The American Dream is on Life Support in the Bay Area

This is not a “fuck SF” post. This is a lament of what has been lost, and a wistfulness for what could have been.

A year ago I was smirking at the people moving out of the Bay Area. I thought these were fairweather citizens, silly for moving to political train-wrecks like Texas or Florida.

Twelve months on, my wife and I find ourselves packing our life into boxes. Not to run towards a place where we feel greater love, but just to leave. The pendulum has swung hard in the last twelve months.

I didn’t think this change in my mindset would happen, or so quickly. I wanted to share the journey, in part because I’ve been in both camps at various points, and I hope those on most parts of the spectrum will consider this a reasonable, balanced perspective.

In summary — there have been many wonderful things about the Bay Area environment and local tech ecosystem. Some of those things persist. But enough challenges in quality of life have emerged and accelerated in recent years that the benefits are very clearly far outweighed by mounting frustrations.

Life in the Bay Area: The Good Parts

I moved to SF in early 2015. I moved partly for work and partly because I had family here.

I came to love many parts of the life here. I loved the sense of diversity. I rubbed shoulders with a melting pot of cultures and enjoyed access to foods from around the world. I lived on colorful Castro Street for two years. There were scrappy artists in the Haight, old money in Russian Hill, and yuppies in the Marina, and you could choose your own adventure. Diversity of thought was never in short supply… I’ve never had as many spirited debates about politics, the economy, and the impact of tech anywhere else. And of course, the nature and beauty around is nearly peerless — biking over the Golden Gate, visiting wine country, hiking, you name it.

From a professional standpoint, it was an obvious choice… if you wanted to work at a startup, there was nowhere else to be, really. The ecosystem was so concentrated here that the mutual friends, the chance meetings, and the casual coffees combined to germinate unbeatable networks.

Why I believe the American Dream is no longer thriving in the Bay

This is a bold statement, so I’ll start with my definition of the American Dream: that you have mobility and opportunity, that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that with hard work, luck, and smarts, anyone can succeed.

On the one hand, I think any rational individual would acknowledge that privilege has made for a rigged system. But on the other hand, in the spirit of deconstructing those imbalances, we’ve dismantled upward mobility for everyone — not just the underprivileged.

Instead of a definition of equity that raises the floor (a rising tide floats all boats), we’ve adopted a definition that institutes a ceiling on achievement: if everyone can’t have it, no one can have it. We’ve adopted the philosophy of a petulant grade school bully. This is an unfortunate trend across the country, but it really feels like California and the Bay Area specifically are at the bleeding edge of this philosophy.

Below, I’ve broken down 8 factors that I believe are degrading our ability to build and advance.

1. It’s hard to feel safe

You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if your boots keep getting stolen.

In the last seven years, my wife and I have experienced four home break-ins, one car break-in, multiple other thefts, broken up a purse snatching, been chased and lunged at by mentally ill people a few times a year. It literally happened on Bart the day I wrote the first draft of this post. Pre-pandemic, my wife used to call me every day to have someone on the phone, when walking the 5 minutes home from Bart each night. There is a large encampment two blocks from our house. Multiple times, homessless folks have slept or showered in our driveway.

I only reported one break-in incident, because… what’s the point?

Hearing about it more broadly, it weighs on you. People you know are getting punched for no reason, or getting their houses broken into. Armed gangs of 60-80 are now systematically looting malls and shopping districts.

I’ve seen enough Twitter arguments to know that the immediate response to this will be “I’m sorry peoples’ suffering is inconvenient to you,” but that’s a straw man argument.

I don’t feel apathy towards the suffering. I’ve studied enough psychopathology to know that it’s not their fault. I’m not religious but most times I see a mentally ill or homeless person, I’ve thought some version of “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” It’s a humanitarian crisis. It needs to be fixed. But it’s too large a problem to be addressed by private citizens.

So all told… yes, this situation provokes anger and frustration; but at least for me, it evokes an even stronger sense of hopelessness and helplessness: every time I see a mentally ill person raving on the Bart, or homeless people cooking on the sidewalk. I feel helpless because nothing I do will make a dent, and hopeless because I feel the government gives more of a shit about winning political points than helping its people.

I described this, in the context of moving, to friends in other cities (Chicago, Seattle, etc. — which, to be clear have their own issues, but nowhere near what has become old news in SF). They’ve all been shocked and asked how do you live like this?

It feels normal to us, though, which leads me to ask: when did we start accepting this as okay?

The impact of this is two-fold: - For people who can’t afford to be robbed every other week, it is a real struggle to get their footing. If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, repairing your car window is not a luxury you can afford. - For people who can afford it, the constant distraction and preventative measures keeps us from doing our best work. Crime is a drain on producivity and the reach for bigger and better things.

2. The political animus, bureaucracy, and incompetence

You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if the government blocks all strap-sales as discriminatory, and thieves are applauded for stealing boots and “sticking it to the man.”

When COVID hit, instead of rising to the occasion, the politics and policy got worse. It’s like that friend you roll your eyes at because they drink a little too much, and most of the time you put up with it and find it quirky. Then, when you tell them that maybe they should behave at the holiday party, they don’t keep it together but instead they start taking shots and run around punching people.

