Fransicko, Shellenberger sets out to challenge this explanation, arguing instead that the problem is progressive control of government, policy, and social services intermediaries for what boils down to three reasons: their commitment to the “Housing First” model, their distaste for law enforcement and involuntary psychiatric treatment, and their ideological commitment and hostility to anyone who opposes these points of view.
San Fransicko overreaches, starting from its cover. Apart from very short vignettes on Los Angeles, Seattle, and Amsterdam, the book’s 19 chapters focus on San Francisco, consistent with the book’s title. Despite this, the author, or his publisher, could not resist the provocative clickbait of the subtitle “why progressives ruin cities.” Shellenberger tries to move the line back in the introduction by explaining that he didn’t actually mean progressives ruin all cities, or only progressives ruin cities. This pattern of a hyperbolic rush, followed by a measured retreat, is repeated throughout the book.
That rush-retreat is unfortunate because it confuses what could have been a useful and important discussion of the policy gospel surrounding homelessness, and how to best help those experiencing it. Shellenberger arrives at the topic as an environmentalist who believes in the importance of cities in accommodating a growing global population and in minimizing climate change, which is a sophisticated view relative to the current state of California environmental law. He offers a vision for a new statewide approach to treating mental illness and addiction that feels responsive to the crisis.
But Shellenberger’s real goal here is to challenge “progressive” conventional wisdom on a number of fronts. He questions the effectiveness of the “Housing First” model, which posits that individuals facing multiple challenges such as addiction and mental illness alongside homelessness are better able to improve when they have unconditional access to housing. New evidence is steadily accumulating that this model is effective, but Shellenberger is unpersuaded. Later in the book, in a lengthy discussion on the necessity of shame, it becomes clear that Shellenberger’s objections are as philosophical as they are pragmatic, if not more so. His passes at persuasion, as a result, scan as attempts to bait and provoke readers with inflammatory statements and framings, such as his description of the 1960s, the decade during which Lyndon B. Johnson ushered in the Great Society (including the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act), as the time “when the progressive left sought to replace the principle of gratitude for charity with an attitude of entitlement.”
Undergirding the critiques here is an enormous fallacy about what “progressives” are. The author himself offers no specific definition, and instead lumps together progressives, the “far left,” and anarchists as a single group. In fact, the 26 percent of Americans (and 51 percent of Democrats) that identify as “liberal” in Gallup surveys (as opposed to “moderate” or “conservative”) are themselves an ideologically diverse group, which is why the political leadership of San Francisco is not composed of synchronized colleagues who always agree. Progressives, if we define them as “liberals” per Gallup, compose a slight majority of the Democratic coalition nationwide, and include leaders who frequently disagree, such as Nancy Pelosi, who represents San Francisco and is the leader of the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, and Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist senator from Vermont. Despite Shellenberger’s repeated assertions, this Democratic tent does not include anarchists, who are both not welcome and don’t want in—they want to tear the tent down.
The net result of his sloppy curation of the policy views supposedly held by progressives is to jeopardize the sincerity of the author’s pleas for logic, evidence-based decision-making, and pragmatism.
Although the book is wrapped in the veneer of scholarship, with 86 pages of endnotes, and it is clear to any reader that the author has thoroughly read the work of Michel Foucault, much of the actual evidence presented in the book is so selective that it ends up being misleading and calling the legitimacy of the work itself into question. For example, Shellenberger questions whether poverty, trauma, and structural racism are truly significant causes of addiction, as researchers have found, based on his assertion that these factors are declining while addiction is increasing. Rather, he blames decriminalization and liberalization of drug use. In short, more people are doing drugs because they get the sense that it’s okay. It’s their personal responsibility: They could and should be making better choices.
An example of how Shellenberger massages the evidence when it does not fall into his paradigm is his use of the “success sequence” in producing middle-class outcomes for Americans. He cites a study by the Brookings Institution, where I work, suggesting that any remaining poverty is the fault of those who deviate from the sequence. He does not mention other research from Brookings showing that sequence has also been shown to not work as well for Black people. He overlooks still more research finding that even as overall poverty has declined in the United States, spatially concentrated poverty has grown dramatically worse, especially in California, and that in these places of poverty, where low-income Black, Latino or Hispanic, and Native American people are extremely disproportionately likely to live, we find worse outcomes on measures ranging from COVID-19 infection to household income, even for individual residents who are not themselves poor.
In a particularly memorable turn of phrase, Shellenberger invokes the name of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and pleads that “we thus dishonor the sacrifices of our forebears when we suggest things are bad or worse today than before the 1964 Civil Rights Act . . . we must build upon our shared progress against inequality, not deny its existence.” For Shellenberger, it would appear the glass of justice is mostly full because slavery is over and de jure segregation is illegal. For progressives, that same glass is functionally empty because of widespread and continuing de facto segregation and its painful, fatal outcomes for people of color.
