In the latest New York Times Book Review Wes Enzinna reviews Michael Shellenberger’s San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities. Mr. Enzinna, who is critical of the book, acknowledges that one in one hundred of San Francisco’s residents is homeless. Nevertheless, not surprisingly for a New York Times book reviewer, he calls the book a failure and claims that Mr. Shellenberger is waging a culture war. He concludes his full page review by claiming that “A proper accounting of California’s housing and homeless crisis remains to be written.” Although this may not satisfy Mr. Enzinna any more than did the book by Mr. Shellenberger, I know what’s wrong with San Francisco. But before I give you the answer, let me tell you a story.
One of my favorite movies is Twelve O’clock High, a World War II story of a hard luck B-17 squadron in England early in the war. The squadron commander is called onto the carpet by the wing commander, his boss, to find out why this squadron isn’t achieving its goals as are most of the other B-17 squadrons under his command. He hears a long litany of troubles: bad weather, maintenance problems, sick aircrew, heavy defenses near the target, etc. Finally the squadron commander leaves and the wing commander turns to his adjutant, General Frank Savage, played by star Gregory Peck, who sat quietly during the meeting, and asks his opinion of what’s wrong. General Savage says that what’s wrong is what’s always wrong–poor leadership. The squadron commander is a good guy–personally courageous, caring, etc–but he identifies and empathizes too much with his men. This has led to failure to hit the target, which means that his squadron must expose itself repeatedly to enemy fire to accomplish a job that should require fewer missions. This leads to even more losses and mission failure. The wing commander agrees, fires the squadron commander, and places the adjutant in charge of the squadron. The rest of the movie details the sometimes difficult steps that the new squadron commander must take to fix his squadron. Some crew are relieved of duty and sent home to the States in disgrace. Others are demoted from intermediate command within in the squadron. But some are promoted. Eventually what appears to be a brutal house cleaning plus many other changes leads to success. But the process was not without pathos. Watch the movie and see why.
So, what’s wrong with San Francisco? The answer is simple. Leadership. Mr. Enzinna is like the failed squadron commander at the beginning of “Twelve O’clock High”. Like many others, he identifies and empathizes with the homeless and rationalizes the failures of San Francisco’s leaders to deal with the problem as something caused by a lack of a “proper accounting”. But San Francisco is no different than other, more successful, American cities of its size. Geographically it sits in one of the most hospitable parts of the country. It lacks for nothing in the way of resources, of which untold millions have been lavished upon it. The growing homeless have been tolerated, much to the chagrin of the other ninety-nine out of a hundred residents . Therefore, San Francisco needs to change leaders. In “San Fransicko” Mr. Shellenberger may not be offering the policy answers that will work, but he’s pointing out the obvious; i.e., current leadership will not solve San Francisco’s homeless problem. New leadership is required. Notice that, like the wing commander mentioned above, I do not deign to know what policies will work. I just know that the past and current leaders have failed and that new leadership is needed. There is no other option.
The change process probably will not please everyone. Nevertheless, as General Frank Savage says, the problem is always the leader.