Boston, San Francisco, and The Bonfire of The Vanities

Over the last year, San Francisco seems to be undergoing a real knock-out, drag-down fight over that city’s rising cost of living, which to a considerable extent, is driven by housing prices. What I don’t understand is the intense anger towards the ‘techies’, the tech workforce. The reason it puzzles me is that there are similar affordability problems in Boston. During the mayoral race, every debate, even those that had nothing to do with housing, touched on the cost of housing. Like San Francisco, there’s a well-educated specialist workforce (actually, several different kinds) that has contributed to a high cost of housing comparable to San Francisco. There isn’t much in the way of open space in Boston either, and, unlike San Francisco, Boston is a state capitol and regional hub, meaning huge swathes of the city are unavailable for housing (only about fifty percent of the city is even eligible for property taxes–and some of that, of course, is devoted to businesses). Building out isn’t really an option either. Yet, unlike San Francisco, the city isn’t divided on this issue–the closest it comes is the gentrification of the North End (which, incidentally, is mostly ‘white-on-white’ gentrification). I’m not saying Boston is harmonious, but there isn’t a group that’s demonized as San Francisco tech workers are.

One reason might be that Boston’s tech force, which is focused as much on biomedical science as it is computer science, simply isn’t as rich. It’s hard to demonize a PhD who makes $80,000 per year. That’s a decent salary in the grand scheme of things, but it’s hardly conspicuous consumption territory. Related to that, the success stories in biotech, even on the private side, aren’t quite as ridiculous as those in Silicon Valley. Also, Boston is a fairly conservative city–politically, it’s liberal, but in terms of flash and style, it’s pretty staid. The rich don’t rub the rest of the city’s noses in it (as much). There’s also a legitimate trickle-down effect (to use a phrase). Federal funding of biotech (and other academic tech-related areas) provides a lot more middle class jobs than some wealthy people cashing in on an IPO does.

The bonfire of the vanities, from a distance, seems higher in San Francisco than in Boston.

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8 Responses to Boston, San Francisco, and The Bonfire of The Vanities

  1. SF is having issues with transportation — Google/Genentech/Whatever busses violating SF Muni laws are never charged, whereas individuals who do so are rigorously hunted and charged $271 per violation, and larger private vehicles are frequently emptied, passengers searched, and individually fined (and, in one case, shot to death). If Google’s Busses were fined the way individuals are, it would almost double Muni’s annual budget.

    Those are different issues from Cost Of Living, which is a big deal when everything is at least 1.5x higher than anyplace else… SF is one of the most expensive cities in the world, after all.

  2. Jim says:

    The SF and bay area tech elite’s stategy is parasitic. On transportation, they oppose regional solutions–better trains and buses. On housing, they oppose lifting building restrictions and development around transport hubs. And they oppose repealing Prop 13 for business or residential property. They oppose higher minimum wages for their servants. They disparage the poor and middle class and their concerns. Their main interest in politics is buying exemptions from law and regulation.

  3. Dan says:

    The difference is where the jobs are vs where the high housing costs are. In Boston, all the unmarried, young tech workers live and work at various points along the T. For there to be a similar situation here, there’d have to be thousands of young tech workers in, say Davis Square, commuting everyday to their tech jobs in Westborough.

    Our area does have some private bus routes, BTW. There’s the 128 Business Group shuttle that goes between Alewife and some of the office parks along 128 in and around Waltham. MIT runs a shuttle between Cambridge and Lincoln Laboratory. And I’m sure there are others. But the scale is so much smaller and less disruptive to local traffic that they generally go unnoticed.

  4. Tiercelet says:

    As a native Bay Area resident (despite having not lived there since the last tech bubble), I do feel I have some insight into this, so here goes.
    The biggest one is probably that unlike in Boston, the tech folks don’t even work in the City. They treat San Francisco as a bedroom community (or barroom community might be more accurate) while working 45 miles down the Peninsula in Sunnyvale. It’s like people driving up housing prices in Back Bay who turn around to commute to Framingham or Worcester. They’re also a lot more homogeneous, being nearly universally male, early-mid 20s, white or Asian, and extremely sheltered/privileged. Those elements may also be true of Boston’s biotech industry (I don’t know), but it leads to a kind of super-concentrated douchiness that’s hard to overlook; long-term communities are getting turfed out for a bunch of rich frat-boy kids who just want a place to sleep and carouse, meaning local businesses that aren’t bars or overpriced restaurants lose their sources of support, too. The result is not changing communities but empty communities, dead for the extended-workday hours and with basically economic monoculture afterward. And never mind that their shelf life is probably going to be five years, tops, before they move closer to work, or age out of full exploitability and are let go.
    Then there’s the symbolic nature of interlopers who refuse to contribute to the host community in meaningful ways. Google offers private buses–not improved bus service or better roads, but something that’s only for those in the club. That’s the opposite of good citizenship; it’s economic apartheid, holding yourself entirely separate from the actual community and its inhabitants.
    But worst of all is the general obnoxiousness of their employers, who communicate to the public and among themselves in jargon that, when translated, reveals a generalized mission of oppression cloaked in the language of liberation (for which the well-worn “disrupt” is probably the poster child). They consider the entire existing goods of society, the real social fabric, essentially a pool of resources to swoop onto and hoover up, moving on when it’s been sucked dry; the employees’ actions and attitudes are a microcosm for the employer, and a protest against the incredibly overprivileged convenience of the employee is also a protest against the outsized political and economic privilege of the employer.
    All of this is just too much for a community that’s been barely holding on against the slower version of these pressures for the last twenty years, and has seen this boom-bust story before and knows exactly what’s going to get left behind when the current wave of startups founders on the rocks of its own triviality.

  5. There is one other major difference between SF and Boston. I can afford to buy a decent house in a suburb of Boston and commute in to town in a reasonable amount of time (or better yet, take the train and not have to drive!) but to buy an affordable house in the San Fran area, well, I’m not sure there ARE decent houses within a two hours drive of SF that are even remotely reasonably priced.

  6. SL says:

    Tiercelet: Yikes, forget 1984, ’cause it looks like Google thinks that it’s Oryx and Crake that was supposed to be an instruction manual. Watch out for the CorpSeMen Blackwater Xe Academi.

  7. SL says:

    Tiercelet: Yikes, forget 1984, ’cause it looks like Google thinks that it’s Oryx and Crake that was supposed to be an instruction manual. Watch out for the CorpSeMen Blackwater Xe Academi.

  8. Pingback: Yes, A Tax Would Help Lower Urban Housing Costs–But We Need the Right Tax | Mike the Mad Biologist

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