In October 2011, I wrote a story featuring renowned futurist Paul Saffo, who voiced concern about the widening economic gulf between Silicon Valley and the rest of the U.S. — as well as the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots in the Bay Area itself.
“All my instincts as a forecaster tell me this has the feel of something very big happening,” he’d said. “I’m standing on the beach and noticing the water heading back out toward the horizon.”
At the time, everyone was having too much fun to pay much attention to some gloomy prediction. Unfortunately, Saffo was right to be worried. San Francisco County and its neighboring counties, Marin and San Mateo, are now home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the state thanks to the tech industry. The more troubling outcomes we’re seeing as a result of this wealth generation – the displacement of earlier residents, anxiety, and, now, protests – are just the tip of the iceberg, too, says Saffo, who I spoke with again yesterday. Our conversation has been edited for length.
There are so many dimensions to what we’re seeing right now. Where to start?
There are really three dimensions. One is that living in the Bay Area is more expensive than ever. Another is that post-Internet-bubble wealth is very different than the old money. In the ‘80s, the motto was “Show no chrome.” I can remember [Intel cofounder] Gordon Moore driving a beat-up station wagon forever. Though there’ve always been a couple of flashy types, if you had a lot of money, you didn’t flash your wealth.
The income gap wasn’t so great in the past, either. If you worked for Apple, you had a comfortable life, but you still owned a rancher in Cupertino. Now, money is going much further down into some of these workforces. An engineer at Google might be getting paid $5 million. So the wealth differential is greater, more people are wealthy, and because they’re coming into this money at a younger age, they don’t have the good sense to keep their mouth shut.
So what happens next?
In the short term, people who can afford it are going to continue to buy houses in San Francisco, and people who can’t will go elsewhere in the Bay Area.
That means that everyone will have longer commutes, including schoolteachers who can’t afford to live in San Francisco on their salaries. That means civil servants who’ve lived in San Francisco their entire professional lives.
Eventually, that could also mean Facebook and Google employees [who are less wealthy than their peers], as well as contractors who don’t have stock. This inequality has a certain unpredictable whimsy to it. It’s not just the haves and have-nots but the lucky and the unlucky.
How can we shift the momentum here, practically speaking?
There’s no one answer, but the big local companies really need to engage locally. There needs to be transportation for everyone; even you aren’t using public transportation, it’s in everyone’s interest to have it. They need to step up and do things that build strong community, including mixed communities of different wealth levels. You don’t want your schoolteachers or your police force living 50 miles away. I’d bet 70 percent of San Francisco’s firefighters already live in the East Bay. You do not want that in an earthquake.
Do you really think companies will go down that path?
I’m genuinely optimistic. I think Silicon Valley companies will eventually get very engaged in this issue at a corporate level and that their employees will get engaged, too. [Their employees] are basically decent people who haven’t considered themselves privileged or special. But all this attention is leading to self-reflection, and I think that will drive social entrepreneurship within these companies. Frankly, I think if these companies applied just a tiny fraction of the vision they apply to their business mission to social issues, we’d see dramatic results.
In the meantime?
Well, in the very long run, we’re going to have to have a national conversation about wealth redistribution. I’m not a Marxist but [Oxfam] just reported that the world’s 85 richest people own as much as half the world’s population. I’m a forecaster, and I know when something isn’t sustainable.
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