How Tech Wields Its Power in San Francisco
Paris Marx is joined by Dean Preston to discuss the havoc robotaxis are wreaking in San Francisco and the wider impacts the tech industry has had on the city.
Dean Preston is the District 5 Supervisor in San Francisco and the first democratic socialist elected in the city in 40 years. He’s also a tenant attorney and founder of Tenants Together. You can follow Dean on Twitter at @DeanPreston.
Support the show
Venture capitalists aren’t funding critical analysis of the tech industry — that’s why the show relies on listener support.
Become a supporter on Patreon to ensure the show can keep promoting critical tech perspectives. That will also get you access to the Discord chat, a shoutout on the show, some stickers, and more!
Paris Marx: Dean, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Dean Preston: Thanks, I’m excited to talk with you. I appreciate being on.
PM: I’m very excited, I feel like if there’s any politician in San Francisco who’s a good fit for a show like this, it’s someone like you, who is obviously doing really important work as the first democratic socialist elected in quite a long time in the city. So, really happy to have you on the show and looking forward to digging into a lot of these important issues that are really relevant in San Francisco right now, and that the tech industry has a lot of impact on.
DP: Definitely, the tech industry has had a huge impact here and people have strong opinions. So it’s certainly one of, I guess, a small handful of cities where I think the role of tech has been massive.
PM: I feel like one of the things that I have noticed in recent years, when, obviously, I’ve been observing these issues and writing about these issues for a long time, is that a lot of things that the tech industry wants to try and want to trial often get rolled out in San Francisco first. They’re trying it locally, because that’s where many of these companies are based to see if it’s going to resonate with the public there, before they expanded into other cities across the United States and around the world. And I feel like one of the things that I have noticed is San Franciscans themselves have become much more critical of, skeptical of, even oppositional to, a lot of these experiments that the tech industry is kind of running on the residents of the city. Do you feel like that is something that you’ve noticed, as well?
DP: I think that’s accurate. Look, there’s a lot of folks who have been concerned and suspicious of the motives and the potential impacts of the city being a testing ground for all things tech, and that’s not a new phenomenon. I think there are a lot of folks who have seen various waves of gentrification, displacement in San Francisco and who going back to things that were controversial decades ago in San Francisco — like a big tax break for Twitter, to try to revitalize the Mid-Market area of San Francisco. It’s not like those things when they were rolled out and everyone agreed on them. There are a lot of people who saw the writing on the wall, and expressed concern, and didn’t support those kinds of policies.
But I do think that there’s been a growing number of people, particularly longer-term residents of the city, who are seeing the impacts now of decades of tech dominance of the local economy, and to some extent, local government. And who are seeing that there’s a difference between what’s promised and what the reality is. So, I think it’s accurate to say that there’s a lot of folks with a lot of concerns and just seeing what really have been pretty misleading promises from the tech industry around them being good citizens of San Francisco, as an industry, a lot of those promises are not taken at face value anymore.
PM: The “don’t be evil” certainly comes to mind from Google. But I think that that is something that people even beyond San Francisco are waking up to. In San Francisco, there’s that direct contact to it that is much more relevant or live than maybe in some other cities. But even beyond San Francisco, a lot of people are saying: These tech companies promised us a lot of things, and now that so much time has passed, we can see that a lot of this is not really coming to pass. And so I think that that’s important context to set up this conversation as we talk about the impact of these companies in the city, and how people in the city are responding to it. I wanted to start by talking about a specific issue before we get into this bigger picture because people will have seen stories and reporting on robotaxis in San Francisco run by Google’s Waymo and GM’s Cruise division that have been running in the city, recently, and they’ve probably seen a lot of stories about them not operating very well and causing a lot of mayhem and chaos on the streets of San Francisco. What is the best way to describe what is happening with these robotaxis, to listeners for them to understand it?
DP: Well, it’s certainly a perfect case in point for the relationship between the tech industry and the people who live in the city, some of whom were in the tech industry. But they’re not the decision makers, or the the workforce who have to walk across the street without getting run over by a robo [Paris laughs]. But it is a good example of the number of dynamics that we have going on. So, one thing that’s really important to understand with these autonomous vehicles, driverless cars — whatever you want to call it — Waymo’s CEO says they’re not driverless, they’re operated by Waymonauts. I kid you not! So, this is where they’re coming from. So, whatever you want to call them, I call them driverless cars. They went from operating on a very limited scope between midnight and 5 a.m. in a few neighborhoods; they were testing them. Then they expanded and now you cannot walk a block in the city without seeing these things. They’re all over the streets causing significant traffic congestion, interfering with fire trucks. There was just a collision with a fire truck that had sirens going, and their collision intersection.
