There is inequality everywhere. But in San Francisco, it seems to be drawn by a cartoonist with an unrefined taste for absurdity.
The money. And then, the homeless. The homeless person asleep in a doorway directly beneath a sign for a Bitcoin ATM. The homeless woman sitting on a bench outside a LEED-certified new condo on Dolores St. painting her nails black as two fancy men stroll by with an extremely well-groomed Great Dane. The shabby black Ford GT parked incongruously out front of San Francisco’s gold-leaf-clad City Hall, an unshaven man asleep in the front seat with a Big Gulp container resting in the cupholder. The elderly men and women in bulky winter jackets sitting on ledges next to the Asian Art Museum, rolling suitcases at their sides. The tired-looking man leaning against the wall across from the Opera House. The shirtless man waving a plastic bottle and shouting unintelligible threats at cars passing by the Hilton hotel near Union Square as foreign tourists look on with alarm. The rectangles of cardboard laid out at 20-foot intervals all the way down Golden Gate Avenue, each topped by a fungus-like mound of dirty blankets and sleeping bags with two or four human feet sticking out of the bottom, sometimes with a small dog curled up under their toes. Just down the street and around the corner, hordes of young commuters stream down Market Street to tech jobs. At the stoplight across from Twitter HQ, a blank-faced homeless man stands at the crosswalk, dragging a length of PVC pipe with rags wrapped tightly on one end. He stares vacantly at the stopped traffic. “This is awful,” he says aloud. His words drip out with no apparent urgency or specific subject. “This is just awful.” He addresses nothing, and everything.
There are many reasons for all of the homeless people lining the streets of San Francisco, but the one you have to mention first is the fact that it costs a lot of money to rent a place to live there. You can blame the influx of rich techies, which is true in a tertiary way, or you can blame the fact that San Francisco has utterly failed to build enough new housing to keep up with the influx of rich techies, which is true in a primary way, or you can blame the San Francisco locals who like the city just how it is and therefore work to stop the city from building enough new housing to keep up with the influx of rich techies, which is true in a specific way. This is not to imply that there are no new apartments available to live in. There are. For example, in the financial district, you can live in the “Millennium Tower,” a new bluish-glass skyscraper that is one of the most expensive addresses on the West Coast, and which in the past eight years has sunk 16 inches into the soft earth upon which it is built, alarming the residents within. One block away is the construction site of the Salesforce Tower, the gracefully named colossus that will soon be San Francisco’s tallest building. The fence around the site is hung with renderings of large rooms with glass walls furnished with little but oddly shaped chairs and computer-generated multicultural people. From atop either of those buildings you could easily gaze all the way down to Mason Street, where an old woman in an overcoat with nowhere important to go pushes a pathetic little black dog in a wheelchair that she should be in herself.
San Francisco is a fine example of the muck of utter human desolation that bubbles up onto the streets of a beautiful city that is more obsessed with keeping itself beautiful than with the lives of human beings. Just as you can go to Detroit for the disaster porn of a poor city, you can go to San Francisco to soak in the downside of a rich city: the ugly contrasts between people with too much and people with too little. This is a microcosm of America, on a scale local enough that you do actually have to step over the homeless woman to get into the boutique. In San Francisco—and, by extension, in our world, where 62 rich people hold the same amount of wealth as three billion poor people—the only morally honest question is: Is it okay if we just take rich people’s stuff? A lot of other people could use it.
I’d come here in search of ethical permission for the revolution. I’d come to speak to Peter Singer—Princeton University professor and one of the world’s most famous living ethicists—to find out how his simple but functionally radical philosophy of care for the world’s least fortunate people lined up with the tenets of the American class war. Does the moral compulsion to help those who need help lead inevitably to Che Guevara, Robin Hood, and redistribution of wealth by force? Singer agreed to meet me at a charity fundraiser in Silicon Valley to discuss the question.
