[guest post by JVW]
I am dejectedly working my way through the ongoing updates about the rapid decline of San Francisco, a once great city teeming with youth, fun, sin, culture, refinement, history, and beauty, but recently devolving into an aging, depressing, repressive, scuzzy, tacky, rundown, and filthy hellhole. Yesterday an investment firm which owns two downtown San Francisco hotels with a combined total of nearly 3,000 rooms announced that they would essentially default on the two properties and thus give them back to their lender, realizing that in the current climate of plunging convention traffic and tourism numbers the cost of continuing to operate the two hotels is a losing proposition. Worse of all, they obviously don’t foresee a turn-around of the City by the Bay’s fortunes anytime soon. Combined with the ongoing shedding of jobs in the tech industry impacting the entire Bay Area and the rapid deterioration of quality of life as the streets become less safe and crime continues to be a mostly-ignored problem, the recent business departures are going to make it very difficult for local politicians to right (pun intended) the ship.
So imagine how pleased I was to come across this fine opinion piece written for the San Francisco Chronicle by Kraz Greinetz, a sixth-generation San Franciscan now attending Duke Law School. Reflecting on another sad decline — this one being the near-nonagenarian Senator Dianne Feinstein — he points out the obvious parallels and how it speaks ill of the entire state’s political culture:
Dianne Feinstein is, in many ways, the perfect senator for California.
At first glance, this seems paradoxical. Feinstein was recently absent from the Senate for months, recovering from shingles at home. And even before her illness, sources reported that she was often confused about basic tasks, did not recognize people and introduced herself as “Mayor Feinstein” (she was last mayor of San Francisco in 1988, to be clear). In recent weeks, journalists on Capitol Hill have laid bare just how much Feinstein’s faculties have declined. Perhaps most shocking is that after returning, Feinstein doesn’t seem to remember her absence. She insists that she’s been in Washington the whole time, voting on bills and nominees.
Many observers have called on Feinstein to resign, contending that she is failing California because she can’t do the basic functions of her job. But Feinstein’s continued presence in the Senate — despite her inability to advocate for her constituents’ views — is perfectly consistent with California’s do-nothing political culture, which values the status quo over any kind of positive change.
Nailed it! I’ve been kvetching for years about the tendency of our one-party avocado republic to follow up failed initiatives with more of the same, ever confident in their ability to micromanage the lives of nearly forty million people without bringing about any unintended consequences. We run willy-nilly headlong towards the complete nanny state, with a progressive legislature bound and determined to precisely regulate the interactions we are allowed to have with one another and with the government. And this overregulation more often than not is for the benefit of those who already hold great sway over state politics:
The state, at every level, has built a legal framework that prioritizes the old over the new — even when change is needed. In California, whenever a developer wants to tear down an existing structure, state environmental law requires the locality to analyze the building for “historic” value. In San Francisco, for instance, when a developer wanted to turn an abandoned movie theater into apartments, this state-mandated review led to the city recognizing the theater as a potential landmark. As a result, the developer delayed construction so it could jump through additional bureaucratic hoops and even considered drastically reducing the number of apartments in the project.
Or what about San Francisco’s Castro Theatre? Another Planet Entertainment, a local production company, took over its management after the cinema was closed for most of the pandemic. It wanted to renovate the theater’s seating and turn it into a music venue. But San Francisco got to work making sure that would never happen — despite concerns that without the changes, the theater may close for good. In the view of some city leaders, it was unacceptable that the renovations might irreparably alter the venue’s character as a traditional movie theater and LGBT community venue. Yet, even after Another Planet promised to dedicate a certain percentage of its programming to LGBT content, some city supervisors still scoffed at anything besides the status quo. Apparently, the city is OK shunning change even if it might mean losing the theater forever.
Beyond roadblocks set up by the state to ensure that the status quo is protected by the public bureaucracy, they also make sure to empower their allies with all the tools they can in order to resist change:
Even when government doesn’t directly intervene, the state lets private parties enforce the status quo. In Santa Cruz, housing costs are so high that many of the city’s college students aren’t just struggling to pay rent — they’re homeless. But for years, California watched as current residents blocked new dorms and apartments. Finally, in 2022, the state passed a law streamlining the approval process for some student housing. But even under this new law, projects still need to meet seven separate environmental, labor and planning requirements before they can qualify for expedited approval. And when Gov. Gavin Newsom recently unveiled a package to reform the state’s environmental review laws, he left out housing altogether. [. . .]
This reluctance to address problems, Mr. Greinetz reminds us, comes with severe repercussions:
California’s do-nothing culture has dire consequences. California faces a housing and migration crisis so bad that, if current trends hold, the state would be on pace to lose five congressional districts in 2030. All while California has both a cutting-edge tech industry and a rapidly rising economic output. Almost always, a region with these types of advantages sees rapid population growth, not decline, as migrants seeking economic opportunity flood the area.
Despite this, the state has continued to embrace its do-nothing political culture. The state’s land-use reforms have been piecemeal and slow. When wealthy cities organized resistance to the reforms, the state largely failed to step in, instead asking developers to win difficult lawsuits. Large swaths of the state continue to be zoned solely for low-density development, with restrictive height minimums, setbacks and lot size requirements. [. . .]
He concludes his fine piece by mentioning that Senator Feinstein’s refusal to resign her seat and move on aligns perfectly with our state’s refusal to address problems which are so obviously tarnishing the luster of the once Golden State. And our state political class, from Gavin Newsom to the Senators and Assembly members and all of the employees in the various state offices, are just like the senile senior senator: completely incapable of seeing things for how they are, basking in a long-gone nostalgia for the days when things still seemed to be sort of working (even if so many of us knew then that this day would soon come). I’ve been pretty down on Generation Z and down on law students in general recently, but if more of them are like the perceptive Mr. Kraz Greinetz, then maybe the future will be ok after all.