The fire chief and others have spoken out saying they’re not ready for primetime — that was her quote. But what’s interesting, I think, and sort of symptomatic of some bigger problems, is the anti-democratic approach to these. It’s not like people in San Francisco came together and voted to say: Let’s be the testing ground for autonomous vehicles, or driverless cars. Nothing like that ever happened. It’s not even like the elected representatives, like myself, ever voted to say: Let’s be the testing ground for these autonomous vehicles. There was no vote from the city saying let’s ramp up from this nighttime testing to where they can operate 24/7. Where they can take passengers and so forth. it was all done by the tech industry going to Sacramento, exerting their power and influence through a lot of money in lobbying.
PM:Which I should say is the state capital, so it’s on a different level of government, right?
DP: That’s right, Sacramento is the state capital, and is significantly more friendly to big corporations. Lobbyists call the shots more, and they very successfully had the state basically preempt local cities from adopting rules and regulations around these vehicles on our streets. So you have this dynamic where all my constituents are pissed off about this. They’re like: How can you have these unsafe vehicles all over the streets, getting in the way of emergency first responders, and so forth? And we got to look him in the eye and say: Actually, we’re preempted by state law from doing much about it. So everyone goes to the state to try to lobby the CPUC, California Public Utilities Commission, they’re the ones who actually have the regulatory authority. They’re very cozy with industry, and they just keep handing out the permissions for these folks to do whatever they want.
There’s no transparency; there’s no real data tracking that’s meaningful on what’s happening. And so they have followed a strategy of going to the state level to accomplish what they couldn’t accomplish locally, and to take away the democratic voice and power of cities and local elected representatives. They’re not the first industry to do that. My background for 20 years before I took office, I did tenant rights work and fought evictions and tried to get improvements to get rent control laws passed and other tenant protections. Same dynamic there. For years when cities started democratically passing rent control laws in California in the 70s, and in the 80s, the response in the 90s, was the big real estate industry went to the state, and basically handcuffed the cities and barred the cities — even if a majority of voters wanted it — from adopting certain types of strong rent control across the state of California. So that is a tried and true tactic, and we see it again and again. We see it with Uber and Lyft going to the state level to preempt and change the law that the courts and local jurisdictions were trying to push around their drivers being employees, instead of being contractors. So, they went and did a ballot measure at the state level.
So that’s in California, at least where we have a number of more progressive cities where voters are not enamored with all things tech and certainly not enamored with all things big corporation, and are willing, and eager to push back and to regulate. And what’s happened again and again — and especially with these driverless cars — is that the industry wises up to that pretty early and realizes they can just preempt the cities by going to a higher level of government
PM: And former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is not stepping in to help you out with this?
DP: [laughs] He certainly is not and he was a very, very corporation-friendly mayor and remains so as Governor. These are his appointees on the very body that regulates or theoretically regulates, these driverless vehicles. So, he’s certainly part of the problem, and I think what’s different than the usual dynamic here is the emerging consensus among local leaders. I mean, when you have like the fire chief, the President of the Board of Supervisors, a number of supervisors. Even folks who disagree on a lot of issues are saying — the city attorney here who is viewed as a more centrist, not progressive politician. They are all saying: This is outrageous. And urging the state, CPUC, to rein in these permissions and were actually formally asking them to rescind and revisit their decision from just a couple of weeks ago, to basically give the green light to a huge number of these vehicles on our streets.
PM: And am I right that the transit agency is also with you in that fight? And am I right that even the police were suggesting that they weren’t supporting these robotaxis, as well?
DP: Everyone! Yes, first responders, transit agencies. I will say, someone like myself, I wish I’d heard a lot of these people speaking up five years ago, before I even got on the board when some of these things were being considered. I do think some of these same officials were pretty enamored with all the tech. And certainly our transit agency, I don’t know that they’ve taken a strong stand as they should have in the past. But whatever lead us hear at least now everyone’s speaking, to some extent, with one voice. Look, I mean, there are things that people are all agreed on. There are other parts of this, though, where most leaders are still silent. So I think that everyone can agree that people in local leadership have an obligation to keep the streets safe. But we can’t do that when we have no control over these vehicles. So, you see a consensus going around talking about the safety, are these ready for primetime and all that?
Where you don’t have the same consensus is on some of the other impacts. I don’t hear a lot of people — other than democratic socialists and some very progressive, local politicians — talking about things like just transition, and impact on taxi drivers, who are completely screwed by all this, and aren’t even part of the discussion. People will debate for hours at the state level and locally driverless cars and no one, or very few people, are talking about the fact that the whole point is to put all these medallion holders who weren’t put out of business by Uber and Lyft, just put them completely out of business and make Uber drivers, Lyft drivers, and cab drivers all obsolete. They have bigger plans down the road of replacing public transit, which is where they want to head once they have bigger vehicles. So, while I think it’s great to see an emerging consensus around safety, and are they ready for primetime? There needs to be more of a discussion and consensus around: Where is this all headed? And what does it do to the human beings who are largely — when it comes to cab drivers, largely immigrants and long-term rent control tenants in San Francisco — who are somehow managing to survive still in this town, who clearly have a target on their back. If you phase out their job abruptly without any kind of plan to help them?
