Owning the Progressives: A new book takes aim at San Francisco’s social policies

Analyzing ‘San Fransicko,’ a sweeping conservative critique of The City’s approach to social issues

There is a sickness in the progressive soul. In a philosophical vacuum devoid of religion or patriotism, progressives have embraced “victimology,” a belief system wherein society’s downtrodden are subject to no rules or consequences for their actions. This ideology, cultivated in cities like San Francisco for decades and widely adopted over the past two years, is the key to understanding, and thus solving, our crises of homelessness, drug overdoses and crime.

So goes the central argument of “San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities” by Michael Shellenberger (Harper, 416 pgs.). It’s yet another installment in a flourishing genre of apocalyptic nonfiction about The City, this one closer to the Fox News school. As a Bay Area resident and a lapsed progressive activist who previously focused on the environment and drug decriminalization, Shellenberger writes with the conviction of a convert. As such, he cherry picks data that fits his narrative, and overlooks essential counterfactuals — namely, the situation in conservative America.

“San Fransicko’s” philosophical dimension is bizarre and unnecessary, blinding remotely progressive readers to a sprinkling of specific policy criticisms that deserve a hearing in our public discourse. Shellenberger points out just how polarized and calcified so much of the thinking on homelessness, mental health, and addiction have become, while failing to build any bridges for those inclined to disagree with him.

Shellenberger wastes no time in setting the tone, opening “San Fransicko” with an anecdote about the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ, that emerged in Seattle in the wake of last summer’s racial justice protests. To Shellenberger, the CHAZ demonstrates how, “Democratic elected officials stopped enforcing many laws against certain groups of people, from unhoused people suffering mental illness and drug addiction in San Francisco… to heavily armed and mostly white anarchists in Seattle.”

It’s the first of many unrepresentative examples and inappropriate conflations that illustrate the book’s big ideas. Horrific, sensational moments, like an act of domestic violence Shellenberger witnessed in 1993, or the woman who was attacked by a mentally ill man outside of her SoMa apartment in 2019, are presented as regular occurrences on the streets of San Francisco, much as they are on the nightly news.

The contemporary struggles of West Coast cities are rooted in a deep genealogy of progressive thought, according to Shellenberger. Cult leader Jim Jones and early childhood expert Dr. Spock, in different ways, emphasized love and care over personal responsibility; philosopher Michel Foucault and the anti-psychiatry movement claimed mental healthcare was a system of social control. These diverse left-wing figures and movements are all antecedents of the current ruination of San Francisco, Shellenberger argues. It was progressives who began the movement to shut state mental institutions; progressives who loosened controls on prescription drugs in the ’90s, contributing to the opioid epidemic; and progressives who today allow the homeless to pitch their tents wherever they please, while rejecting new housing construction.

“San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities” is a new offering by Michael Shellenberger. (Courtesy Harper Collins)

“San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities” is a new offering by Michael Shellenberger. (Courtesy Harper Collins)

There are times when this attempt to link “progressives” past and present feels conspiratorial, not too far off from conservative agitator Dinesh D’Souza’s feverish efforts to connect the dots between the early KKK and today’s Democratic party.

As Shellenberger goes deeper into his theory of “victimology,” he essentially outs himself as a conservative, repackaging age-old talking points for the issues facing 21st century California. (Shellenberger endorsed Republican Kevin Faulconer in the gubernatorial recall election.)

“Lack of discipline to delay gratification makes people fragile,” he writes of progressive approaches to homelessness and addiction. In liberal cities, the main failure of the criminal justice system is that it’s “not hard enough” on people. As for the opioid epidemic, that’s at least partially a result of a “culture of coddling,” Shellenberger writes. “Patients suffering pain felt more confidence demanding opioids while refusing to accept responsibility” for their health by eating better and exercising more.

Ultimately, victimology amounts to a sort of reverse racism. Progressives are in the thrall of the “idea that all white people are Persecutors and all black people are Victims,” Shellenberger writes. He suggests, without evidence, that progressive district attorneys, like San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin, have begun “enforcing the law differently according to race and class.”

