Abyss or Bump in the Road?

On the one hand I’m as saddened by San Francisco’s woes as Lee Ohanian of the Hoover Institution is:

No major American city has failed at the same level as Detroit, whose population dropped from 1.85 million people in 1950 to about 630,000 today. Move over Detroit, here comes San Francisco, which lost 6.3 percent of its population between 2019 and 2021, a rate of decline larger than any two year-period in Detroit’s history and unprecedented among any major US city.
Detroit’s fall was primarily driven by the relocation of the US auto industry to southern, right-to-work states, where auto producers, including foreign firms who build autos here, have avoided the union conflict that was endemic in Detroit. San Francisco’s decline is driven by absurdly bad local economic policies. How bad? As some city blocks have been taken over by drug gangs selling fentanyl in open-air superstores (think of an opioid version of Costco, without the membership card), city supervisors have spent their time talking about defunding police, abolishing rent, abolishing prisons, and demanding that if Whole Foods is to be allowed to develop a grocery store in a vacant building in the city, it must include affordable housing.

Some blame San Francisco’s high cost of living for the exodus. San Francisco housing costs have contributed to this loss, but many of those leaving the city are those with very high incomes who can afford to live in San Francisco. Instead, they are choosing to move to locations, many of which are also expensive, that have much more sensible city governance.

They are moving to destinations that do not have San Francisco’s drug and crime issues, its poorly performing public schools, its homelessness, its extremely high cost of doing business, and other issues that people have tolerated for so long, only because San Francisco was once one of the world’s great cities. As someone who loved San Francisco, it pains me to say it no longer is. And I suspect that those who departed San Francisco, whose exits left the city with 60,000 fewer taxpayers, feel the same way.

However, I differ from him in that I don’t think that San Francisco’s problems are much like those of Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, or St. Louis in that San Francisco’s problems are completely reversible. Without the manufacturing and related jobs that Detroit and many other cities have lost, as sad as it is to say it, no one would want to live there. St. Louis has a particularly beastly climate. From June 15 to about September 15 both the daily high heat and humidity hover around 100. As I’ve said before I’ve lived through many a St. Louis summer without air conditioning including one working in a steel mill so I know what I’m talking about. None of the cities in that list are garden spots. I doubt that anyone moves to Detroit for the scenery.

San Francisco on the other hand would have people wanting to live regardless of the employment situation. Its problems have been created by reckless governance and are completely reversible by better governance. Whether it will see better governance is another question.

2 comments… add one
  • Andy Link

    I always loved SF, but it’s been more than a decade since I’ve been there. Even then, I could see its problems which only seem to have gotten worse.

    And you’re right about comparative geography – at least until the next major earthquake.

  • Jan Link

    Our California state governance is run by a democrat party super majority. Their grip is absolute, and elections here have been designed (perhaps even destroyed)) to keep it permanently in their hands – universal mail in ballots, minimal oversight, motor-voter registration, lots of hard-to-prove fraud. Consequently, our legislators grind out absurd laws which Newsom signs – some of which the courts gratefully stay or constitutionally kick out. In the meantime neighborhoods around me are brimming with crime, commercial areas have embedded homeless trashing the perimeters of
    businesses, creating environments in which it’s difficult to do business. And, yes, people talk about moving out of here as they are doing in SF. We used to drive through SF several times a year. Now, when we travel to the north coast we skirt the city like some would do a “bad neighborhood.”

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