Some people may be the bigger person and say “I want to help my friend kick the habit.” They are better people than me. I’m willing to give people, or environment the benefit of the doubt many times over, but at some point I will exercise my free will and extract myself from the situation. Enough is enough. Life is too short to be surrounded by toxicity -- be it toxic people, or a toxic environment. Chesa Boudin’s willful anarchy, the Board of Supervisors’ unvarnished (yet somehow sanctimonious) corruption, John Hamasaki’s moronic vitriol, and the SFBOE’s utter incompetence…

There is a social contract between a government and its citizens. We pay taxes and don’t break the law, and the government provides social services and governs in a way that approximates the will of its people. San Francisco (and to a slightly lesser extent, the Bay Area governments overall) has broken this social contract, over and over and over.

The roads suck, homelessness and crime are rampant, NIMBYism runs wild and no housing gets built, the small business permitting process becomes more labyrinthine each year, government workers keep racking up ridiculously bloated overtime and pensions… all while the area sees no apparent improvement in the available social services or social safety net.

All of this hurts the underprivileged more than anyone else.

3. As a result, the environment is hostile to business — small business most of all

You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if, when you try to get new laces, you have to fill out, wet sign, and snail mail 2 forms (maybe in triplicate with a notary) pay 7x the cost of laces in filing fees, and wait several months to find out that your “lace permit” has been declined.

4. Constant reminders that tech and success are unwelcome

It’s demoralizing to pull yourself up by your bootstraps if, when you actually somehow pull it off against all odds… people chew you out for not pulling up 5 other peoples’ bootstraps too.

“Tech” (and what a broad brush that is) is constantly accused of being the problem. Google and Facebook buses are stoned. Zuckerberg was asked to lend his name to a hospital in an effort to encourage other philanthropy… only to have the BOS censure him for it years later because they suddenly felt they didn’t like a tech billionaire’s name on a building. Gifted programs in STEM fields are being eliminated in schools. One of the greatest entrepreneurs of our generation (imperfect though he may be) being told “Fuck you, Elon Musk” by an elected official.

Privilege and success, instead of something to merely be mindful of and thoughtful about, has become something to be ashamed of. Those who had the gall to build successful companies are vilified for “exploiting the region” and “not paying enough in taxes” despite living in the highest income tax regime in the entire country. Anyone who hails from a tech background is instantly painted as an enemy of the people, even if all they care about is fixing problems.

I have thought for a long time that Atlas Shrugged is an unrealistic straw man full of contradictions. I never thought I’d live in a society that actually approximated it.

I have no desire to live in an environment that now prizes takers over makers.

5. It is exhausting to live here

You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if the straps keep slipping due to grease and grime from the environment.

Put simply, over the course of the years, many small incidents and arguments chipped away at any hope of happiness or contentment here.

A friend of mine and I visited India once. Observing deviations from all the things we take for granted in the US -- poor internet, pollution, haggling for everything, traffic, lack of sanitation with food -- he called it “a land of minor inconveniences.” It was a spot on assessment, and was a big part of why I couldn’t wait to leave the country.

The Bay Area has gradually felt more and more like this. You add it all up and it forms this layer of cognitive load in your head, that makes you a less effective, less happy, less productive person.

I think it’s now officially more inconvenient to live in San Francisco or Oakland than when I lived in Chennai or Bombay growing up. While uncertainty on the upslope can be an excellent crucible for opportunity and entrepreneurship, a shining city devolving into bureacracy is the opposite: a symbol of decline.

6. You have to believe in where your taxes are being spent

You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps, if, each time you climb a step, the government takes a shoe; but then instead of giving that shoe to a less fortunate person, they cut it up so no one can get the whole shoe, with the straps lining a non-profit CEO’s pocket, and the leather divvied up amongst local bureaucrats. The less fortunate beneficiaries might get a fifth of a lace, or a scrap of leather.

I’m not a cut-all-taxes libertarian. I consider taxes to be a privilege and honor, a righteous duty of being a citizen. But when you disagree with the political environment and feel powerless to change it; when you see efforts every day to achieve equality through tearing down successful people instead of raising up the everyman; when you disagree with how the vast majority of your taxes are spent… I believe that triggers an equally righteous duty: vote with your feet.

Every state in this country is undertaking its own social and economic experiment. The Californian experiment was audacious and brave. But every time an aspect of the experiment fails, we don’t pull the plug… we keep going.

Fortunately, the same system also has incredible mobility between the states, so that those who dissent can simply opt out of that particular experiment. By leaving.

7. Virtue signaling over virtue seeking; neuroticism over optimism.

Fewer people care about pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, and more about whether their boots are made of sustainably sourced leather.

When did we start caring more about making sure everyone knows “we compost,” than about our recycling now ending up in a landfill? When did we decide it was okay for science to matter for understandable indoor vaccine mandates, but not for ceasing outdoor mask mandates? When did we decide it was okay to cancel people for sarcasm and satire? The posturing and virtue signaling gets really infuriating, sometimes.

