I’m not sure where I heard this, but I remember in the last year an economist talking about post-recession economies in capitalist countries, and what stuck with me was when this economist said, “Well, capitalism always reconfigures itself after recessions.” Whether it’s the shift from a producer to consumer society, the shift from blue-collar jobs to white-collar jobs, or the shift from office jobs to low-wage retail work, it seems post-recession “reconfigurations” often leaves whole industries and workers decimated — while a select few rise to the top of the new order.
If the Great Recession taught us anything, it’s the post-recession “boom,” driven by tech, is making a small number of people extremely rich, while the vast majority of us struggle to maintain a middle class life. Many of the good paying jobs are in the tech sector, but those jobs take a very specialized skill set (or so we’re told). If you don’t know how to code, aren’t under 27, and aren’t dedicated to working 12-hour days (and some nights and weekends to hang with your bros), then you’re unemployable. What do you do? Well you “share.” You share your car, you share a room, or you share your labor by running errands as a task rabbit. More than that, you share your personal data with companies who use that information in various ways to enrich themselves – while you get a warm fuzzy feeling of Likes, Hearts, Smiles, Favored, and Thumbs up as a reward. Moreover, because the current Gold Rush of apps has made many of the companies that create them stinking rich, the culture of the new big money is transforming cities all around the country. Nowhere is this more apparent than San Francisco. It’s a city that has historically attracted non-conformists, creative types, outright crazies, and people from all walks of life who settle here because it’s a place where you can really let your freak flag fly.
Filmmaker, Alexandra Pelosi, grew up in San Francisco and finds it alarming that the city she knew and loved is being transformed by both the money and culture of the tech industry. Her latest documentary for HBO is entitled “San Francisco 2.0” and in it she looks at what this tech culture has wrought in terms of both wealth and poverty. Pelosi spoke on the phone with me for a conversation about her documentary and the growing problem of income inequality. [Note: the interview has been lightly edited for clarity]
Alexandra Pelosi: I don’t expect anyone from the Bay Area to learn anything from this film. I made it for the world to see what’s happening in San Francisco. So goes San Francisco, so goes the nation. For the people living there, they are going say “That’s nothing new!”
Ted Asregadoo: Yeah, I’ve lived in the Bay Area for most of my life – with five years living in San Francisco. I still work in The City, but it’s clear in the last 6-7 years, both the city landscape and culture have changed into a city of extremes. You know, this current tech boom seems to go hand in hand with the aftermath of The Great Recession: the sharing economy and social media. Those aspects of tech have made billions and billions of dollars, and others who share their labor via Uber or Airbnb? Well, they are just barely hanging on.
Alexandra: It’s the Wild West out there…it’s big tech rising. We really don’t make much in America anymore. I mean even the iPhone is designed here, and manufactured in Asia. So, you have to be grateful to tech companies for keeping America on the map. But at the same time, there’s a dark side to all the progress you can’t ignore. When I look at the media landscape, all I see is glowing reviews of tech CEOs…the disrupters…you don’t see Alan Zebroski in the Mission in a SRO because he lost his job…because San Francisco is no country for old men. So, there’s this disconnect between the glossy coverage of the disruptors and the reality of what they are doing to communities they are colonizing.
Ted: Exactly. In “San Francisco 2.0” you highlight Alan Zebroski, a 61-year-old former banking employee whose story is very familiar to many Americans: The Great Recession hits, he gets laid off, he burns through his 401k and Unemployment Insurance in months, and can’t find good paying full-time employment because of his age and skill set. There are a lot of Alan Zebroskis out there, and the tragedy is that the tech economy won’t include him because it’s a very exclusive club where Tech Bros only want to work with Tech Bros.
Alexandra: And you have to adapt or die. If you don’t learn the new skills of coding, you’re going to be living in an SRO. I think this conversation really resonates with older people, because there’s something really Darwinian about it. Anyone who is over 30 is getting a little nervous when they see what’s going on because they are afraid they are going to be sent off to pasture.
Ted: Yeah…people are living longer, but these tech companies only want younger workers, you have to wonder what are people going to do to make a living if they can’t get jobs in tech companies that pay well.
Alexandra: What job is left for you, but to moonlight as a cab driver with your own car…you know, become an Uber driver. Or become an hotelier and rent out a room in your own house. That’s how you get the sharing economy. You ask yourself: “How can I hold on when there’s no work for me? Well, I guess I’ll become a taxi driver and run my apartment as a hotel.”
Ted: As I was watching your documentary, I kept thinking that a lot of tech folks have a real libertarian streak in them. That whole “we’re disrupters” mentality also translates into both a kind of selfishness and a desire to gate ones self off from the world. Everything from work to social life takes on an exclusive character to it. And even when techies go clubbing, they close down the places and only want to make it exclusive to their friends.