PM: That’s such an essential point, and one that doesn’t often get brought up in these discussions. Because let’s be real, the taxi drivers were already sidelined years ago with Uber and Lyft, as you were talking about. I want to come back to that in just a second, but the last thing I want to ask you about this robotaxi phenomenon, and what’s been happening, is you talked about how this decision was made undemocratically by the state level body so that local politicians and local leaders, like yourself and these other people who you’re talking about, don’t have the authority to actually do anything about that. Is there any way around that for you? And is it a surprise, then, to see that people are taking direct action against these vehicles when it is causing so much chaos in the city, like the recent campaign by activists to put cones on the vehicle to draw attention to the CPUC being about to make this decision? What do you make of those sorts of developments as well?
DP: I think that our ability to directly regulate them is severely curtailed, if not abolished by state law. It does not mean that we’re completely powerless to do anything. And I think it’s important for people to remember that, and to realize that through activism, as some people are doing. I think there are also things that if as a city we were really serious about cracking down on these vehicles, that we could do. I said this about Uber and Lyft when they came and operated, essentially, illegal cab companies for years until they legalized them through the same state law maneuvers. There are things the city could have done. If you have a jurisdiction whose government and whose agencies are serious about enforcing laws and regulations, instead, of just welcoming whatever the latest tech innovation is, you can do something about it.
I’ll give you an example. I’ve long said it pretty much every Uber and Lyft pickup and drop off, unless they’re parking in a parking space. And the same with these driverless cars — most of them violate a local traffic law. What gives them the right to double park and pick someone up in a city? Paris, if you and I opened Paris and Dean LLC., and had gotten a car and just started pulling up for hire, and someone paid us and we’re double parking. The transit agency here could ticket us for doing that, because the taxis, they have the right to do that, and they’re given that by local law and regulation. I mentioned that just because this idea that local residents and local governments are powerless, I don’t think, is accurate. You see that with these activists who locally, in San Francisco, like you referred to. They just said: Forget it, we’re going to just take matters into our own hands. They declared it, and called it cone week or something. They just started plopping orange cones on the hood of the car, and apparently that disabled the vehicles, and there’s a lot of controversy around that. But it was an example of activists saying: You, the corporate lobbyists and the money, may control certain things, you don’t control everything. It’s kind of like when workers organize and strike. At a certain point the big corporations, they need the workers to perform the work.
And I think there’s some element of that where there’s certain lines when they get crossed, and people push back. We saw this with the Google buses years ago. There were protests in the street. At a certain point, if 20 activists stand in front of the Google bus, which is illegally parking in a bus stop, and inhibiting public transit. That’s what was happening. This is back in the 90s and early 2000s, and people pushed back and they helped catalyze some rules around the Google buses using these. And then they were not just Google’s, there were other tech companies, basically bringing workers from San Francisco out to the tech campuses in Silicon Valley. And it was very effective. They really shut down and infuriated all the workers who were trying to get to work and the drivers. As with most forms of protest, very inconvenient, but it also really pushed the city to come up with a system of where these buses could be, having them pay for each time they parked in a public bus stop to pick people up and so forth. So I try not to endorse or not endorse, like every act of protest that comes along, but I can just say it as a pretty important role in showing that even if you have power in these are the halls of the Capitol and you have the most lobbyists doesn’t mean you can dictate everything that happens on our streets.
PM: Absolutely. And I think that’s a really important point to say that, it’s not that the city can’t do anything, it’s just that the city often chooses not to do things when it is convenient for them to do so. And it’s easy to push the blame on a different level. And before we move on from this topic, you brought up Uber and Lyft. So I wanted to kind of bring up that example, as well, as we talk about this now. Because I feel like as my understanding is, Uber and Lyft, kind of rolled into San Francisco and these other cities. And once again, it was the CPUC, the state body, that essentially took over regulation of them to allow them to operate in the cities. Where there was an attempt by activist by, taxi companies, by some local politicians — to put in some more effective regulations on them, at the local level in cities in California. But once again, it was the state body that preempted those regulations to allow Uber and Lyft to roll out so that they have had that impact. What, I guess, historical examples are happening again here? And what was the impact of allowing Uber and Lyft to roll out in that way in San Francisco?
