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‘San Fransicko’ is thought-provoking and hard to dismiss, click-bait packaging aside

By Scott James

On a recent morning I saw three men use a crowbar to break into a 22-unit residence in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood.

I called 911. An annoyed dispatcher interrogated me about race, height, facial hair, clothing and potential weapons, all the while I’m thinking that precious time to catch these guys was being lost. 

When police arrived 30 minutes later the men were gone. In the following days, the building was burglarized twice while residents were home, in what local cops cutely term a “hot prowl” but elsewhere is more seriously called a home invasion.

Too many San Franciscans have faced similar crimes. Videos of stores being looted have gone viral, leading to worldwide media reports of a city in decline. Or as comedian Dave Chappelle observed during his recent show here, “What the hell happened?”

So the table is set for someone to explain what’s gone wrong, and Berkeley author Michael Shellenberger tries in San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities.

It’s an unfortunate title intended to troll for Tucker Carlson’s fans, and, in fact, the book is published by a division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which owns Fox News. Promotion for San Fransicko compares it to literary greats like, uh, Kentucky’s Senator Rand Paul.

It’s unfortunate because the book is more interesting and thought-provoking than its right-wing click-bait packaging would suggest.

Shellenberger’s central conceit is hard to dismiss: San Francisco is a wealthy city with an unrivaled concentration of brilliant minds, and yet we are failing on so many levels: schools are in crisis, the deadly misery of drug addiction is rampant, street crime is a plague, and a shameful number of people, many mentally ill, are unhoused and live in filth and danger on our streets. 

In the decades since liberal Democrats and far-left progressives have controlled the city, these problems have worsened. Shellenberger’s conclusion: lefties are to blame, mostly due to dogmatic, untested and ineffective policies that have caused a litany of unintended consequences.

The book cites devastating numbers.

“The overdose crisis is worse in San Francisco than in other cities. In Seattle, Phoenix, and Chicago, there were 23, 46, and 48 overdose deaths per every 100,000 people, in 2020. In San Francisco, there were 81,” Shellenberger writes. “There are about twenty-five thousand injection drug users in San Francisco, a number 50 percent larger than the number of students enrolled in the city’s fifteen public high schools. ”

Shellenberger describes himself as a decades-long activist for liberal causes. “But much of what I believed back then turns out to not be true, or at least wasn’t the whole truth.”

He’s not alone with his leftist buyer’s remorse. The New York Times just published a video that questioned progressives’ ability to govern. 

Shellenberger argues that progressives too often base policies on flimsy, or dishonest, interpretations of successful programs elsewhere.

For example, Portugal and Amsterdam are often hailed for solving their drug abuse crises by decriminalizing hard drugs. But Shellenberger contends that neither country is actually so permissive, instead employing a carrot-and-stick approach with incentives and punishments that prosecute drug dealers and pressure addicts into taking personal responsibility for their actions.

Taking personal responsibility, Shellenberger says, conflicts with San Francisco’s “victimology” approach that blames everyone else, not addicts, drug pushers or those who commit crimes. This had led to brazen open-air drug markets, and legal actions from groups like the ACLU that defend the rights of drug dealers. 

Shellenberger skewers the city’s top law enforcer, District Attorney Chesa Boudin:

"In early 2020 Boudin said, ‘There are people who are harmed by the addiction crisis in this city, by open-air drug use and drug sales.’ But, he added, ‘those are technically victimless crimes.’”

It’s no wonder many of us who live here feel like the rhetoric from Boudin—who is now facing a recall election—and Mayor London Breed promotes the idea that criminals are the real victims, and crime victims, well, kind of deserve it. In the wake of caught-on-video looting of stores and closures in response, both Breed and Boudin scolded businesses as having ulterior motives or weak security practices.

Many residents feel unsafe and abandoned by the police and city leaders, causing a surge in self-defense courses, and homes fortified with stronger locks and security systems. If pushed further, it’s easy to imagine some people arming themselves and taking the law into their own hands. No one wants San Francisco governed by the Rittenhouse Rules.

But Shellenberger observes that the city is already a dystopia, where social norms have flipped. We’ve gone from a community that fought for the right to live as our true selves to one where destructive antisocial behavior is protected.

Much of San Fransicko scrutinizes the alarming growth of homelessness, despite billions spent. The author repeatedly criticizes the longtime Housing First strategy as too myopically focused on providing permanent apartments, an approach rooted in an ideologically-driven belief that housing economics are the primary cause of the despair on our streets. Shellenberger believes addiction and mental illness are wrongly downplayed, and after so many years of failures, perhaps we should try a new plan. 

At each turn Shellenberger references studies and research, often from media reports, and some surely cherry-picked to support his thesis—which provokes critics who will then cherry-pick their own counter-research.

Shellenberger somewhat undermines his argument with an extensive discussion of the theories of French philosopher Michel Foucault, who died in 1984, as if that currently inspires the left. His Foucault focus feels like intellectual onanism meant to enhance the author’s brand as worldly. I don’t believe progressives today sit around smoking Gitanes and pontificating. “Knowledge is not for knowing: knowledge is for cutting.” Puff. “Oui?”

But the biggest flaw with San Fransicko is Shellenberger’s failure to rigorously examine the role of the Fourth Estate in the city’s decline. If the author truly believes people here have been misled and fed a bunch of junk policy, then exactly who has done the feeding?

In journalism circles, San Francisco has long been considered a poorly served news market. The press here tends to be activist or agenda-driven, rather than fact-based. For example, the San Francisco Chronicle, the city’s newspaper of record that should eschew bias in its reporting, slanted its coverage to get a controversial anti-homelessness "sit/lie" law passed that turned out to be as feckless or pointless as critics warned; using limited police resources to move people along actually solves nothing.

Since the pandemic the Chronicle has dismissed concerns about crime, essentially chastising residents to not believe their own eyes and instead accept dubious statistics from embattled city leaders. Only very recently did the paper finally report that some crime stats are questionable. “Consider the source” is a basic tenet of fact-based journalism, but the paper often fails to hold leaders accountable.

Shellenberger makes brief reference to the media, saying it's been bullied into submission by progressives.

It’s more important than that. 

When I talk to city leaders about San Francisco’s problems, they almost universally say it’s essentially a battle of hearts and minds. There’s no will to change, so we are destined for the status quo, or worse. If that’s true, the media’s role is vital.

With this book, Shellenberger can now count himself among the local media. It’s going to be tough. I spoke to one influential local bookseller who told me she won’t sell San Fransicko. There’s no market for it, she said.

That’s too bad. Shellenberger’s book might be imperfect, but it provokes much-needed conversations. 

Scott James is a veteran San Francisco journalist and author. His new book, Trial by Fire, won the 2021 top prize for contemporary nonfiction from the New England Society Book Awards. Learn more at:

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