Alexandra: Cities are supposed to be about the mix. That’s why you want to live in a city or be near one. There’ s a great mix…in theory. But not anymore. Now, as Robert Reich says, cities are becoming gated communities where only the rich can buy their way in. And that not just San Francisco, it’s happening to all the great cities in the world. They are becoming gated communities where they are pushing out the middle class.
Ted: Right. And that’s in your documentary where tech has a large footprint in the city…and I’ll just quote a part of your film where you say: “Tech Bros…hipsters…yoga yuppies…six-dollar cupcakes…organic juice shops and freshly minted millionaires working for new Silicon Valley start-ups.” You’re painting a contrast here between modern day 49ers and the creative non-conformist groups who have flocked to San Francisco because they just love the vibe of the city. In the documentary, though, it seems there are non-conformist/creative people who work in tech.
Alexandra: I didn’t get that much access to the companies…I mean you’re assuming that I got to live on the campus at Google. It’s not like they wanted to have me around.
Ted: You were sort of a Gadfly…
Alexandra: Big Tech has a P.R. problem. The natives are looking at them like they (techies) are oblivious to the community where they are living. But they (techies) are young, you know? This is youth, and San Francisco is like the hot new club. And they are going to get tired of it and want to go elsewhere. It’s not going to last forever.
Ted: San Francisco is the “hot new club…” You know, you also interviewed David Talbot – one of the founders of Salon — regarding the Tech Bro culture and its effect on what makes San Francisco an attractive place to live, and he even said that people are coming here because they like the non-conformist/creative culture of San Francisco, but [many in the tech industry] are changing the city into something bland.
Alexandra: Isn’t that amazing. It’s a weird contradiction that they were drawn to this city to be near interesting people, but all the interesting people are being pushed out because they can’t afford to live this city. When people think of San Francisco, they think of hippies, gays, beatniks…they think of a counterculture. They don’t think of “brogrammers” in their Chinos, pushing out middle class families.
Ted: Like you said earlier, you made this documentary for people outside the Bay Area and what may happen if Tech becomes a larger part of the economy and starts affecting more and more cities.
Alexandra: I don’t think that anyone in San Francisco understands how important the city in the global conversation about the rules of the new economy. What are the rules? Are there gonna be any rules? We need laws to regulate industry. Or you can be a libertarian and say there aren’t going to be any rules. That’s fine. You can vote that way. Airbnb is going on the ballot in San Francisco, and the world is watching to see how a progressive city handles change. The leaders need to be able to write new laws without destroying the culture of the community, or we can say there are no laws, and we can vote on that…The sharing economy has been getting away with not paying taxes by and large. If you want to drive a taxi or put up a hotel, there are certain rules you have to follow. And the tech companies are just disrupting those rules.
Ted: I don’t mean to knock Uber or Lyft or Sidecar because I know people who drive for them. Some do it to earn extra money, but some do it so they can make rent or mortgage payments, but the gap between what they make and what the company makes is so wide. Uber is moving to Oakland and is going to take over a huge place that used to be a Sears, and they say they are going to need 4000 people to work there. Well, these are specialized jobs we’re talking about. If you have your humanities or social science college degree, you can’t just walk down to the corporate offices, and say “Hey, you know, I have a college degree and can think critically and write well, and I’d like to work here.” They’d just look at you and say, “You have to know how to code.”
Alexandra: [Driving for Uber] is what Bill Maher calls “the desperate economy.” Do people really want to be driving for Uber? Or are they desperate for money? I mean if you do want to drive a car for a living, there are plenty of taxi companies who would hire you — if that’s your calling. But with the sharing economy…Robert Reich says it’s really Darwinian. I mean, you don’t have any safety net, you don’t have money for retirement, you don’t have health insurance, you don’t have any kind of union…I don’t have any of those things as a documentary filmmaker. I don’t have any kind of job security, but that’s a decision I made.
Ted: You talked about the rules and the role of city politicians and defining what those rules are. It seems it really difficult to regulate tech because politicians are afraid it will affect the economy negatively — and they are gonna get tossed out of office.
Alexandra: Big Tech writes the checks to lobbyists, to politicians to insure that they are protecting their own interests. And that should scare you. ‘Cause it’s not who’s sleeping in your extra bedroom, who’s driving you home in their, you know, Uber car, it’s about every time you go online and who owns that data. I’ll tell you a scary story. You want to hear a scary story?
Alexandra: I went to California to do Bill Maher’s show to promote “San Francisco 2.0.” As luck would have it – I have two small kids traveling with me — I did not have my ID when I went to check-in at the airport. I went to the TSA guy and said, “I don’t have my ID. What am I supposed to do?” The TSA agent said: “You have a choice. I can ask you three questions, and if you answer these questions correctly, you can get on the plane. But if you answer them incorrectly, you can’t fly for 48 hours.” So, you have to tell them your name, address, date of birth, and Social Security number, but what do you think the first question was?