Even if this were true, Shellenberger glosses over the fact that America’s criminal justice system has long discriminated by race and class — in the opposite direction — and attempts at criminal justice reform exist within that context. The recent upticks in property crime and homicides in cities like San Francisco also exist within a dramatic 30-year decline in crime that corresponded with a significant decrease in incarceration. Shellenberger spares no thought for the lives and communities that have been improved by a less punitive and carceral criminal justice system.

And still, violent crime is now more likely to occur in smaller and mid-sized cities than big ones, with just 4% of U.S. murders taking place in New York and Los Angeles in 2020, compared to 14% in 2019, according to a New York Times analysis of FBI data — but that’s just not interesting to Shellenberger or most other commentators in the media. Likewise, the victimology thesis and progressive drug policies do little to explain the massive addiction and overdose problems in conservative, rural areas throughout the United States.

Homelessness, by contrast, is an issue that is clearly much worse in liberal, West Coast cities. Shellenberger contends this is largely the result of a constellation of progressive policies related to drugs, mental health, and laws regulating the use of public space. He argues the gradual loosening of criminal penalties for possessing or selling drugs has created open-air drug markets that act as magnets for people who use drugs, while discouraging them from seeking treatment. The dearth of psychiatric treatment beds in California, and the very high bar the state requires for conservatorship, has forced the severely mentally ill onto the streets or into jails. Cities’ unwillingness to enforce laws against camping in public spaces emboldens people to live outdoors.

Shellenberger very quickly rejects the notion that high rents and scarce housing are the primary drivers of homelessness. In a short paragraph, he dismisses a Zillow report demonstrating a correlation between high housing costs and homelessness — one of many studies that point to the same, intuitive conclusion — by quoting a five-word caveat within the report that doesn’t actually refute its central findings. Additionally, Shellenber makes virtually no mention of America’s tattered social safety net, including the nation’s chronically underfunded public housing system, or the fact that Section 8 vouchers are only available to about a quarter of the households who qualify.

Researchers acknowledge mental illness and drug addiction play a major role in homelessness, in addition to factors like domestic violence, job loss, eviction, health problems and other forces. But the cost and availability of housing is the preexisting condition that is at the root of homelessness. In more affordable cities like Houston or St. Louis, a disability or welfare check might be enough to pay for a ramshackle apartment. Good luck pulling that off in San Francisco or New York.

But Shellenberger suggests that even the term “homeless” is misleading. “The word directs our attention to things perceived as outside of a person’s control, such as the high cost of housing, and away from things perceived as in their control, such as working, parenting, and staying sober.”

Beyond the moralizing, Shellenberger offers some provocative and worthwhile points, many of them voiced by respected homelessness and public health experts. He takes aim at Housing First, the philosophy that has been the official U.S. policy on homelessness since the Bush Administration, and which has been embraced with particular zeal by liberal cities. The basic premise is that housing should be given to homeless people unconditionally, without work or sobriety requirements, and that temporary shelter should be de-emphasized in the overall homelessness services ecosystem. (New York City, Washington D.C., Boston, and other cold-weather cities have remained “shelter first” by default, due to laws requiring the government to provide shelter to every homeless person.)

It is a truism that housing is the solution to homelessness. But it’s also true that, as Housing First became the North Star of homelessness policy starting in the mid-2000s, many West Coast cities’ overall and unsheltered homeless populations skyrocketed. San Francisco, for instance, saw a 95 percent increase in unsheltered homelesness between 2005 and 2020, even as its permanent supportive housing stock grew by about 4,500, Shellenberger reports.

A man sleeps on the sidewalk on Golden Gate Avenue in the Tenderloin. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

A man sleeps on the sidewalk on Golden Gate Avenue in the Tenderloin. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

While there are many variables in play here — not least of which is ever-escalating rents — there has never been an adequate reckoning with these trends among politicians or homeless service providers. Even as San Francisco and California spend unprecedented amounts of money on homelessness this year ($1 billion and $12 billion in their respective two-year budgets, which is far more per capita than any city or state), there’s still no roadmap for providing housing to every homeless person in the state, let alone those who will become homeless in the future.