Despite its strong shortcomings, San Fransicko does not read solely as a doctrinal screed or intellectual scam. Shellenberger presents compelling stories and evidence, shares personal and professional bona fides, and, in spots, offers nuanced challenges to progressive orthodoxy—in these instances, he’s at his most interesting. For example, Shellenberger pushes back on the assertion that law enforcement and the legal system have no role in getting drug sales and addicts off the street, describing collaborations between social services, public health, and police in the Netherlands and Miami. Nonetheless, he repeatedly indulges in the same intellectual laziness for which he lambasts his foes: For example, after he accuses Salesforce founder and homeless advocate Marc Benioff of misleading the public about homelessness through overgeneralization, Shellenberger turns around and asserts that “top homelessness advocates . . . were adamant that ‘Housing First’ was the only solution to homelessness,” a flagrant overgeneralization of the model in practice.
Shellenberger can’t see, or doesn’t care about, his hypocrisy, perhaps because he is blinded to it by confusion or anger. In the rush section of another rush-retreat sequence, he attempts to characterize progressives as those who “put others and themselves down for being white, male, and straight” (all of which Shellenberger is), “while elevating those in supposed victim categories to higher . . . status.” The author’s disorientation at having his personal privilege challenged is clear. An alternative statement of the progressive worldview is offered by Brookings’s Andre Perry, who said “there is nothing wrong with Black people that ending racism can’t solve.” This is not “elevation.” In the context of George Floyd, whose death is repeatedly invoked throughout Shellenberger’s book as a catalyst for progressives, taking the knee off his neck, and even extending a hand up, is not the same as “elevation.” The goal of progressives is to define Black individuals, or women, or homosexuals, or any other marginalized group not as “victims,” but as people.
We lose good policy solutions when “the discourse” (a bogeyman repeatedly referenced but rarely specified by Shellenberger) degenerates into the kind of dichotomies the author evokes. For example, Shellenberger offers the reader the choice between improving versus defunding the police, without addressing the middle ground of reducing the mandate (and inevitably the budget) of policing by relieving them of responsibility for mental health crisis response and traffic enforcement, and of policing in ways that reduce costs and deliver results, such as reducing the use of police cars. Dismissing these alternatives undercuts the author’s subsequent important observation that defunding the police before creating alternatives, as San Francisco did, could produce the same kinds of social crises that closing mental health institutions in the United States did in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Similarly lost in the shuffle of misleading attacks of progressives are what could have been the book’s potentially real contributions to “the discourse”: the author’s own strong case for the importance and feasibility of ending open-air drug markets; “contingency management,” which Shellenberger presents as a Dutch model but is known in the United States; “swift, certain, and fair” community corrections models; governance reform in the shape of state-level interventions to coordinate homelessness policy across fragmented Continuums of Care in mega-regions like the Bay Area; and the potential of catalytic place-based real estate development to create new prosperity by linking the improved well-being of people with the places they live.
The book limps to a pallid conclusion in its final chapters, in which Shellenberger attempts to explain the political and cultural reasons progressives “ruin cities.” In a breathtaking display of obfuscation and revisionism that could only be sincerely committed by an old-school environmentalist remembering the “Zero Population Growth” days, he classifies NIMBYism as a progressive ideology rather than regarding it as what it is: a fundamentally nonpartisan positioning of incumbents against newcomers. In a book that begins and ends with complaints about “high taxes,” it defies credulity that Shellenberger never once mentions California’s single most famous and influential ballot initiative, Proposition 13. Passed in 1978, Prop 13 was a tax “revolt” pushed by conservative activists that enabled California to partially shut the door on the frontier by limiting property taxes on incumbent homeowners, pushing the cost of government onto new arrivals and new generations.
For a book that is hundreds of pages long, there is limited investigation of basic questions that could have helped the author find his way to more solutions to the very particular and pressing problem to which this book is devoted, namely mass homelessness and “antisocial behavior” in public spaces. Why are people experiencing homelessness drawn to public spaces? What are the governance issues around public space that make it challenging to navigate the conflicting use preferences and needs of different groups? Who is working on this and what have they tried? These are just a few of the questions that Shellenberger, frustratingly, never asks.
California does have a serious homelessness problem that is distinct from the rest of the United States. The state also has a serious governance problem that was not created by progressives alone, and will not be solved by shaming them or by blasting them with cherry-picked facts. Shellenberger might want to take some advice from the followers of “Homeless Jesus” and “refuse to practice cunning…but by the open statement of the truth…commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone (2 Corinthians 4:2). To varying extents, there are problems with rigidity and fundamentalism on both the left and right extremes of American politics. With San Fransicko, Shellenberger rails against this posturing while adopting these tactics, thus sadly contributing to the problem to which he purports to provide solutions.