If San Francisco is an example of money poisoning a nice place to live, Palo Alto is an example of money putting a place you never would have wanted to live anyhow completely out of your reach. Big deal. Home to Stanford University, huge tech companies, and some of the most expensive housing in the United States of America, Palo Alto is proof that money does not buy good taste. Then again, money does not necessarily buy bad taste. You could be forgiven for thinking that all of the money pumped into Palo Alto had not bought anything at all. It is an utterly bland, charmless, and forgettable American city where all of the bland, charmless, and forgettable little flat-roofed houses happen to cost at least $2 million. Say what you will about Beverly Hills, but at least its gaudy palaces send the clear message that money was spent here. In Palo Alto, the same amount of money will get you a one-story house indistinguishable from the one your parents bought in some Iowa suburb in the 1970s. It is a town where you can spend $2.3 million without deriving any perceptible increase in your standard of living. Indeed, paging through the local paper I found what I believe to be the single most disappointing $2.3 million real estate listing in America. How your grandparents would weep if they knew that their multimillionaire descendent would still be unable to escape that ugly fucking garage door.
This lack of character extends throughout the town. Though everything looks noticeably clean and freshly painted and well-trimmed, its main roads are unremarkable and full of strip malls. Palo Alto’s thoroughfares are as anonymous as those of any mildly prosperous suburb, except for the fact that in a few blocks you pass a McLaren dealership, a Tesla dealership, and California Cryobank.
The tech millionaires have no flair, but they will live forever.
Just by raising the price of every home in a 50-mile radius, the modern kings of Silicon Valley have effectively built themselves a bubble impenetrable by the common man. In this environment, the class war comes to mind easily and stays there naturally, like a visit from an expected guest. But class war is harsh and nasty and generally unpopular due to the perception of negativity that accompanies the idea of pitchforks, guillotines, and exorbitant tax rates. It tends to strike the public as rude. Peter Singer’s ethics, by contrast, present in a positive way. He asks only that we do what we can to prevent others from suffering. In his most famous analogy, he asks us to imagine walking by a shallow lake wearing fine new clothes and spotting a child drowning. We know that we can save the child, though it would ruin our new clothes. We all say we would save the child regardless, of course. He then points out that by donating relatively small sums of money to aid organizations we can save the lives of dying children in poor nations, yet we often fail to. His modest maxim that “we ought to save the lives of strangers when we can do so at relatively little cost to ourselves” is something that most of us probably admit we agree with, even though implementing it in our lives would radically change the way we live.
So Peter Singer, a kindly and soft-spoken Australian, is a sort of Pied Piper for helping the world’s neediest people, by giving some of what we have to them. His underlying message is not so different from that of the fire-eyed socialist revolutionaries, though he relies on appeals to logic and kindness rather than inequality-driven anger. So I came to a sprawling mansion in Los Altos Hills, California, overlooking lovely Mountain View, to see if there was common ground to be found between the powerful altruism of Peter Singer and the sort of rage against the machine that animates the Shit Is Fucked Up and Bullshit segment of the American population. Even though Singer’s charity organization, The Life You Can Save, promotes donating to effective anti-poverty charities, he doesn’t rule out more drastic measures. In his book of the same name he writes, “If, after investigating the causes of global poverty and considering what approach is most likely to reduce it, you really believe that a more revolutionary change is needed, then it would make sense to put your time, energy, and money into organizations promoting that revolution in the global economic system.”
Peter Singer has spent much of his career making a very persuasive case for giving money to the poor. Sympathetic people whose primary concern is politics—the exercise of power in the real world—are quicker to make the case for taking money from the rich to give to the poor, through taxes, regulations, or guns, depending on their taste. If we agree rampant inequality should be remedied, is there a happy medium between moral appeals and outright compulsion?
The right wing tends to view Singer as an incurable idealist. Many on the left lashed out at him too, after he suggested recently that it might be okay to work on Wall Street and donate most of the money to the poor, rather than smashing the capitalist system. The truth is that Singer’s moral idealism is heavily leavened with pragmatism. “We might all prefer a situation in which the system is completely different from what it is. But there’s no point in bashing your head against a brick wall. So you have to make the assessment: Is this a brick wall I will just bash my head against, or is it a place where I can really push and change the whole structure?” he says. “When I give talks, people often stand up and say ‘The problem is poverty is global capitalism, that’s what we need to change. Why are you talking about these band-aid solutions?’ I always ask them, how do we actually do that? How do we actually get rid of global capitalism? Nobody’s given me even half an answer for that.”
