Do progressives ruin cities? Michael Shellenberger makes the case

This Thursday, June 27, 2019, photo shows a man holding a bicycle tire outside of a tent along a street in San Francisco. Jeff Chiu, File/AP Photo.

Today’s Hub Dialogue is with journalist and author Michael Shellenberger whose latest book, San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities, has received considerable attention for the picture of San Francisco that it paints, highlighting how bad public policies have led to an epidemic of homelessness and drug abuse.

Shellenberger is no stranger to controversial ideas. Deeply committed to the environment, he has written critically of the environmental movement’s resistance to ideas and technologies—including nuclear power—that can improve environmental outcomes without harming economic development or living standards.

He brings a similar contrarian perspective, as well as his training as a journalist, to this latest book on the negative consequences of progressive policymaking in San Francisco, where he has lived for the past 30 years.

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

SEAN SPEER: Thanks for joining us, Michael.

MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER: Thanks for having me.

SEAN SPEER: San Francisco is such a city of contradictions. It’s on one hand home to such dynamism and wealth, and on the other hand, it’s a place of poverty, criminality, drug abuse, and despair. How do these two San Franciscos interrelate? How is it they can co-exist in the same place?

MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER: The street addiction, which is euphemistically referred to as homelessness or homeless encampments, is a function of our progressive or radical left politics, which, to some extent, is a result of our prosperity as well.

San Francisco has about 10,000 so-called “homeless people”, of which about 5,000 people live on the street. These are folks who are suffering from untreated mental illnesses, many of them are self-medicating with heroin, fentanyl, and meth. About 700 people died last year and another 700 people have died this year from easily preventable overdoses and drug poisonings. There are many neighbourhoods in which it’s unsafe to walk, people are regularly assaulted, and we’ve seen a rise in crimes such as theft to support people’s addictions.

The progressive movement, out of which I come, has been dishonest about what the causes of this are. They’ve suggested that somehow this is a problem of poverty or lack of housing. That’s just incorrect and unconscionable to, out of a kind of exaggerated compassion, be describing people that are suffering from a medical disorder—namely, addiction but also untreated mental illness—as simply being poor. Ostensibly, they are letting people die on the streets because there’s this idea that if you suffer from addiction, if you’re classified as a victim, then everything should be given and nothing asked.

SEAN SPEER: As you said, the book ultimately attributes these conditions in San Francisco to progressive policymaking. What do you think is causing progressive politicians to miss seeing the inadvertent yet profound consequences of their policy preferences in practice? How much of it reflects a utopian view about human nature?

MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER: There’s definitely utopianism in there. If you go back far enough, one can find its root in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his idea that we’re born into nature free, but, because of society and its inequalities, we’re stuck in chains. The idea has grown stronger, particularly in Western liberal societies, as we’ve gotten wealthier and less religious. Traditional religions tend to balance compassion for the poor with some sense that you need hard work and to be disciplined and obedient. Yet, as we’ve seen a decline of traditional religions, whether it’s the Abrahamic religions, Judeo Christianity, as well as Eastern religions, Confucianism, and Hinduism, you see much more of an emphasis on a particular value of compassion.

San Francisco has about 10,000 so-called “homeless people”.

At the end of the book, I explore the nature of this San Fran-sickness, or what you might call “victim ideology”, and ultimately conclude that it is, in some ways, just as dumb as it seems. Which is that many of the policies that are contributing to these terrible outcomes in San Francisco are predicated on the idea that you can classify real people as either victims or oppressors. Victims should be given whatever they want, without any conditions. The consequences are tragically plain.

SEAN SPEER: Before we get into some of the specific insights from the book, let’s just stay for the moment on the level of ideas and how this book, focused on the consequences of different policy choices has led to problems in San Francisco, relates to your other work on climate change.

I was struck reading the book that in both cases a key idea for you is the role of human agency. In the realm of climate change, you argue that we have agency over how we respond to the challenge. And in San Fransicko, you essentially argue that a big problem of progressive policymaking on drugs and homelessness is that it doesn’t attribute any agency to individuals. Does that sound right to you?

MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER: Yes, for sure. In fact, I recently wrote an essay called “Why I Am Not a Progressive,” where I describe why that’s not a label I choose to use anymore. When I was a teenager and part of the radical Left, or at least a progressive, that meant embracing a story of heroism, whether from Martin Luther King or Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. But today to be a progressive means to celebrate victimhood. And part of that is to insist on people’s victimhood.