DP: Well, their strategy is to ask for forgiveness, not permission — if they even ever ask — but that’s the strategy. And obviously, your focus is on tech industry, the biggest landlords in San Francisco have been using that strategy since I started doing landlord tenant work representing tenants. They would gut apartments and make it a hell for the neighbor next door instead of getting permits. And then they got fined a few hundred bucks and whatnot. So it is not unique to the tech industry to take the approach of: We’re just going to come in, violate all the laws, and then figure that the fines, or whatever accountability there is, hopefully we can lobby our way out of those. If we can’t, we’ll pay them and still make money. Now, the tech industry is taking that to an extreme and the things that you cite, not just the autonomous vehicles, certainly Uber and Lyft. Really, when you step back, it was to the point of absurdity. They they launched these cab companies, they claim they’re not taxis. I remember the first one that I was aware of was they were called Sidecar, I think. You remember that? I don’t know if you remember that? This is going way back. But their whole thing was: Well, we’re not taxis, because it’s a voluntary donation, that people make, not a fee-based structure. And that was how they got around. They were one of the first ones and it was laughable. Everyone know that if you didn’t pay, the next one would never come pick you up.
So, people kind of know what’s going on. These are cabs that are operating outside a long-standing regulatory environment, where people purchase medallions, and they’re allowed to do certain things and not allowed to do certain things. And we have a very green fleet of cabs in San Francisco, there’s a reason for a lot of these regulations. Now, what a lot of big tech companies have done well, is they have exploited situations where a market isn’t working that well. So, there were huge problems with the cab industry in San Francisco. There were times a day you’re trying to get a cab, and you just can’t even get one. It’s not like New York City where you just walk out and get a taxi, it was really hard. And there were neighborhoods with real equity concerns around where cabs would go, where they would and wouldn’t pick up. There were real improvements needed in the industry, so rather than just be the better, smarter cab company that comes in and offers a better product, and actually applies for the medallions and the permits and comes in that way, their strategy is to just operate outside all that initially, illegally, and then to craft the law to allow what they’re doing.
That was also what Airbnb did in our housing market in San Francisco. They operated — it was completely illegal. If local officials had not been getting their campaign donations from them, and wanting to curry favor with tech industry, Airbnb, there was a path to shutting all that down. Every one of their initial rentals violated our local rent control law, and what’s called the Apartment Conversion Ordinance, which makes it illegal to take an apartment that is for residential purposes, so that someone can live there permanently. Some working class person in San Francisco needs a home — it’s for them. You don’t get to just take those and make them tourist hotels. It violates zoning laws; it violates the Apartment Conversion Ordinance. It violated all those things, yet they were allowed to do it. It took many, many years of activism, pushing back to finally regulate those in a meaningful way, and a lot of push and pull with state law and local law.
I do think that got to a better place eventually, but not before thousands of people were displaced. Because some greedy landlords wanted to kick people out, so they could turn around and start renting to tourists on a nightly or weekly basis. And so that is a pattern and I think it’s within the higher-ups in the tech industry, it’s viewed as a strength. They’re disrupting, they’re not apologetic about, and they’re fundamentally libertarians, and they believe all these rules — whether it’s rent control, prohibitions on converting apartments, medallions and regulations for taxis — they believe all that stuff is nonsense. And you should just operate outside all those regulations, and that’s what they’re hell bent on doing.
PM: They also believe that because they have these technical skills, that they also understand everything else in every other venue that they might want to enter, or sector that they might want to enter. I’m wondering you described there a lot of the ways that these companies have gotten around regulations, and that the government has had these regulations and could have enforced them, but then chose not to. And allowed these companies to break the regulations and eventually often write their own regulations, or have some versions of regulations written to allow them to be legalized and to operate in a way that was acceptable to the city. Even though it had a lot of negative externalities and a lot of problems that were created because of that. What is your theory as to why that was ultimately allowed to happen and why governments didn’t crack down harder when these tech companies started flouting these laws?
DP: I think political influence and promises from these companies and the promises of what capitalism always offers, as what they’re going to achieve. And there are benefits for the local city that are undeniable. For all the gentrification and displacement that occurred there’s also a lot of real estate taxes for example that were collected that wouldn’t have been had you not infused had you not had big tech, occupying and developing huge amounts of office space downtown and so forth. So, I think those aspects of these companies can contribute, in terms of tax revenue. Even though I view it negatively, I think there are a lot of people — not a lot, but there’s some — who view gentrification through the lens of: Great, more high-end restaurants for me to frequent, or something.
Just realizing that it’s a class-based thing and some of the decision makers who are more well-off, attending their cocktail parties with other folks who are more well off. The people in the halls of power are not necessarily looking at like: Hey, what’s the impact on the janitor, the paraprofessional teaching in a school — how are these policies impacting them? Or the cab driver. They’re looking at how these policies impact, and bring money, into the city. That’s the more charitable view of it. The less charitable views, for some of these folks, is their directly getting funded in their campaigns, and their future political endeavors and so forth, by this very industry. The industry has been active politically. A lot of these angel investors, and others in the Bay Area, we have 75 billionaires in the Bay Area. They are very active in trying to influence San Francisco politics.
