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The task ahead

As you drive down any highway in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can see them under overpasses and bridges: small conglomerates of tents, surrounded by increasingly-complex infrastructure for electricity and water. Not so much shantytowns as distributed shanty-hamlets: communities of people huddling together and conserving resources as best they can.

The feeding frenzy for GameStop stock, Dogecoin, and all the rest of them shouldn't come as a surprise. People are desperate. All over the country, they're willing to grasp at any straw if it looks like it might lead to a rent check or a paid bill. It's not greed; it's survival.

There are people here in the Bay Area, as there are everywhere, who just want the homeless to go away. Perhaps misled by the great lie of the American dream - that anyone can achieve anything, if they just try hard enough - they seem to think that people who have landed on hard times are bad people, and they should simply be cleared away in the night as if they were piles of old leaves. But there's no safety net in American society, and almost all of the hundreds of millions of people who live here are just a few missed paychecks away from the same fate. Some of the inhabitants of those highway-side tents are the victims of generational injustices of one kind or another; some are just unlucky. For every person visibly struggling, there are nine more that we can't see, doing what they can to make ends meet.

Crime is rising. Who's surprised? People do what they have to.

As I write this, I can see the silhouette of the Salesforce Tower looming over San Francisco. You can see it from most of the city; from the condos downtown, and from the homeless shelters. At its top, a great screen shows video at night - waves crashing, for example, or dancers - like something out of a Blade Runner future. There is enormous wealth here, as in many cities. And there is enormous suffering.

Most of the great CEOs - the billionaires - have a philanthropic vehicle they use to give back. Non-profit organizations are dependent on these wealthy benefactors to support them, and in the absence of real safety, these organizations are what passes for a net. The help that gets provided is, in large part, a function of what the rich are interested in. I'm aware of at least one billionaire who very quietly gives to causes that support the creation of a real welfare system for people who slip through the cracks, but it remains very few. For the most part, the cruel netless trapeze act of American life is perpetuated.

When I first arrived in California, a decade ago, I was advised by a family friend to keep my politics to myself. My parents had met at Berkeley and been activists; my father, a veteran, organized protests against the Vietnam War. But things had changed, and libertarian politics were prevailing. It was better to keep your head down.

But I think keeping your head down is the same thing an endorsement. It's collaboration with a system that's killing people.

We've managed to remove a fascist from office, which feels like a very low baseline for a functional democracy. Those people living in tents shouldn't be there - not because they should be cleared away, but because everyone should have safe housing. Those people desperate to make ends meet shouldn't be staking their futures on Robinhood investments - not because they should be blocked from doing so, but because they shouldn't be desperate to begin with. Those organizations on the ground shouldn't be beholden to billionaire donors to help people in need - not because they shouldn't ask for the money, but because there should be plenty of public funding to help.

There's so much work to do. This is a cruel society, made crueler by the aftermath of a dystopian government and a still-raging global pandemic. It's hard to know where to even start. But we can create, and we deserve to have, a better country than the one we inhabit.