He avers that it is not theoretically impossible to imagine a just system of capitalism, in which the motivation that is now channeled into making money was instead shifted into helping others. And if capitalism is the best economic system for producing overall prosperity, it is actually counterproductive to replace it with a system that is more fair but leaves less total prosperity for everyone—as long as “the prosperity is such that the society has more resources to help those at the bottom.”
That’s quite a caveat. And it is clearly not how capitalism is practiced in our world, where the richest 1% of people own half the wealth. If capitalism’s moral worth is predicated on its ability to spread wealth fairly, it would seem to follow that those who exploit capitalism in order to collect vast fortunes for themselves are doing something bad. Our society views gluttony with food as a disgusting vice. But gluttony with money will make you famous and envied. There is a grotesque inconsistency there.
“I think it would be better to have a society in which it wasn’t possible to become a billionaire—as long as that didn’t mean that people had stopped being productive and using their talents for good,” Singer says. But he stops short of condemning the rich without exception. “I don’t think that having great wealth in itself is fundamentally immoral. It depends what you do with it. If, let’s say, you take someone like Warren Buffett—if he was clearsighted about the fact that he was going to use this wealth for good, as he is doing by donating it to the Gates Foundation, and he was accumulating the wealth because he understood he had this talent for making it grow, then it was certainly not immoral of him to keep it. Keeping it was the better thing for him to do. If as soon as he had his first million dollars he donated most of it to charity, he would never have donated as much to charity as he ended up [giving].”
Which is to say: the only morally good thing to do with wealth is to give it away. And the only ethical excuse for accumulating great wealth is that you are using that wealth to grow and maximize the amount that you will eventually give away. Getting rich and using the money for what most people dream about when they dream about getting rich—sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, Maseratis, professional sports teams, cultural institutions with your name on them—is not okay. This is something more profound than a Hallmark card-style exhortation to generosity. It is a (polite) condemnation of the all-American goal of great wealth itself.
Singer has no problem advocating higher taxes on the rich, as long as they can be implemented without sending all the rich people scurrying for overseas tax havens. Fine, fine. But what about revolution? Where does the considered ethicist come down when the angry populists start dusting off the guillotines?
The French Revolution was both bloody and world-altering enough that it is still inspiring new books today. More recently, the Cuban revolution showed how socialist idealism can devolve into dictatorship. In both cases, many innocent civilians lost their lives in pursuit of a greater cause. Yet a utilitarian like Singer—judging actions by their collective impact on all living things over time—says that even those messy revolutions may be justifiable. “The question is, do they have to go wrong? Is it inevitable? Is it part of human nature that they go wrong?” he asks. “Maybe in spite of all the bloodshed and things that went wrong, the revolution did lead to the spread of greater equality, of civil rights, of the rule of law throughout Europe. And that was undoubtedly a good thing. Chou En Lai was famously asked whether he thought the French revolution was a good thing and he said ‘It’s too early to tell.’ I’d be prepared to hazard a guess and say it was a good thing.”
Here, at last, was an answer to the question I had come to explore. The murky place where carefully considered ethical rules meet the unfocused anger that is the raw material of historical events. Can even a master philosopher tell the angry, oppressed man with a gun when it is morally right for him to leave the boundaries of law and civil society and launch a crusade against Fucked Up Shit? Delineating the perfect boundary of the Righteous Revolution is like zooming in on a picture to find nothing but blurry pixels. “There’s no easy way to make that choice.” Singer says. “Now you do have more lessons of history to take into account, and you know that it’s actually going to be much harder to avoid the revolution betraying its own ideals, because so many of them do. But...” he pauses for a long moment, “perhaps it’s possible that it won’t.”
A few hours after we concluded our interview, a couple of hundred people gathered in the scenic backyard of the Los Altos Hills mansion to hear a private benefit concert by Paul Simon. The proceeds went to The Life You Can Save, to be disbursed to charities that help the world’s neediest and impoverished people. On a small stage, Simon played “The Boxer” and “Sounds of Silence” on an acoustic guitar, interspersed with banter about the upcoming elections. “This country needs a lot more than money,” he said. Just over the horizon lay Google’s headquarters. There was nothing affordable as far as the eye could see.