There’s been a couple instances that really show this where you actually see the city sprang to action. I remember a bunch of years ago, when these guys from Italy decided they were going to start some app that was going to let people sell parking spaces on the street. And, man, the city attorney and everyone cracked down on these guys so quick. Like announcements of how their business model was illegal. Well, these guys weren’t like Ron Conway and Y Combinator, and all these people in the Bay Area. They were politically irrelevant. They were “innovators and disruptors” too, but they had no political connections, no political power, and weren’t active in the Bay Area tech community. A very legal idea got shut down all these other illegal ideas, funded by the folks who are more involved in politics somehow, magically, not only get going here, but it takes many years of activism to finally get to the point where any of them are regulated.
PM: Fascinating. And that leads me really well into the next topic that I wanted to discuss, I guess. And that really is the influence of these powerful and wealthy people in the tech industry on the politics in San Francisco, and on the city. So if we’re just talking on a broad level, what do you see there? Because obviously, this industry has grown immensely within Silicon Valley, and within San Francisco, in particular. A lot of these people either are located in San Francisco itself, or the companies have offices there. So what do they do to have influence on the politics of the city, and to make sure that it ultimately serves their interests above the interests of the general residents of the city, the people who’ve been there for a very long time?
DP: Well, their tactics have changed a bit. They’re closely aligned with other big financial interests. So whether it’s financial services, big real estate, big tech, they’re hard to distinguish when you look at what they’re funding. And any notion that they’re somehow different, that you’ve got the real estate industry over here, but oh, no, we’re the tech industry over here, and we think differently. I think this was part of the promise, and what folks hoped. And you saw some glimmers of hope, you saw Marc Benioff at Salesforce, who really leaned in on a very controversial way and went to battle with Jack Dorsey, then head of Twitter, on a tax, locally, on big business that was going to fund homeless solutions. There have been these moments where you see some bigger folks in tech trying to distinguish themselves and be like: No, we’re not just like the big real estate speculators or the big investor types.
But at the end of the day, those are very, very rare — a few individuals on a few initiatives. And for the most part, big money in tech, all the VCs, what drives that economy is aligned almost completely with the big landlords, real estate speculators and other long standing big corporations — whether the banking industry or other industries here. And so they’re all active, and they weigh in and they ensure. This is a city where there’s barely any Republicans, but there’s a hell of a lot of Democrats who act like Republicans, they just don’t call themselves Republicans. They’re firmly behind those candidates, and they put a lot of money into politics to the tune of millions of dollars. I ran a ballot measure in 2020 that was calling to double the tax on sellers of real estate that sells for over $10 million. So, basically the sales of $10 million real estate was going to get us a 6% tax, which would bring in $100 to $200 million per year in revenue for social housing and for rent relief. And they spent $5 million — outspent us 20-1 — to try to kill that measure. It was big real estate, big tech, everyone is the same, same groups. We won, by the way, despite all that money, by over a 10 point margin. So they weigh in directly with money, directly.
I think increasingly, they also have invested a lot — not just in campaign interventions and funding and direct lobbying — but in really trying to control the narrative. Michael Moritz, who’s a big VC billionaire has set up his own website as a faux news outlet that also doubles as his personal pet project. And then he also set up a nonprofit organization that does all this civic engagement stuff in the city, and cleaning the streets and whatever. They do all that stuff to build email lists, so these folks are increasingly focused on developing out and creating influence, not just through direct campaign donations, but through creating a real echo chamber through new sites that they own or control and or organizations that pop up and they pop up all the time. I ran for office 2019, they were called One Thing, in 2020 they formed new groups, Neighbors for a Better San Francisco. Then the next year, they formed like a fake renters group. They called it the San Francisco Renters Alliance. There’s been 10 of these just in the last couple years. Together SF, Together SF PAC — it’s just nonstop.
So they’ve gotten a little more sophisticated around this, and a little more brazen in their disinformation campaigns. And so they really, as you see a lot on social media, especially on Twitter, are just really coming after progressives, socialists, tenant groups, in these campaigns that are just based on absolutely nothing. Because fundamentally, when they honestly present their arguments, they lose. That’s the fundamental challenge that I think big tech has in San Francisco, is that most of these issues if you ask voters — and it is not me speculating, it’s like over and over again — voters want reasonable regulation of big corporations. They want progressive taxation. They want rent control, they want to support labor and unions. It remain, despite the million efforts to spin it a different way, it remains a progressive city overall. So I think what a lot of these big tech interests have figured out is that their only path to winning is the disinformation route.