The Bangladeshis, for example, could never possibly adjust to a world of rising sea levels. If they did, that would mean that they wouldn’t be victims anymore and progressives want to insist that Bangladeshis are helpless victims doomed to stay in place as the water laps over them. It can express itself in an infantilization of people of colour, of women, of children, of the mentally ill, and of people who suffer addiction. I find it offensive. I think it’s racist.

The same reasoning often applies to people that are street addicts. The idea seems to be that these people are addicted to hard drugs and are helpless to quit their drugs, so we should literally give them drugs.

Take the Netherlands, as well as other liberal cities around the world: there is a strong effort for people to get the treatment they need. But for progressives in San Francisco and other major U.S. cities, the idea is just to give victims whatever they want. If they say they want to shoot heroin and meth all day, that’s what we should do for them. Well, that’s just pathetic and wrong. It is, to some extent, a power move. That, us, white males, are powerful and oppressive, but, you poor people are victims. We’re going to help you.

One of my best friends in Europe wrote a book called The Tears of the White Man, which was about how at a moment when Africa is starting to emerge and its countries are starting to develop at fast rates, Europe says, “Oh well, Africa, really, they’re doomed because of Europe, because of our whiteness and our colonialism.” So, narcissistically, Europe puts itself back in the centre of Africa’s development. It’s a reversal, on the one hand, in the sense that rather than saying white men have a burden to develop Africa, now we say, “Well, Africa just can’t develop because Europeans colonized it”, but on the other hand it’s the same impulse.

SEAN SPEER: That’s interesting. It certainly speaks to this issue of human agency.

MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER: Yes. The heroes in these stories are the progressives doing the rescuing. It’s what Jordan Peterson, the famous Canadian psychologist, calls the “devouring mother.”

At the end of the book, I consider whether this is Munchausen syndrome by proxy, which is like when a mother makes her child sick so that she can take care of her child and be narcissistically recognized as a good mother. “Witness me, caregiver hero.” That’s the idea. That’s a pretty extreme way of saying it. I ultimately don’t conclude that that’s what’s going on, but I do say it’s pathological altruism.

There’s a small minority of people, again, a very small minority, but nonetheless, a real minority of leaders, that are sociopathic. They use language like “Our unhoused population” as though there’s this little group of people that are ours. “These are my civic people; they belong to me” is the idea. It’s creepy and weird. It freaked me out while I was working on the book.

Self-help is about taking on challenges in your life.

We have this lovely tradition of self-help in America. Sometimes it’s corny and cheesy. But, nonetheless, the basic message of self-help is “You can do it! You have the power.” It’s not saying that you can do it alone; it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get help or that everybody is going to be president. That’s a caricature. Self-help is about taking on challenges in your life and becoming the person that you’re meant to be by taking individual responsibility and exercising your own agency and power.

Liberal parents in the Berkeley Hills, where I live, make sure their kids develop that kind of resilience. They make them go to soccer practice; they make them do their homework. There is a kind of class put down here. It’s very postmodern in the sense that it’s an apparent reversal of where it used to be. But, still, the message is that if you’re classified as a victim, you can’t do it.

SEAN SPEER: You mentioned in a previous answer that your politics come from the Left. In fact, at various points in your career you’ve been in favour of drug decriminalization. What has since caused you to change your mind?

And, as someone who has changed your thinking on different issues in light of reading and understanding the evidence, why do think people are so reluctant to change their minds in general?

MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER: I’m not necessarily against decriminalization. In fact, I argue for a modified or very similar proposal to what they do in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe where it’s still against the law, but it’s not a felony offence necessarily. I don’t think that most addicts need to go to prison. I think it needs to be a threat to get some people to ultimately accept rehabilitation.

But I also think we should distinguish between drug use in private places and public places. If people want to be idiotic and smoke fentanyl in their own apartments at no harm to others, I think that’s terrible, but I don’t think that taxpayers should spend money arresting them. By contrast, if you’re doing drugs in public, defecating in public, camping in public, you should be arrested because you’re breaking the law. Then, you should be given the choice of drug treatment or incarceration.