In this extremely sensitive and emotionally-charged field, policy prescriptions that deserve to be vetted and debated all too easily harden into dogma. Shellenberger gets many respected homelessness researchers and service providers to admit as much on the record, including Cal sociologist Chris Herring, UPenn homelessness researcher Dennis Culhane, Skid Row street doctor Susan Partovi, and Berkeley homelessness advocate Boona Cheema. All suggest the field’s quasi-religious adherence to Housing First has become unproductive, and that temporary shelter needs to be a bigger part of the conversation.

Shellenberger’s discussion of drug policy includes some huge blind spots, but it, too, poses worthwhile questions. The number of drug overdose deaths in San Francisco has escalated far too dramatically for there not to be some kind of reckoning with current approaches.

Shellenberger points to soft-on-crime and overzealous harm reduction policies as the root of the problem. But his overly simplistic explanation omits the historic success of harm reduction, and the unprecedented circumstances produced by the rise of the opioid fentanyl. In the ‘90s, clean needle exchanges were a huge factor in bringing the AIDS epidemic to heel. San Francisco actually became a model in reducing drug overdose deaths in the early 2010s because of its pioneering embrace of policies like widespread distribution of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone.

The emergence of fentanyl around 2018 dismantled all of that progress, causing the number of drug overdose deaths in The City to triple over three years. The extremely potent, highly addictive drug was detected in the systems of about two-thirds of the 713 people who died of an overdose in 2020. San Francisco is now one of the worst hotspots in the nation’s escalating drug overdose epidemic, which claimed an astonishing 93,000 lives in 2020, a figure that has more than quadrupled over the last two decades.

It’s absurd to pin this ginormous (and all too often unacknowledged) national crisis on a handful of harm reduction and drug decriminalization activists in California. However, that doesn’t mean cities like San Francisco can’t be doing more to prevent so much unnecessary death. Even as activists push for further harm reduction policies like safe consumption sites, it’s hard to understand why court-ordered drug treatment and abstinence-based rehab remain four-letter words. As Shellenberger points out, wealthy people pay very big bucks for “tough love” at abstinence-only Malibu and Wine Country rehabs, yet these kinds of programs are all but absent from Skid Row and the Tenderloin, where it’s harm reduction or bust.

The word “libertarian” appears over and over again in “San Fransicko,” as a crude but not inaccurate stand-in for the West Coast’s “live-and-let-live,” “do your own thing” ethos. It’s part of what makes us the center of so many liberation movements, and so many innovations in science, technology, public policy, and the arts. But it also sets us apart from other cultures that we often lionize for their approaches to homelessness, drugs, and mental health.

Portugal, which famously decriminalized all drugs, is still “a conservative culture where drug use is looked down upon,” Stanford psychologist and addiction expert Keith Humphreys told Shellenberger. “All of these cities (San Francisco, Portland, Seattle) are libertarian in their views about drugs and alcohol. In Portugal, they put pressure on people to go into treatment. It’s social pressure.”

In the Netherlands, another famously permissive country, a certain number of citations for heroin possession triggers mandatory treatment. The Netherlands and many other countries also practice “contingency management,” providing progressively better housing and welfare benefits in exchange for staying sober or taking psychiatric medication. These kinds of policies often exist alongside needle exchanges, safe consumption sites, methadone clinics and ample homelessness and mental health services.

Not every policy that works in other places will work in San Francisco. But it’s remarkable how quickly many best practices — or even remotely functional practices — from across the country and around the world are dismissed by activists and leaders here on the left coast. A little humility and inquisitiveness would seem to be in order, when, clearly, our policies related to homelessness, drugs, and mental health are not working.

Of course, it doesn’t help when the loudest critics are people like Shellenberger, who cloak their constructive contributions in sensationalism and reaction. And it’s understandable why so many activists are defensive of current practices, when a distressing number of voters seem to want those at the margins out of sight and out of mind.

But if progressives pretend these perspectives don’t exist, or insist that revolutionary structural changes are the only solution, they will cede the narrative to their opponents.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story misstated the subtitle of the book.

bschneider@sfexaminer.com

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