That’s why they come after me. I’ve spent 20 years representing tenants; I’m a tenant rights attorney. So big real estate used to attack me saying I was too strong an advocate for tenants and rent control; I wasn’t considering the poor mom and pop landlords, that’s how they came at me. That’s such a losing argument in San Francisco that now they come at me and literally have these fake articles saying that I’m a landlord, evicting people [Paris laughs]. I’ve never been a landlord in my life, I’ve never evicted anyone. I’ve defended thousands of people from eviction. That’s kind of where we are. It’s like the Trump impact down at the local level and weaponized by people who say they’re Democrats. It’s just a wild, wild time. But we increasingly see that. It’s really unfortunate, but it tells you how they lack the confidence that their ideas will win, so they just increasingly just kind of make stuff up in the local political realm.
PM: Do you feel like that has shifted over time, because, as you were saying earlier, a lot of these people would present themselves as like libertarians, and are operating outside the government, maybe even wanting to replace the government, and for a long time, there was this narrative that they were separate from the government. They were just not paying much attention to it. And they were just kind of doing their tech thing. But it does seem like in the past number of years, they have become much more politically active and much more openly engaging in the political process were they always had these things, but it was just below the surface and you didn’t see it as much or has there been a notable shift in their engagement in politics in the past number of years?
DP: I think there’s been a notable shift, but as I mentioned, much in the toxicity level. It’s really only the last handful of years where you just have this non-stop, especially online, just this like gross, toxic stuff, that I think most people would associate with, and assume, are MAGA Republican-type tactics and Trump tactics. But you see a lot of it in the online YIMBY crowd, which is the pro-development and libertarian housing approach. And others who just use a lot of these same tactics of disinformation and really kind of toxic personal attacks. I think the other thing that’s shifted, and certainly for big tech, but also more broadly for big corporate interest, is at a certain point they’ve thrown so much at trying to shape public opinion — to make people more libertarian, suspicious of government. At some levels, it’s worked. They’ve certainly deregulated a lot and had their successes in that effort.
But what’s interesting is there are limits to that. And I think that one of the things we see in San Francisco, why we see that shift in some of the messaging, is I do think that some folks have realized that it doesn’t matter how much money you dump in a political campaign. If you’re attacking rent control in San Francisco, you are going to lose at the polls. Your candidate is going to lose; your ballot measures are going to lose, and if you’re an organization, like these PACs that do this, your endorsement is going to be toxic. No one is going to want to be associated with you. I’d say the same thing nationally. It’s like with labor. Think of decades of attacking organized labor from the right, from the centrist corporate Democrats, years and years. Think of how many millions, if not billions, of dollars have been spent trying to convince workers that they shouldn’t be part of a union and that unions are bad, unions are trying to exploit. Then they did that poll last year of everyone, including the most right-wing people and the most left and whatever, of all Americans, and they found over 70% support for unions. That’s after so many years of misinformation and propaganda.
So I do think they’ve run up against that in certain areas where there are certain things that no matter how much money you throw out, you’re not going to convince people. You’re not going to convince people Social Security and Medicare are bad. You’re not going to convince people that reasoable regulations on landlords, or that workers organizing, or these things, are bad things. That’s why you do see a shift in the political realm where their candidates, their measures, will not acknowledge what they’re doing, they will just say they’re doing the opposite. The deregulation crew did a big housing measure in San Francisco last year, it’s called Prop D. It lost, but they ran it as an affordable housing measure. It wasn’t an affordable housing measure. It would make housing less affordable, actually, for people. But they knew they had to run it as an affordable housing measure; they just had to lie about what it was and call it an affordable housing measure, otherwise it had no chance of success.
And it’s the same thing where you see a guy backed by the tech industry running for supervisor in the Mission District of San Francisco, which has traditionally been a very progressive district. He keeps putting things out how he’s the progressive in the race, you have to do that locally. So I think they’ve wised up to that they have to lie to people to have any chance. And then the question is can we all get the truth through and get our message out? But it’s become much more of a cynical approach in that way, where they’re not like engaging on different views of: Hey, should we regulate these things? Do we want a more libertarian society? Those kinds of things, which 10 years ago, 20 years ago, might have been the debate, as different technologies were emerging. Instead, now it’s just all about how these things are actually going to result in positive progressive achievements, even if those things in reality are completely disconnected from what they’re advocating.
PM: A very obvious example of that, to me, is the Uber and Lyft in the gig economy is pushing Proposition 22, and saying that it was actually going to be great for gig workers, and they were going to benefit so much from this, when it was really an attempt to roll back the regulations that they had won by getting the government to actually pass protections for them. You can see that in many different cases in the state and the city, but also nationally, and I would say even internationally as well. As these companies recognize what they need to do to move their interests forward in a society that is becoming much more skeptical of them and what they’re kind of offering them. I wanted to ask you about one specific case that comes to mind because I believe, as I understand, the tech industry was quite influential were quite involved, and funded a lot the campaign against Chesa Boudin. I don’t know if that’s the correct pronunciation, but I know he was recalled in San Francisco. My understanding is that the tech industry was quite involved in that campaign. Can you give us a bit of insight on what happened there, and the influence that the industry is able to exert in these sorts of campaigns?