Why is this a problem? I’ll simply quote Jeff Daniels’ speech from the opening scene of The Newsroom:

We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cultivated the world's greatest artists and the world's greatest economy. We reached for the stars […] We aspired to intelligence; we didn't belittle it; it didn't make us feel inferior. We didn't identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn't scare so easy.

When you notice this every day, life just feels neurotic. Every person is told every day, “you’re living life wrong.” A well-intentioned person can step one foot out of line and is instantly met with a “how dare you,” instead of a gentle reminder (and the benefit of the doubt).

California used to be the land of opportunity, where anything was possible. When did we stop being optimistic, and become so steeped in our own neuroticism? When did we trade hope for guilt?

8. Add it all up: merit, achievement, and success are becoming a lost cause

Kids can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps, if we stop teaching them how to.

The attempt to eliminate merit as the basis for admission at Lowell High School, and the travesty to rename schools rather than reopen them are just a perfect culmination of all of the above. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t tragic.

All told… this is really terrifying for the prospects of the region and the ecosystem in the next 5-10 years. It appears, fortunately, that the Lowell decision will be reversed, but that’s just one data point. The trend remains, and appears to be gathering steam.

The Bay Area has bled the golden goose dry

The Bay Area really was gifted abundance on a silver platter: fantastic universities, incredible natural beauty, plenty of agricultural land nearby, wonderful weather, renewable energy sources, a critical mass of people who were both rule-breakers and opportunity-seekers (the gold rush did mint the culture of the west coast, after all), and the most concentrated wealth creation in a single region in recent memory.

Instead of taking that boundless spirit of optimism, that windfall of taxes, that abundance of natural resources and channeling it into the greatest city-state the world has ever known… the Bay Area cities tragically fucked it up.

People are moving out in droves. Almost every person I’ve shared my anticipated move with has quietly said “I’ve thought a lot of those same things too, and whether I should move soon.” When there is a groundswell of some of the smartest and most ambitious in the country leaving an area, it’s clear that this is no longer the place where the American Dream is the strongest. The network effects of the universities, the corporate headquarters of tech companies, and offices of venture capital firms were keeping the torch of entrepreneurship and economic achievement going long beyond the area deserved it.

Contrary to “exploiting” the area, these resource creators were masking the incredibly weak appeal of the urban mess where people had to make their homes.

And then, the pandemic arrived.

At first, we didn’t even think of moving, because of course this is where we would need to be for work; the move-to-remote wouldn’t become permanent, and everyone would come back to offices. Of course Silicon Valley would continue to stay the epicenter of new business creation, and the Bay Area would re-emerge stronger and bigger than ever.

Now, it seems clear that the change was one-way. Startups, and many companies overall, have been uploaded to the cloud, just like all our content over the last couple of decades.

Ideas now stream over ther web as freely as movies. And so, the idea of living somwhere for purely professional reasons feels as quaint and nostalgic as my DVD shelf.

As everything went online, the mirage was stripped away.

Onwards, to a grass-is-green?-but-probably-yellow destination

I admire the people who are fighting to fix things. This city and the surrounding region still brim with potential.

But I’ve always felt like a midwesterner, and a little bit of an outsider in the Bay. I found California to be a place where it was easy to make acquaintances, but hard to make friends. The west coast is a big contrast to Chicago, where I spent my formative years. You could instantly fall into a good-natured argument with a stranger and rarely offend anyone. I yearn for that.

This is obviously very personal. How I like to talk and interact with people might just not be compatible with the region, and there’s nothing “right” or “wrong” about that. I only mention it because that lack of belonging is why I won’t be staying to fight. I moved here because it was rational. I’m moving away now because it’s rational.

This is such a cliché, but we’re moving to Miami.

I know there’s plenty to be apprehensive about. A shitshow political environment on the other extreme… but perhaps a blue dot in a red state will be more moderate than a blue dot in a blue state. A different sort of superficiality and status-seeking… but perhaps it won’t affect us because we won’t be spending all our time in Miami Beach. We’re swapping out wildfires for hurricanes… but perhaps we’ll take that excuse to travel a bit more a couple months of the year. Plenty of critters and snakes and gators and guns, but… welp, probably no mitigation against those things.

But there’s a lot to look forward to. The food is fantastic, often with more richly-flavored tropical ingredients we love. The people seem way more laid back and happier. The restaurants seem actually happy to welcome customers. Most things cost less, and taxes are lower of course. The social services seem somewhat less broken. There are enough friends-of-friends to pull together a network. We get a lot more space for the same price. We feel safer walking around at night. I sense a bit more of the hospitality and warmth that I miss from the midwest. And last but not least, the sunshine is welcome for a couple of Vitamin-D deficient South Asians.

I’m sure we’ll find plenty to complain about (or maybe we won’t, because hopefully we’ll become less neurotic, too 😉). But we’re eager for a new chapter, to shake things up a bit, and mint a new identity for ourselves.

Here’s to the newest corner of the world where the upstarts are gathering.