I live in the Bay Area. It is extremely expensive. (Source not cited.)
Oppressively high housing costs have led to all kinds of social pathologies. San Francisco’s homelessness crisis is only the most well-documented. We’ve also got supercommuters, swelling RV populations, and teacher shortages.
All problems we tolerate so that millionaires in Menlo Park can enjoy subsidized mansions!
Increasingly, I worry about another problem, one that we’ll feel across generations: Namely, what do the Bay Area’s dysfunctional housing policies mean for long-run economic mobility?
First, some context:
Our national economy is now dominated by a handful of “superstar cities” (e.g., SF, DC). While there has always been something magical about dropping smart people and good companies in the same place and pressing “Play,” our globalized/financialized economy is pressing “Fast Forward” on that trend. (To grind this analogy into dust, you can also imagine our economy deleting Midwestern manufacturing towns from the TiVo.)
In a well-functioning society, moving to a superstar city would be a reliable way of improving your economic fortunes. But insane housing costs flip the calculus.
If you’re the child of a coal miner or whatever, and you’re looking at your economic prospects, you think: “Should I develop Data Science skills? Programming skills? Project Management skills? I can’t capitalize on them in my hometown, and moving to the Bay feels like such a risk… Even if I went, I would need to leave eventually.”
But you know who doesn’t need to worry about that calculus? People with family wealth, or whose families live in a superstar city already.
For them, it’s mostly upside.
Their families can help them “get into” the Bay Area housing market (e.g., by subsidizing rent or allowing them to live at home). This intergenerational investment pays dividends because they now have access to the unique opportunities afforded by living in a superstar city. Critically, these opportunities are far less competitive than they would be if the Bay Area really welcomed all of the world’s best and brightest. Meanwhile, our would-be movers from coal country either need to take a colossal risk by self-funding their relocation, or be barred from full participation in our country’s economic growth.
In other words, the Bay Area’s fentanyl-strength NIMBYism compounds the returns to economic privilege.
Since elite colleges already exist, this hardly seems necessary.
At this point, you must be thinking: Life is hard. Why don’t you call the wambulance?
And, well, yes, good point: It is. And I should.
But I care about this because I’m one of the geographically privileged.
Through impossibly dumb luck, I was born to parents who immigrated from Cairo to San Mateo (a town roughly halfway between San Francisco and San Jose). The median home price in San Mateo is now well above $1 million, but at the time, it boasted genuine income diversity.
This diversity, in turn, benefited me in ways that are probably impossible to articulate.
Although my parents worked at convenience stores and restaurants, I had friends whose parents worked at Genentech and Sun Microsystems. I could use those parents as a resource when I thought to ask: “What do I want to do with my life?” (I also learned the upper-middle-class manners — y’all are weird as fuck tbh — that allowed me to navigate the world of finance when I stupidly decided that’s the field I wanted to work in.)
More importantly, when I realized I hated finance and wanted to work in Data Science, I was even luckier. I could enroll in a Data Science bootcamp and move in with my parents, escaping the high rents that would have made such a risk untenable — or at least really, really difficult — for someone in my position.
Being in the Bay Area allowed me to materially change my fortunes, to say nothing of the fortunes of my future family.
But if my parents were immigrating today, they might have had to live in Vallejo instead of San Mateo. I wouldn’t have had access to the same educational options. I wouldn’t have met adults who worked at Sun Microsystems. I don’t know if I could have left a good job for a sketchy educational venture called a “bootcamp.”
To put it in soulless economic terms, there is a much higher chance that my human capital would have gone… undeveloped.
And, look, I don’t mean to eliminate individual agency from the equation. I took a risk when I attended that bootcamp. I work with incredible people from all over the world, many of whom took their own big risks. Although a disproportionate number of people in Silicon Valley attended elite colleges or come from well-off families (a fact Silicon Valley prefers to ignore), they often work hard.
But this isn’t about individual agency. It’s about our values.
Do we make it easy, or at least not brutally difficult, for people to realize their potential? Are we as welcoming as the Bay Area’s progressive rhetoric implies? Do we even care that we’ve made life so hard for regular people?
The answers are obvious. But because we don’t want to say them out loud, we’ve built them into the structure of society itself, allowing them to operate silently so that we can maintain Silicon Valley’s grand myth: this is a meritocracy.
But make no mistake: There are costs to this dysfunction.
Economists have estimated that housing policies in our superstar cities are reducing national — national! — GDP by 9% per year. That is thousands of would-be immigrants barred from starting companies. Thousands of teachers who want to teach but can’t. Thousands of kids whose lives could go differently if only we weren’t making it so damned hard for them.
And, although we can’t see these costs, there’s no escaping the feeling that something has gone horribly, horribly awry.
Speaking the subtext aloud: Had I been born today, I don’t think my story would have been possible, and I can’t articulate all the ways in which that depresses me.