DP: They certainly were a lot of the big funders, more certainly, the same folks advancing other conservative positions, and they backed a recall campaign of Boudin. And there were some in the industry who did side with him, so it wasn’t a monolith. But definitely far more money coming against him from industry leaders. And that recall campaign was an interesting one from the perspective of how spin and conservative propaganda can drive results. And there’s just been a movement of recalls against progressive politicians, progressive district attorneys, anyone pushing for reform, and they often target low turnout elections. So the results end up skewing more conservative. But that’s a good example of how we’re dealing with fundamentally conservative, pro-corporate folks, and whether we’re talking about how they view unions, how they view rent control how, they view criminal justice reform.
I mean, this is largely — the people we’re talking about — are well-off, they’re white, they’re male, almost overwhelmingly. It is not high on their list to do the kinds of things that progressive prosecutors want to do, and that civil rights advocates want to do, which is to make sure we’re not just taking the problems, especially the problems of poverty, and just warehousing and caging Black and brown people, overwhelmingly, low-income people. That is not their concern. Their concern is that when they come from their house in the suburbs, down into San Francisco, to show off some neighborhood, to some friend of theirs who’s visiting from wherever, that they don’t have to see a homeless person on the street in San Francisco. They don’t care whether that person gets housed. I don’t want to see a homeless person on the street either because I want them to be in stable housing. They don’t care if they’re in stable housing or in jail. And so when you have a prosecutor like Chesa Boudin, who kind of got that, who’s like: I’m not going to prosecute my way out of the problems of poverty here. He said he was going focus prosecutions on violent crime, and try to make us safer. I’m not going to be prosecuting someone for camping on the street, or for using a drug because they’re addicted to it. He was very clear, he’s not going to prosecute that kind of stuff.
That really is not the vision of these big tech billionaires and multimillionaires — they want a city where they have total control over the levers of government, that they keep government out of any regulation of anything that impacts their profits. Government is only there when they need a bailout. And the more altruistic ones, also want a place where their upper level workers — who are earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year — can live here and displace all the undesirable people who aren’t really contributing to the city in the way that of course only tech contributes. I’m being a bit facetious, but that’s it. Boiled down to it, they’re primarily interested in their own profits. Like I said, if they’re a little more altruistic, maybe they’re interested, that their engineers and others can live in San Francisco as well. I don’t know if they’re really interested in that. And I can tell you this a hell of a lot of tech workers — who are very supportive of progressive policies who are deeply involved in San Francisco — who would probably tell you that the folks at the top couldn’t care less about the tech workers either, but hopefully, that at least varies company by company.
PM: It’s a really good point. I remember seeing stats about how many Black people have had to leave San Francisco because of the gentrification, and because of the increasing housing prices and stuff like that, wow they’re not kind of in on so much of the wealth that has been created by the tech industry and whatnot. I wanted to ask you, though, because when you’re talking about Chesa Bousin and the recall, obviously, people have heard a lot of stories about San Francisco in recent years, about the crime in the city, or the level of homelessness, or the inequality and these other problems that the city is facing.
I know, some of those are real problems and some of them are inflated for certain interests, because it will benefit them to have these narratives out there. When you look at the responses of some of the influential people in the tech industry, they’ll say that these problems in San Francisco are the result of lefty politicians who are implementing these policies that don’t make any sense and act like they have no kind of culpability in what is actually going on in the city. How would you describe the problems that San Francisco is facing and where would you place the root of those problems?
DP: Well, I certainly think the industry has contributed to those. I think they’ve certainly brought resources to the city. They’ve exacerbated some of the inequality in the city and fueled the increase in housing costs and the displacement from the city. I think that it’s very strange, the kind of blame game right now that they play, and pointing at Chesa Boudin, as a progressive prosecutor. Or they love to point at me. I’m one of 11 supervisors on a board of supervisors. And yet, somehow they think that the Democratic Socialists, who have one representative in city government, any problem that occurs in the city, I have created it, somehow. The reality is we have strong mayor city, that’s objectively true. Our system of government has a strong mayor system. The mayor literally controls every department tens of thousands of employees, makes every decision around spending money. We have an oversight role, where we can call a hearing, we can, certainly, pass laws on what’s legal and illegal. All the things that these folks complain about are issues of how things are administered in San Francisco. And that’s one hundred percent an issue of the mayor, but they’ll never say that because the mayor is their mayor. These billionaires all back Mayor London Breed, one hundred percent. And so they’re kind of in a conundrum. They have the most powerful representative in government.