The answer as to why I am more comfortable changing my mind is that I can’t live with myself otherwise. I have a very low capacity for untruths in general. I’ve had that since I was a child. So, it’s hard for me to take a lot of credit for something that I inherited. I think I also have gotten good at explaining why I was wrong about things. My parents are psychologists. I’m very interested in psychology and I’m interested in my own bad thinking. I know it’s good for me because it makes me more compassionate towards people I disagree with when I remind myself of what I was like when I was 15, which was a completely intolerable and somewhat obnoxious adolescent. I would love to remind myself of what I thought of people like me now, who would try to lecture me back then, which was not being very open. I try to see different sides of things.

I’ve had various people criticize me saying that I’ve made a career out of being wrong, but I take it as a compliment. I think more people should do it. I know why they don’t. It’s because it sucks to be wrong, and it sucks to admit it.

It’s always more complicated than it seems. When I was really wrong about nuclear energy, I was mostly uninformed. My criticisms of myself are of having been uninformed, young, and somewhat ignorant. But I also do take pride in taking a deep dive into things now. I love the podcasting format because it’s a chance to get nuanced. I do think that we still need people to write books, so my commitment to writing books is because I think there are certain questions like “Should you ever give heroin to a drug addict?” or “What do you do with schizophrenics who tell you that they don’t want treatments?” that require writing a whole book about and reading the best available literature and interviewing the experts.

I do think that one thing I did learn early from being wrong was, if you want to get it right, you can’t do it in a podcast. You can’t do it by watching a couple of TED Talks and thinking that you’re an expert. You really have to spend a couple of years at a minimum on something. And that’s even fast. My previous book, Apocalypse Never, was, in some ways, 20 years in the making, while San Fransicko was two or three.

SEAN SPEER: As you say, this is a well-researched, comprehensive book based on more than 200 interviews with policymakers, health care professionals, law enforcement officials, and so on. Do you want to talk about the process behind the book? And, based on the diversity of people that you spoke to, what do you think you learned the most about politics, culture, and society in the process?

MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER: I’m very proud of the interviews that I secured for this book. Almost everybody spoke to me with exception of some high-ranking political figures, but I was able to interview the main advisors to the Governor of California as well as some of the intellectual architects.

But at some level, the book isn’t just about individual policymakers or even the academics and activists who have argued for lax police enforcement and bad drug policy. My conclusion is that San Fran-sickness comes from within us and that it’s emerging from our own coddling sense, which itself emerges from our prosperity.

These developments are a symptom of our prosperity and success. The coddling culture, which ultimately is behind the devastation of San Francisco and other cities in the form of overprescribing opioids and the addiction it fuels, comes from a rising entitlement and coddling in Western cultures. I don’t think it’s inevitable, but I do think it emerges from that.

We need a new war on drugs.

SEAN SPEER: At its core, the book catalogs the disruptiveness of drugs and addiction in San Francisco. This is obviously a problem that while heightened in San Francisco, extends across the United States and indeed in parts of Canada.

If what is currently being done is so self-evidently failing, how does America curb rising drug use and the broader problem it fuels? What should governments be doing that they’re not doing now?

MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER: The short version is that we need a new war on drugs. As soon as I say that, it sounds inflammatory, but it needs to be a different kind of war. We can’t stop fentanyl and meth from coming across our borders. Full stop. You can’t stop it from coming in because it’s too concentrated. You can mail a package of fentanyl into San Francisco, and it can supply the drug dealers in San Francisco for months.

But you can shut down the open drug dealing, including on Snapchat, but certainly on street corners. We know how to do that. It’s not rocket science. It’s easier in some places. Most of our drug dealing in San Francisco is by Hondurans who are here illegally. They could all be deported. They might be replaced over time by other drug dealers, but you arrest those guys too. You don’t have to allow open-air drug dealing. It’s absurd.

They don’t allow that in Europe. It was in New York City’s Times Square in the 1970s and 1980s. They stopped it in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Similarly, you have to arrest addicts who are breaking the law for reasons of their addiction. You shouldn’t be allowed to do your heroin and meth and fentanyl in a park, or on a street corner. It’s unacceptable. You shouldn’t be allowed to camp in public. That’s unacceptable too. We must arrest these people; we have to enforce those laws. Those two things alone would have a pretty big impact.

But then you must have sufficient homeless shelters, psychiatric beds, and drug treatment facilities to help these people. This is a no-brainer. But the reason that we don’t have those things is that we’re not requiring people to use them. It’s not a lack of money; it’s a lack of political will.

SEAN SPEER: Well, hopefully your research and insights will contribute to such reforms. The book is San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruined Cities. Thanks for speaking with us today, Michael.

MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER: Thanks, Sean. Appreciate it.

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