Magnificent in the distance, San Francisco is now shockingly ugly up close. In the decade I have lived here, the city has achieved the seemingly impossible: It has combined the expensive and the bland and the appalling into a new form of decadence. To the untrained eye, it looks magical: a city of the future, a city of gasps. Then, slowly, it reveals itself to be a city of lies, one that dismisses the idea of city living.
The distant future Silicon Valley sells with the zeal of a crusader — all the lip service it pays to making the world a better place — shimmers like fool’s gold, monopolistic surveillance capitalism cloaked in the language of the common good. Billboards off the highway announce the coming of artificial intelligence as new nonprofits pop up to defend us against HAL and Skynet, but in reality “AI” is machine learning — pattern-recognition software parsing out subtle statistical connections to win board games and show you better ads.
With a devilish consistency, this city sets you up for disappointment.
Speaking of which, “In San Francisco, making a living from your billionaire neighbor’s trash,” the San Francisco Chronicle notes, in a piece whose URL is “The-Trickle-Down-Economics-of-Trash-Picking:”
There’s a child’s pink bicycle helmet that Orta dug out from the garbage bin across the street from Zuckerberg’s house. And a vacuum cleaner, a hair dryer, a coffee machine — all in working condition — and a pile of clothes that he carried home in a Whole Foods paper bag retrieved from Zuckerberg’s bin.
A military veteran who fell into homelessness and now lives in government-subsidized housing, Orta is a full-time trash picker, part of an underground economy in San Francisco of people who work the sidewalks in front of multimillion-dollar homes, rummaging for things they can sell.
Trash picking is a profession more often associated with shantytowns and favelas than a city at the doorstep of Silicon Valley. The Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization, counts more than 400 trash picking organizations across the globe, almost all of them in Latin America, Africa and southern Asia.
But trash scavengers exist in many U.S. cities and, like the rampant homelessness in San Francisco, are a signpost of the extremes of U.S. capitalism. A snapshot from 2019: One of the world’s richest men and a trash picker, living a few minutes’ walk from each other.
Capitalism isn’t to blame here; as Thomas Sowell has written, it’s the Bay Area’s built-in “Housing Price of Liberalism.” As Sowell writes, “Much as many liberals like to put guilt trips on other people, they seldom seek out, much less acknowledge and take responsibility for, the bad consequences of their own actions.”