And yet, they point to all these problems and want to blame someone, so they blame, originally, Chesa Boudin. And notably, crime was down under Chese Boudin. MSNBC just did a great segment on this, showing the data. They got rid of Boudin and put in this tough-on-crime friend of the mayor and crime is up. For folks here, it’s become pretty obvious. It’s just like: Blame those on the left for problems that are really a result of capitalism and of big corporate interests having too much control, not too little control. I’ll tell you, the part that’s interesting to layer on this is what happened in the pandemic. Where out of need, not out of some strategic decision making process or planning prep, just because of the moment and the crisis. We actually saw a significant launching of major lefty type programs in San Francisco. The story that no one will tell is that those things worked and it freaked out the billionaires, especially the tech billionaires and VCs. It freaked them out because what happened during the first couple years the pandemic, certainly when it came to health care. It was the closest we’ve come to socialism: you get your free shot and you’re free vaccines. So, we socialized medicine, more than it ever has been in San Francisco.
My office led the way in banning evictions, virtually any eviction, unless it was like a nuisance eviction where someone’s going to like burn down the place or something, almost every eviction. The eviction rates plummeted, plummeted, through the pandemic. Lowest of any California city, we just banned evictions. We taxed the rich at the ballot to generate more rent relief. We had over $70 million of rent relief. The sky didn’t fall, landlords got their money, nobody got evicted over rent. In so many ways there were things happening. Voters passed a whole series of taxes on big corporations. We were all told: Oh, it’s a pandemic, people aren’t going to want to tax the rich. Oh, no, no, they taxed every single one of them. While other cities economies were falling off a cliff, because of all these progressive taxes, San Francisco’s did not. Until this year, we didn’t even have a deficit because we were taxing the rich.
Then the other notable thing is homelessness, debated for decades. What did we finally do as a city we finally acquired hotels during the pandemic and moved homeless people and guess what, we’re the only county in the state where the number of people living on the streets dropped in the pandemic. So we closed the shelters and still had the number of people living on the streets dropped by 15% because we were moving thousands of people into hotels. It’s not like everything was perfect. These were small dents in huge societal problems. But those were the path. If we as a city doubled down on those things — ideally with federal and state help, but even if we just did the city — if we ramp those strategies up, you would see huge progress on homelessness, on evictions, on all these issues. But you got to fund that and the voters were ready to fund all that. And they did over and over by taxing these folks.So that’s what’s going on.
They’re rebelling now, they’re reinventing history to say the progressive solutions are creating all these problems, blaming all the problems, which are actually created by them and their politicians. Reinventing the history to try to make all the actual successful interventions look like they failed, so that they don’t have to get taxed. Because in a sane world, that most San Franciscans would support,these billionaires would be paying the damn bills, and we’d be buying up more hotels, moving homeless people into those places, banning evictions, taxing the rich to fund rent relief. Like it’s not rocket science. And during the pandemic, we saw the glimpses of, and were able to test, some significant changes. I mean, we haven’t even talked about policing, this pivot to community ambassadors and street teams, instead of police. There were some very fundamental shifts that started happening early in the pandemic. And the billionaires, especially, freaked out knowing that they’d have to pay their fair share. That if people start to actually see progress on those things, it’s going to be a problem for them. So, that’s really at the heart of the interventions that you’re seeing, especially from this handful of billionaires that’s very active in in San Francisco politics.
PM: That’s so fascinating to hear. And to see that the solutions are quite obvious. They could be implemented, we know what they are. It’s just having that political will, which is being kneecapped by the power and influence of these very powerful people, which include the tech billionaires in Silicon Valley. That is really holding the government, both at the city level and the state level, back from actually moving forward on those sorts of things. Dean, I think that this gave us a lot of great context for what’s going on in San Francisco. Is there anything that we didn’t discuss that you think it’s important for people to understand about tech’s influence and role in the city?
DP: I think we’ve covered a lot of it. I think one thing, though, that we touched on really briefly, but I think is a growing problem is the disinformation as they get more involved in politics. It’s not exclusively a tech issue. It is overwhelmingly, shamelessly put forward by a lot of these multimillionaires and billionaires who are weighing in the process. And I will say it’s an area where I think we, as a society, and certainly in San Francisco have not figured out how to counter that. So just a shout out to you and others who are actually having these discussions in a more substantive way. Because, I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about these things, and not to have to condense in our conversation into the two minute soundbite, which increasingly seems like the extent of a lot of dialogues. So, thank you so much for having me on and for doing this.
PM: Absolutely. Thank you so much for taking the time to come on the show, for fighting for these important measures in San Francisco, of course, and for giving us insight on what’s going on there because I think it’s important to always understand what’s happening in San Francisco because the tech industry is so influential there. And often what they try in that city ends up happening in other cities as well, where they want influence. So I think it’s important for us to understand that and I thank you again for taking the time to come and chat.
DP: Thank you.