Ted: Something about your social media profile?
Alexandra: No. It was, “What was the last thing you bought on Amazon?”
Alexandra: So, because I have small kids, I guessed something like, “Was it pants?” And the next question was, “What is the email account that is linked to your bank account?” Do you know that? I mean, if you have a number of email addresses, which one is the one connected to your bank account? How does the TSA know that I’m on Amazon? That’s the scary intersection of Big Tech and government. That’s the crazy stuff where the conversation is going. If you have all night, we can stay up and talk about that.
Ted: That’s the thing…I mean, we’re very leery about big government knowing too much about…you know, you’re example at the airport is a good one. It’s like if Franz Kafka wrote a novel set in 2015, it would probably have some guard asking questions like that. But in the private realm, we don’t seem to have a problem giving our information to Google and Facebook and Amazon and Uber. They track our online behavior and they track our movements through GPS on our phones if we opt in.
Alexandra: I travel a lot because of the documentaries I make — and because my last name is Pelosi — I hear a lot of anti-government rants from people I meet. And I tell them, “You have way to much faith in the efficiency and competency of the government. They are seriously not that competent.” But the tech companies? They are very competent. They’ve got everything stored about you. They know who you are and where you are… and they tell the TSA what you bought on Amazon.
Ted: What’s the big takeaway on your documentary, “San Francisco 2.0?”
Alexandra: First. We do need rules in the new economy. We need to know what the rules are – if there are going to be any rules. If there aren’t going to be any rules, then it’s each man for himself. If that’s what capitalism has become – and that’s a little Darwinian, isn’t it – then so be it. We need rules. And those elected leaders who are writing those laws…well, we have to make sure they are not writing them in such a way that it’s destroying the communities that they need to protect. There’s a bigger question about who gets to live in the city? Do only rich people? Really, this is a film about income inequality — and that’s not a sexy topic. People aren’t dying to watch another documentary on income inequality. They’re not tuning into HBO to see what we have to say about income inequality. They want to watch “Game of Thrones.” But at some point we do have to ask ourselves, “How are we going to make cities affordable for the middle class? How are we going to coexist as a society?” I mean you can’t just push the middle class out and say that “only the rich can live in the city, and we’re closing the gate, and you’re out.” The people who protect us should be able to live in the city they are protecting. You know, police, firefighters, and teachers should make enough to live in the same place they work.
Ted: You’re right. Secretaries, firefighters, cops, people who work in restaurants, hotels … the working class…the people who do the heavy lifting in society, they can’t afford to live in the city.
Alexandra: I know that income inequality is not a sexy topic, but I do appreciate you taking the time to let me talk about it.
Ted: I think income inequality is a sexy topic. I mean Bill Maher talks about it on his show – and I saw you on the show talking about it – so it’s a topic that does resonate with people.
Alexandra: I have to tell you something interesting about that. I’ve done Bill Maher’s show a number of times. You know, you do the show and you go home. This is the first time I’ve done his show, gone home, and in the morning woke up, and my inbox was on fire. A million emails. Literally, though, it was three thousand – I counted – three thousand emails. And people were writing saying thinks like, “You should come to West Palm Beach ‘cause it’s happening here…you should come to Dallas because it happening here…you should come to outside of Astoria, New York because it’s happening here.” It seems everywhere you go, people have stories like this. It’s one of those things where I’ve been getting inundated…people stop me on the street and say, “ You should come to my neighborhood and visit it.” Everyone, it seems, is feeling it in a similar way. It’s like everyone is getting pushed out further and further.
Ted: You’ve touched a nerve with your appearance on Bill Maher’s show. I mean if you didn’t, they wouldn’t feel so anxious about their economic situation and start to lend their support to people like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump because they feel like they work hard, but they just can’t get ahead.
Alexandra: I’m working on my next documentary about how we fund our presidential elections…and I feel very lucky to be working on my 10th film in this Darwinian universe we live in…and I have to say that there’s something about Bernie and Donald that, um…I mean, people really are at the end of the line and are desperate. They feel there’s nothing left for them. But there’s something there that speaks to this era of desperation and their (Trump and Sanders) early success in their campaigns and the reality of capitalism today — and the reality of democracy today.
Ted: Alexandra, thanks for talking to me and I wish you a lot of success on “San Francisco 2.0” and in your career.
Alexandra: I appreciate it. Thank you.
SAN FRANCISCO 2.0, Alexandra Pelosi (HBO’s Emmy®-winning “Journeys with George”) returns to her hometown to document what the tech boom has in store for this historically progressive city. It debuts Monday September 28, 2015 (9:00-9:40 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO.