If Books Could Kill

San Fransicko

October 19, 2023
If Books Could Kill
San Fransicko
Show Notes Transcript

Peter: Michael.

Michael: Peter.

Peter: What do you know about San Fransicko?

Michael: Personally, I am thrilled that finally someone is asking homeless people if they've tried not being homeless.


Peter: Now, I don't know how much you know about this book, but it's not a mega bestseller. It's technically a bestseller. It's one of those books that you see on the shelf that says, The New York Times Bestselling Book. And you're like, “hmm”.

Michael: It's the trafficking documentary, [Peter laughs] someone's buying up copies.

Peter: The main reason I wanted to do it is because even though it's not a Freakonomics level bestseller, it's very emblematic of a common set of conservative arguments and popular modes of thinking both among conservatives and centrists about homelessness.

Michael: Yes.

Peter: So, I know that you're aware of this book, but have you read this book? 

Michael: I'm aware of Shellenberger as great friend of Bari Weiss and great enemy of Twitter's attempts to censor conservatives.

Peter: [laughs] That's mostly what I know of him.

Michael: And then also I'm weirdly obsessed with homelessness as an issue, both because I live in Seattle, which is experiencing a very San Fransico-like homelessness crisis and also because I've actually done reporting on homelessness. I went to Salt Lake City a couple of years ago and spent a week there learning about what happened to Salt Lake City's whole thing where they, “solved homelessness.” And it got a lot of attention, I believe, in 2015 and then it fell apart for interesting reasons. It's an issue that I know slightly more about than, for example, atomic habits. I know more about this than rising and grinding.

Peter: [laughs] That's the problem with progressives right there. [Michael laughs] Too much focus on how to solve poverty, not enough focus on how to get up and go. So, Shellenberger himself has risen to prominence as a Twitter crank.

Michael: Yeah, God. 

Peter: Over the last 20 years, he actually had an interesting career. He got his BA in Peace and Global Studies which, respect, love a fake BA-

Michael: I have two.

Peter: -MA in anthropology. Then, he spent two decades basically writing about the environment.

Michael: Right. 

Peter: In recent years, especially, his work with respect to climate change became very anti-alarmist. Basically, being like, this will be okay. And in 2020, he publishes a book called Apocalypse Never, basically arguing that climate change is real, but the threat is overstated by environmentalists.

Michael: This is my least favorite shit, where it's like, “While correct on the merits, Greta Thunberg is kind of annoying.” So, we have no choice but to form an alliance with Tucker Carlson. 

Peter: Shellenberger is now a rightwing Twitter crank. There's no other way to put it. He spends COVID doing COVID denialism. He gets prominent on Twitter in part because his Twitter handle at the time was his first two initials and his last name, MD Shellenberger.


Michael: He knows what he's doing. I know it's like, “Ah, I never said I was a doctor,” but, like, “Dude.” 

Peter: He has since changed it. So, [chuckles] I assume that that's why he's like all right. [Michael laughs] Now that all of the debate about COVID has subsided, I will change it so no one thinks I'm a doctor.

Michael: Look, I don't know why anybody thinks that I'm racist just because my handle is KKK mike.

Peter: That is my name, Karen, Karen, Karen. [Michael laughs] So, in 2021, he publishes San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities. If I could summarize the argument that Shellenberger makes on homelessness, it's that progressive policies and culture have created a permissiveness that allows people to remain homeless, to use drugs in public to cause general discomfort while failing to address the real causes of homelessness. Running through the book is a claim that the left treats homelessness as a structural problem, the result of economic and housing policy, when it's actually primarily an individual problem driven by mental illness and addiction.

Michael: That's why European countries have so little homelessness. They just rise and grind more.

Peter: I've actually, in response to this book, I've been handing out copies of 4-Hour Workweek. 


Michael: Everyone who's struggling, you get a book, you get a book.

Peter: [laughs] Hey, I know it's hard out here, brother, but give this a read [Michael laughs]. Before we get into the book, I do think it's worth talking about the ways in which San Fransisco is an outlier on homelessness issues and the ways in which things are in fact bad in San Francisco and across California on homelessness issues, because this isn't like a made-up problem. San Francisco does, in fact, have what is in many ways a distinctly bad problem with homelessness. I think that a lot of people on the left get caught up justifiably talking about how bad faith conservatives are on this issue and it makes it seem like we're denying that any problem exists.

Michael: Or that it's upsetting.

Peter: Yeah.

Michael: I live in a city with also a huge homelessness crisis and it can be scary to walk around and see so much visible poverty and just like, people in pain. 

Peter: Those are all understandable feelings to have. Homelessness is getting worse across the country by many metrics, and it's notably bad in California. California is 12% of the country, 30% of the homeless population, 50% of the unsheltered homeless population. So, San Francisco is a microcosm of that.

Michael: Yeah, yeah.

Peter: I want to walk through some of the stats here, some of the ways in which San Francisco is an outlier. It does have relatively high per capita homelessness. San Francisco also has a higher unsheltered homeless rate than most other cities. 57% of San Francisco's homeless population was unsheltered last year and it's been even higher in prior years. Shellenberger brings this up. He says, “New York's homeless population is very high, but it's 95% sheltered.”

Michael: Right, right, right. 

Peter: This is driven largely by climate. Cities with harsh winters tend to have much higher rates of sheltered homeless.

Michael: I guess the basic idea is that it gets so cold in East Coast cities that homeless people will die on mass if you let people sleep on the street. So historically, the system's built up around the fact that it's kind of an emergency if somebody's sleeping [crosstalk] shelter-

Peter: That’s right.

Michael: -and we need to get them inside or else they'll die. Whereas on the West Coast, the assumption is that, “Oh, they're going to be fine,” even though many, many, many homeless people do in fact die on the streets. Like, Seattle has six times more deaths of homeless people than we have homicides every year.

Peter: Right.

Michael: It just isn't necessarily weather related and there isn't the same sense of urgency to get people indoors on the West Coast.

Peter: Right. It's correlated with climate, but it appears to be largely driven by policy decisions that are downstream of climate. Another area where San Francisco is a real outlier and I think this is really important is that its unsheltered homeless population is highly concentrated. Anyone who has visited San Francisco can attest to this. The homeless populations are very heavily concentrated in a couple of neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods are also adjacent to tourist areas and business districts, which makes the unsheltered homelessness problem extremely visible. I think that this is a big driver of San Francisco's reputation.

Michael: It's also very important to stress that we talk about the homelessness crisis and just in objective terms there is one. But when non-homeless people talk about this, what they're mostly talking about is a problem of visible poverty, mental illness, and addiction.

Peter: That's right. 

Michael: As I've gotten to know more of my homeless neighbors in my own neighborhood, a lot of the people you see panhandling outside of grocery stores and stuff aren't homeless.

Peter: Right.

Michael: Many of them live in subsidized housing, but they don't get enough income support from disability or whatever to afford food, and so they panhandle for extra money. So, they're not homeless, they're poor.

Peter: By the way, I will be steel manning Shellenberger's arguments throughout this episode to try to come up with what I think the best faith arguments are here.

Michael: Is this your way of being like, “We're going to give him some credit but he's a huge scumbag, like, trust us.”

Peter: Basically, [Michael laughs] Yes. Well, your comment reminded me because I do think that it's true that the political problem of homelessness goes away if you just hide it from public view. But there is still a good faith criticism out there, this is more than we should bear as a society.

Micheal: Yeah. There're real failures and I think it's also fair to trace some of those back to progressives.

Peter: Now, before we get into his more substantive arguments, I want to share some initial narrative color.

Michael: This is us not giving him credit. This is us not steel manning. [Peter laughs] I can sense a dunk coming.

Peter: Look, we'll be bouncing back and forth.

Michael: [laughs] Okay. So, he says in 2018, San Francisco's Mayor London Breed held a walking tour with television cameras and newspaper reporters in tow. “I will say that there's more feces on the sidewalks than I've ever seen,” said Breed. “Growing up here that was something that wasn't the norm. “Than you've ever seen?” Asked the reporter. “Than I've ever seen for sure,” she said. We're not just talking about from dogs. We're talking about from humans. Complaints about human waste on San Francisco's sidewalks and streets were rising. Calls about human feces increased from roughly 10,000 to roughly 20,000 between 2014 and 2018. In 2019, the city spent nearly $100 million on street cleaning. Between 2015 and 2018, San Francisco replaced more than 300 lamp posts corroded by urine after one had collapsed and crushed a car.

Peter: This is the beginning of his movie. Its opening shot, pan across the sidewalk.

Michael: Just poop everywhere. 

Peter: Poop. 

Michael: Yeah. 

Peter: A corroded lamppost slowly topples, title card slowly fills in. It says San Fran and then it's like, sicko.

Michael: And then we're not talking about dogs, we're talking about humans. 

Peter: I'm talking about human poop. 

Michael: Yeah. It's not dog poop.

Peter: A lot of the conversation, both within the book and the broader discourse, is driven by this visceral reaction to visible homelessness, visible poverty, and visible addiction. And you can see that here. There is a legitimate complaint under here, but a lot of it is just like, blah.

Michael: This is also the perfect example of how viewing it from inside an SUV, driving through the Tenderloin versus viewing it as somebody who is homeless, changes the problem that we're talking about. Because if you actually talk to homeless people, one of the things they say is that there's almost nowhere to go to the bathroom. In America, we have very few public restrooms. And when you go to a restaurant and you like, “Hey, can I use the bathroom?” They're not going to let you because you look homeless. 

Peter: Right.

Michael: So, when you talk to actual homeless people, they're like, “I don't like pooping and peeing in public. This is really humiliating. The actual solution to this is to give homeless people somewhere to poop and pee.

Peter: I also will throw out there that lampposts mostly get corroded by dog pee.

Michael: Yeah. And also, drunk people. If you go to central London, there's these old buildings from the 1800s that have visible divots in them from people coming out of Leicester Square and then peeing on them.

Peter: Well, when it comes to the Brits, I do support a more Shellenbergeresque solution. [Michael laughs] All right. [laughs] So, he then moves into the substantive argument a bit. He starts off by explaining more or less what I outlined, that the homelessness issue in San Francisco has gotten worse. This is all pretty uncontroversial. The real question is why and what to do about it. Shellenberger starts by listing off the things that he thinks do not explain San Francisco's outlier status.

Michael: Okay.

Peter: First, he talks about climate. He says, “San Francisco's mild climate alone cannot explain why it has more homeless people than other cities. Miami, Phoenix, and Houston have year-round warm weather and far fewer homeless than San Francisco per capita.” This is a good introduction to Shellenberger because it's factually true, but also misleading and missing the point. He says San Francisco's mild climate alone cannot explain why it has more homeless people than other cities. No one thinks that climate is the sole cause of homelessness.

Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah [laughs] It's warm out. I'm going to sleep on the streets. Yeah, no one-- [laughs]

Peter: This is like the story of how he presents and analyzes data in the book rather than laying it out in full and being like, “Okay, where are the correlations? What can we learn from this? What are the outliers?” You just get these isolated little data points, cherry picked and thrown at you without any context.

Michael: What do we know what the heat actually predicts is soft leadership. [Peter laughs] They're eating grapes. 

Peter: [laughs] He then says that San Francisco's homelessness problem cannot be explained by high housing prices.

Michael: Oh, here we go.

Peter: This is one of the big claims of the book and the most controversial because there is widespread consensus among academics who study this that housing prices are one of if not the primary driving forces of homelessness. So, this is like his big bombshell argument here and I'm going to send you a very short excerpt.

Michael: All right. He says, “Nor can housing prices explain the discrepancy. Palo Alto and Beverly Hills have mild climates and expensive housing, but don't have San Francisco's homeless problem.”

Peter: I told you I'd be steel manning him. All right, so at first, I was just rolling my eyes at this, but then I was like, “Okay, maybe he has a point here.” Palo Alto and Beverly Hills have very high rents and low homelessness. So, the thing is that this is not what experts actually say. What experts say matter is housing prices relative to income. The most prominent study on this is from a few years back and it's called Inflection Points in Community Level Homeless Rates. It was sponsored by Zillow, so everyone calls it the Zillow study. It essentially showed that once rental costs surpassed about 30% of the median income in a given area, homelessness rates start shooting way up. So, yes, housing costs are very high in Beverly Hills, but so is the median income. So, homelessness remains low.

Michael: It's also, I think, more instructive to talk about it as like a regional problem, regional housing costs rather than these micro housing costs, these much smaller neighborhoods. Because what I have heard from actual homeless people is that if you try to sleep outside in a rich neighborhood, a fucking cop will come and harass you and like, “Go to Seattle, that's where you're supposed to be, you're not supposed to be here.” It's a myth that homeless people move across the country to get the best services, that's bullshit. But within a region oftentimes that has the same housing price dynamics, homeless people oftentimes get pushed out of certain areas and there're even documented cases in which wealthy suburbs will buy bus tickets.

Peter: So Shellenberger is aware of the Zillow study and he tries to respond to it. He says, “As for the Zillow study that was reported to find a correlation between rising rents and homelessness, a deeper look at the research reveals a more nuanced finding.”

Michael: Oh, nuanced.

Peter: “Homelessness and affordability are correlated only in the context of certain local policy efforts and social attitudes.” So, it seems like he's saying that the Zillow study found that the correlation between housing prices and homelessness doesn't exist outside of some very specific political and cultural settings. But that is absolutely not what the study says. What the researchers said was that certain factors such as local policy efforts and social attitudes may also impact homelessness rates, which is just common sense. They were basically saying there are other latent variables at play here. So, basically the researchers were identifying some other variables in the mix, and Shellenberger is saying that somehow undermines the entire study. But the study absolutely shows that housing prices correlate strongly with homelessness across the country. It's the published conclusion of the study. I spoke with Ned Resnikoff, who is a homelessness researcher and he had talked to the researchers themselves and they confirmed that Shellenberger is misreading the study.

Michael: It's funny to me how the term nuance is used in these reactionary tracts in a way that is completely the opposite of its actual definition, because he's not making a nuanced point. He's saying the findings of the study don't matter. That's not nuanced. Sometimes, I say things and I can hear myself cutting them in the edit as I'm speaking. [Peter laughs] I'm like, this isn't going to go in. I don't know why I said that. 

Peter: So, he says the real issues driving homelessness are drug addiction and mental illness. He says basically, activists and policymakers all seem to think that the issue here is the lack of affordable housing, which leads them to attack the wrong root cause. Now, it's pretty uncontroversial that the rates of mental illness and drug use are higher in the homeless population than the general population. But Shellenberger claims that the problem is much worse than most people understand. He says, “San Francisco's Health Department in 2019 estimated that 4000 of the city's 8000 homeless are both mentally ill and suffering from substance abuse.”

Michael: Okay.

Peter: So, he's saying that “50% of the homeless population is both mentally ill and addicted to drugs.” That jumped out to me because I've never seen an estimate even close to that. So, I tracked down the report and no, the report very clearly and repeatedly says that it's 4000 homeless people suffering from mental illness and addiction out of 18,000 total homeless people not out of 8000. 

Michael: Oh.

Peter: So, the rate is not 50% as Shellenberger says, it’s about 22%, which is much more in line with what I would have understood. What happened is that the report is using the number of homeless people in the city in a given year, 18,000, while Shellenberger is using the point in time number, which is the number on a given night, 8000.

Michael: Right. 

Peter: The reason that Shellenberger gets it wrong is because he didn't read the report. He just read a San Francisco Chronicle article [Michael laughs] about the report, which used the 4000 number, and then he backfilled the denominator without knowing which metrics they were actually using. How do I know that? Because I read the report and they say 18,000 over and over again. There is literally no way you [Michael laughs] can read the report and not see it.

Michael: We need to go to Yale and get his boxes of stuff so we can see which passages he underlined, it's the only way to solve this.

Peter: [laughs] So, okay, if you're keeping score so far, Shellenberger has hand waved away the most prominent and on-point research on this issue. And then in making his own case, he just immediately relies on objectively false information.

Michael: But then the thing is that statistic, the percentage of homeless people with mental health problems and addiction, I don't even know how that's relevant because if they're suffering from mental health problems and addiction, that's also an argument to help them with resources from the state.

Peter: Well, he does support using resources from the state in a sense.

Michael: [laughs] Paying for homeless services is great as long as we're jailing them.

Peter: The real reason that stat doesn't matter is because mental health, addiction, and homelessness are very hard to unpack because they are, as the experts say, bidirectional, meaning that addiction and mental health can cause homelessness, but homelessness can cause addiction and mental health issues. The most obvious example is that depression is often categorized as a mental illness for these purposes. But being homeless is depressing. [laughs] 

Michael: Yeah, yeah objectively.

Peter: In the literal sense that it can cause depression. 

Michael: I spoke to a lady in one of the tiny home villages in Seattle who started using meth after she was homeless and she did it so that she could stay up late enough to protect her belongings. People steal your stuff when you're asleep. 

Peter: Right.

Michael: I've also spoken to homeless people who said that they use drugs to keep warm. I'm not going to say there's like a noble purpose of every single homeless person using drugs, but it's like if I was living on the street, I can also imagine that I would use drugs to cope with that or also to self-medicate if I don't have access to the formal health system.

Peter: I mean, I use them to cope with stuff, [Michael laughs] and I'm just a regular housed guy. So, this leads to a problem, which is it's hard to unpack which way the causation is cutting. So, a simple way to do it would be to say, “Okay, if mental illness is a major cause of homelessness, you'd expect that places with high rates of mental illness would in turn have higher rates of homelessness.”

Michael: Like the financial district. 

Peter: There's a book published last year called Homelessness is a Housing Problem that I read for this episode.

Michael: Look at you.

Peter: I hobbesed it. 

Michael: Love that.

Peter: What they did was actually look at these things and turns out most of the states with significant rates of serious mental illness do not have high homeless rates. Utah, Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Wisconsin, Oregon, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Vermont are the states with the highest levels of serious mental illness, and only one of them, Oregon, has relatively high homelessness.

Michael: Ooh, really?

Peter: The state with the worst per capita homelessness in the country, Hawaii, actually has among the lowest serious mental illness rates in the country. So, it's actually not that there's no correlation. There's a small negative correlation. States with high rates of mental illness have lower rates of homelessness on average.

Michael: And that also gets back to the ratio of housing prices and income too. That if you're someone who's really struggling with mental illness or like you have a break or something and you lose your job, if you have enough money to float your rent for a couple of months as you recover, that's going to prevent you from being homeless. But if you're living check to check, barely getting by, losing two weeks of work can really be the difference between you staying housed and not.

Peter: There’s also substance abuse. Higher rates of substance abuse actually are correlated with higher rates of homelessness, but only a small amount. The researchers found that they explain about 6% of the variance between states. By comparison, the median rent in a city explains 55% of the variance, meaning that housing costs are nearly 10 times better at predicting homelessness rates.

Michael: But the remaining 40% is explained by attitudes and wokeness, [Peter laughs] fortunately.

Peter: So, look, I don't want to overstate the case here, but this data just annihilates Shellenberger's core argument here. And more than that, I feel like it just shows that he's fundamentally doing propaganda. [Michael laughs] He's positing that the real issue here is addiction and mental illness. And you'd think that the bare minimum effort to put into making that case would be to examine whether places with high rates of addiction and mental illness also have high homelessness. He doesn't even do that.

Michael: I feel like this also comes back to the visible poverty thing versus homelessness, because the problem as experienced by non-homeless people is visible, people on the street who are shooting up or talking to themselves or something, things that are visible markers of addiction and mental illness. Whereas the homeless population also includes a huge number of people sleeping in cars. A lot of people are just walking around wearing a backpack. When I volunteered at the shelter, a lot of people do not look homeless. 

Peter: Right. I think it's a very intuitive conclusion to draw that homelessness is resulting from drug addiction and mental illness when you're looking at the tenderloin, for example. It's just one of those things that's not really true.

Michael: He's Brooksing. He's like, “This feels true and I'm just going to write a whole book about it.” 

Peter: So that's the big descriptive claim that Shellenberger makes. That housing prices don't really explain San Francisco's homelessness issues and the real underlying problem is mental illness and drug addiction and that is incorrect. 

Michael: Yep.

Peter: There is a second part of this argument. Shellenberger is wrong about what's happening, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he's wrong about solutions. Even if everyone agrees that housing prices drive homelessness, there's still the matter of what to do about it, what works, what doesn't. You can't snap your fingers and reduce rent across the country. So, what do you do? Just about every activist and most scholars will tell you build affordable housing and use an approach called Housing First. Now, I know you've written about this before, but what do you know about Housing First? 

Michael: It's basically the idea that you need to get people indoors, and the minute you do that, you can get people onto Medicaid, you can start to work on getting whatever medications they need, you can start getting them on SSDI. In many cases, everything stems from the fact that you know where you are going to sleep tonight and there's like a place to lock up your belongings. 

Peter: Yeah, that's exactly right. I mean, the idea is that if you try to make housing contingent on finding a job or getting clean or whatever, that's actually counterproductive. What works best is providing Housing First and working from there so that people have some stability.

Michael: Yes.

Peter: Housing first has been the primary approach across the country for about 20 years, and Shellenberger is trying to argue that this has been a mistake, basically using San Francisco as a case study. He says the problem with Housing First stems from the fact that it doesn't require that people address their mental illness and substance abuse, which are often the underlying causes of homelessness, which, if you recall, he just proved. 

Several studies have found that people in Housing First-type housing showed no improvement in drug use from when they were first housed. Shellenberger points out that Housing First has been the approach in San Francisco for many years, but homelessness remains high, which is true enough and I think the closest he gets to generally being correct, there must be something wrong. The question is, “What exactly is it?” So, I think you can break this question into two parts. One, does Housing First generally work? And two, if so, why hasn't it really worked in San Francisco?

Michael: Yeah. Which is a fair question honestly.

Peter: It is a very fair question. The bottom-line answer to the first question is, “Yes, Housing First generally improves results across many metrics, but not all of them.” The most obvious thing that it does is solve short-term homelessness for a given person. If you put a homeless person in a home in the short term that is a 100% improvement in their housing situation.

Michael: There are very few issues where it's fair to say, it's right there in the name, right. But it is right there in the name [laughs].

Peter: Now there is the question of how much it works medium to long term. Randomized controlled studies have shown that Housing First leads to greater housing stability over time and generally results in the use of fewer emergency department services and healthcare resources. It's also generally more cost effective than many alternatives, though there are a lot of variables impacting costs, so it's not a guarantee, especially in places where housing costs are high. 

Michael: Also, if a city saves money on emergency department admissions, the city doesn't get that money back. This is like the fundamental problem with Housing First is that viewed holistically, it is cheaper. However, cities don't operate holistically. So, what it actually amounts to is cities spending a fuck ton of money on free housing for the homeless and then everybody loses their fucking minds. And then all of the savings are from profit making entities or completely different parts of the budget.

Peter: There's a narrower version of his argument that's basically just like, well, if Housing First works, why isn't it working in San Francisco? And again, fair question. I asked Ned Resnikoff this question. 

Michael: Did you talk to him about how he didn't like our End of History episode? 

Peter: I do think it was an incredible act of grace by me to reach out to someone who--[crosstalk] 

Michael: [laughs] To not talk about his problematic views that our episode was bad.

Peter: To even say his name on our podcast [Michael laughs]. I only have the free version of Zoom, so I couldn't continue to extend our meeting and yell at him about Fukuyama.


Michael: No, we liked Ned. It was a fair point. It was a fair article.

Peter: Ned says a lot of the problem in California is a cycle. High housing prices drive people into homelessness at high rates while also making housing-based interventions more expensive and logistically difficult. So, the interventions can't keep up with the new inflows of homeless people.

Michael: Basically, because if you're trying to buy 10,000 houses for 10,000 homeless people. If housing costs are really high, that's going to cost you a billion dollars, which sometimes in cities is like literally more than the entire city budget. 

Peter: If it doesn't address the underlying cause of high housing prices, you're just going to continue getting more homeless people because more people that are in precarious situations get driven onto the streets. So, if you look at cities like Houston, policy wise the reason that they have been more successful is that while San Francisco has a Housing First approach, there's a lot of bureaucratic bullshit that prevents the ideal of widely available permanent housing from actually manifesting. For example, there are about 10,000 permanent housing units in San Francisco designated for homeless people. 1000 of them are sitting vacant not because homeless people are declining them, but because the screening process is so onerous that it's holding them up. Then on top of that, you also have the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which has full discretion to reject permits for new construction and often uses it to impede affordable housing.

Ned said was maybe the biggest key to Houston's success is that in Houston there are no zoning laws, which creates a lot of housing supply and keeps prices lower. What's so interesting is that if Shellenberger wanted to levy a critique against San Francisco, it's right here. San Francisco and other jurisdictions within California have failed to meet this challenge in numerous respects and it's not entirely out of their control. You can make the argument that Housing First is pushed as a simple and effective solution by the left, but it's not as simple as it's often made to seem. It can be easily bogged down by bureaucracy and politics, not to mention it can be made much less effective by the broader economic situation. We are now segueing into the middle section of the book, Shellenberger has made his truly awful data-based arguments and now he's moving into a bigger picture, almost moral philosophical argument about progressivism.

What he tries to argue is that liberal policies are fostering a sense of permissiveness that allows all of these problems to fester and promotes disorder. He's talking about everything from LAX’s homelessness policies to defund the police and progressive DAs. Remember that the subtitle of the book is Why Progressives Ruin Cities. And originally, I was like it’s seems like poor phrasing.

Michael: Yeah. 

Peter: But then halfway through the book, I realized he means it literally because he proceeds to engage in what is essentially like an elaborate armchair psychoanalysis of progressives.

Michael: Oh, we are back to End of History. He's just talking about mines.

Peter: I'm going to be synthesizing this. But this is an extremely convoluted compilation of arguments. At one point, he says that the modern left's position on homelessness has its roots in Marx. [Michael laughs] The middle chapters of the book mention Michel Foucault 38 times.

Michael: I don't want to talk about Foucault on this podcast. 

Peter: Foucault or books about Foucault are cited 22 times. [Michael laughs] This is a titanic achievement of pseudointellectualism.

Michael: Discipline and punish the woke people.

Peter: I'm going to send you a little excerpt. 

Michael: Progressive homelessness advocates hold two moral values particularly deeply caring and fairness. Across many scales, surveys, and political controversies, notes the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, liberals turn out to be more disturbed by signs of violence and suffering compared to conservatives and especially to libertarians. That tracks. [laughs] Man, the first correct thing Jonathan Haidt has ever fucking said. But in the process of valuing care so much, progressives abandoned other important values. And then that doesn't end with a period which makes me think that you took it out of context, you cut it off. 

Peter: No. I just didn't copy the period when I pasted it.

Michael: [crosstalk] 

Peter: No, I don't even really want to talk about this quote. I just think that it supports my one book theory that we're [Michael laughs] converging upon a single book. Every time, I see another one of our authors in the book, I'm like, “Well, I have to bring this up to Michael.”

Michael: What dunk is this though? It's like, liberals turn out to be more disturbed by signs of violence and suffering than conservatives or libertarians like, probably.

Peter: This argument that he's making is that liberals care so much that they end up basically becoming irrational by other metrics. He says that progressives base their morality and their policies around whether they perceive someone to be a victim and this leads them to ultimately embrace what he calls victimology.

Michael: Oh, no, another word.

Peter: Which is the belief that someone is inherently good if they have been victimized.

Michael: Oh, this is this fucking Jonathan Haidt, like, The Coddling of the American Mind thing where it's like, “Progressives all believe this” and it's deranged thing that no one has ever fucking said. 

Peter: Then this is his big theory of the progressive mind. He, likens, victimology to a religion, which I think is like something conservatives like to do because they don't like getting made fun of for being religious, so they just pretend that we're religious too, but in a more abstract way. Actually, believing in affordable housing is a religion when you think about it. 

Michael: Well, believing in fucking anything is like a religion when you think about it. That's why it's not that interesting to think about it. Believing in conservatism is a religion. What's your fucking point? 

Peter: Throughout at this section, he is diving into progressive versus conservative psychology. I am sending you another excerpt.

Michael: God, okay. He says progressives also value liberty or freedom differently than conservatives. Many progressives reject the value of liberty for big tobacco and cigarette smokers, but embrace the value of liberty for fentanyl. Wait, what? [Peter laughs] But embrace the value of liberty for fentanyl dealers and users. Why? Because progressives view fentanyl dealers and users who are disproportionately poor, sick, and nonwhite as victims of a bad system. Jesus Christ.

Peter: Progressives hate tobacco companies, but they love fentanyl dealers. [Michael laughs] When he's not a butchering data or just misrepresenting his sources, he's making the worst analogies you've ever heard in your fucking life. Are progressive policies regarding smoking somehow comparable to their policies regarding fentanyl? Give me a call when there's a fentanyl section in restaurants. 

Michae: Yeah, yeah, yeah [laughs].

Peter: Now I'm going to send you another one. And we are still exploring the progressive mind.

Michael: Okay. Conservatives and moderates tend to define fairness around equal treatment including enforcement of the law. They tend to believe we should enforce the law against the homeless man who is sleeping and urinating on BART, even if he is a victim. Progressives disagree. They demand we take into account that the man is a victim in deciding whether to arrest and how to sentence whole classes of people including the homeless, mentally ill and addicts. Oh, he's going back to Victorian arguments about-- [laughs]

Peter: That's, right? He's the only guy that read that Anatole France quote that's, “The law forbids rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges.” He just took it literally. He was like, “Yeah, that's a quote about how much the law rocks” 


Michael: Because, yeah, why wouldn't you take into account somebody's circumstances? Like, of course you would.

Peter: And the law does. And also, the statement that conservatives believe that the law should apply equally to everyone might be close to the actual literal opposite of what conservatives believe about the law. [Michael laughs] This portion of the book has this half-baked psychology shit. It has a lot of anecdotes about leftwing accesses both historical and contemporary. Some of which are perfectly valid criticisms and some of which are very bizarre exaggerations. Probably the most interesting bit is about Jim Jones, the Jonestown cult leader. The Jonestown cult was like a Marxist cult, essentially, at least on the surface. It was called the People's Temple. And Jones had all sorts of ties to people on the left, progressive causes, etc. What I did not know was that before he was a cult leader, he was the chairman of the San Francisco Housing Commission. 

Michael: Oh, really? I didn't know that. 

Peter: As you can imagine, Shellenberger goes absolutely nuts with this, basically claiming that the same forces that blinded people on the left to cult leader, mass murderer Jim Jones are the forces that are now blinding them to the reality of the homeless situation in San Francisco.

Michael: I love that we keep on this show coming across the stupidest shit. So, he's basically saying that, “Did you know Jim Jones also wanted to help the homeless?”

Peter: I will say that reading this book basically gave me a nonstop migraine because it's just like these constant decontextualized data points and then little anecdotes confined to a paragraph. And then there were five pages about Jim Jones and it was a breath of fresh air. I was like, [Michael laughs] “Ooh, this is fun” 

Michael: [laughs] We’re digging deep.

Peter: I feel like I'm learning something. I'm sure that there were little lies baked in there that I didn't catch, but it was the first time and really the only time in the whole book where I was like, “This is interesting. I didn't know this.” So, you know what? I forgive him.

Michael: You learned a single thing. You learned a thing. 

Peter: Yeah. It's hard to explain the various ways in which he's dishonest because they aren't always immediately obvious. His style of writing is really to compress and compile a ton of different stories and anecdotes and data points and just rattle through them. So, it's hard to fact check everything. But at various points, he would say something that just set off my bullshit detector and I had to look into it. So, at one point, he's talking about Chesa Boudin, the now recalled former Progressive DA in San Francisco. 

Michael: That's why we don't have crime in San Francisco anymore, because we we were called the soft-on-crime prosecutor.

Peter: Shellenberger says in 2020, Boudin announced that he was not going to prosecute street level drug dealers because in part, they are “themselves victims of human trafficking.”

Michael: Wow, I don't know about that.

Peter: So, I looked it up and he didn't say that. What he actually said was, “Law enforcement should focus on drug suppliers rather than on these small-scale street level sellers. We also must create specialty courts for those sellers who are, in fact themselves victims of human trafficking.” You don't have to agree with his policy prescription, but he didn't say that they're not prosecuting street-level dealers because they are themselves victims of human trafficking.

Michael: This is just Michael Shellenberger not understanding how language works.

Peter: Right, right. I'm going to send you another one. This is very short and I'm only sending it to you because I want to get your reaction to it in real time.

Michael: Okay. All right. In 2020, a Seattle city councilor introduced legislation to order the district attorney to stop enforcing laws if they are committed by the poor, the mentally ill, or people with substance use disorders. Crime is legal in Seattle. Have I not mentioned this, Peter? It's actually the purge at all times. 

Peter: If your brain is doing good, if you have, like, any semblance of a bullshit meter in your head, [Michael laughs] you should be able to read that and just immediately know that it's not true.

Michael: The thing is, I actually beat somebody to death on the street recently, and the cops are like, “Hey, you're under arrest.” And I was like, “No, I'm gay.”

Peter: That's right. 

Michael: “I have an identity.” And they're like, “All right, please proceed.”

Peter: Officer, I am a podcaster. [Michael laughs] So, what actually happened here is that one council member in Seattle, Lisa Herbold, proposed creating a legal defense for people who commit misdemeanors as a result of behavioral health issues or poverty. We don't actually know the details of this proposal because it never made it past the initial proposal stage. But the idea wasn't that you just get off the hook for assault for being poor. It was that you might get the charge dismissed if you could show that the crime was committed to meet, “An immediate basic need.” We don't need to dig into the details. I'm not even saying this is a good idea or whatever, but I am saying that Shellenberger's characterization of it is a straight up lie. He says, “The DA would be ordered to stop enforcing laws against the poor and mentally ill.”

Michael: It's also funny because in practice, the Modern Republican Party would actually like crime to be legal if you are rich. [Peter laughs] It's just the fact that crime being legal if you're poor is the part that actually offends them.


Peter: Right. Final phase of this episode. We've learned so far that housing prices are not driving homelessness and that progressives’ affinity for victims is what drives their crazy policy decisions. But there's still the question of what Shellenberger thinks the solution is.

Michael: Is it like prison camps? I feel like it's almost [chuckles] like ship them away.

Peter: I'm not going to say that it's not prison camps. 


Peter: He never really sits down and just concisely lays out an affirmative plan for what should be done. But if I were to in good faith piece together his prescription for San Francisco's homelessness problem would be in three parts. One, optional build more shelter beds. Two, have police clear homeless encampments, and three, an aggressive policy of forcible treatment for the mentally ill. So homeless camps in San Francisco and elsewhere are a big flashpoint for these debates. And his argument about these camps is basically like a micro-version of his big picture argument. Tolerance of drug use and lack of law enforcement make these encampments desirable to many homeless people and give them no incentive to improve their situation. He's very into anecdotes about homeless people in these camps refusing help.

Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah of course.

Peter: He says “Of the 150 people moved during a single month of homeless encampment cleanups in 2018, just eight people accepted the city's offer of shelter.”

Michael: We can't help them because they don't even want our help. 

Peter: Exactly.

Michael: A lot of them are just like, resistant to shelters. And then you've talked to actual fucking homeless people and they're like, “Yeah, the shelters have fucking bedbugs,” and you can't get any fucking sleep. And they kick you out at 08:00 in the morning and there's nowhere to put your belongings. And a lot of the shelters suck shit. 

Peter: Right.

Michael: People don't want to sleep in sucky conditions. And sleeping in a tent on the side of the road is actually better than a lot of the shelters.

Peter: And the report that he's citing for this has the reason that everyone turns down the shelter offer. He omits it, but again, according to his own source, the reason is that a prerequisite for entering the shelter was giving up your tent and most belongings, and the maximum stay in the shelter was seven days. So, at the very best, one week later, you'd be back on the street with fewer possessions.

Michael: So, I'm going to give up the way that I sleep so that I can sleep somewhere for one fucking week.

Peter: Frankly, the fact that eight people accepted the offer is confusing to me. I want to be clear that there are many situations where people would prefer to be on the streets when compared to shelters. And not all of them are good reasons.

Michael: Yeah. 

Peter: Some of them are absolutely because of sobriety requirements. And that might not be because of pure addiction. It might because someone just wants to do drugs or doesn't give a shit. There's also a difference between an offer of a shelter bed and an offer of actual housing. I spoke with people who said anecdotally their experience is that if someone trusts that you are actually giving them a real offer of housing, they will accept it far more often than they'll accept a shelter bed.

Michael: Right.

Peter: Yeah. To just look at all of that and be like, “They don't even want help.” You weren't even offering help. You were offering to take their shit and give them a bed for a week.

Michael: It's funny how we're both going out of our way to be like, some homeless people are also like, pieces of shit. We don't want a thing where it's like the noble homeless and every single homeless person is like they lost their job and they fell out of housing. Some people are like, “Yeah, kind of suck,” and that's also fine. Those people should also be inside.

Peter: And it makes people on the left look naive sometimes to create a steel manned homeless person who's doing everything right, but still things aren't going great for them. That person exists. But if you present that image in these discussions, I think it allows people to brush off what you're saying, because you just come across like someone who's excessively naive.

Michael: Some people like doing meth because it's fun and they want to do it.

Peter: Right. And what makes us progressive is that we believe that those people should be the president. [Michael laughs] So what Shellenberger implies in the books is you clear the camps, but you provide shelter beds so that people have somewhere to go when you do, right? Makes sense. And the fact that San Francisco doesn't have enough shelter beds is a prominent part of his argument. The reason that I say that he considers shelter beds optional is because to date, San Francisco has not provided adequate shelter beds. And yet Shellenberger has been an outspoken advocate for clearing the camps.

Again, the camps have been like this big political fight in San Francisco because many residents, conservative interest groups and moderate democrats including San Francisco's Mayor London Breed, wants to see them cleared. But there is a problem for those people, which is that there's a case from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Federal Court of Appeals, Martin v. Boise, which says that you cannot legally clear camps unless the city has provided the residents of those camps with a place to go. I guess that means that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has not heard of a little thing called victimology. 


Peter: But the fighting on this in California is like, very high profile. Elon Musk called for a boycott of the law firm that did the pro bono work representing the homeless people here.

Michael: Yeah, God.

Peter: The mayor has said that San Francisco is being held hostage by the Homeless Coalition. Governor Gavin Newsom said the court rulings were preposterous. Shellenberger has taken to calling the encampments, homeless rape camps.

Michael: Oh, my God. 

Peter: Yeah. All of them quietly alighting the fact that legally they can clear the camps. They just need to provide the people that they displace with shelter. The reason I'm harping on this is because the central element of what Shellenberger is proposing is to jack up the cruelty to disincentivize people from living on the streets.

Michael: The purpose of these laws is the comfort of non-homeless people. And you can tell by this kind of shit where it's an afterthought, like, “Yeah, there's no shelters. Ma-ma-ma,” which, like, if you live next to a homeless encampment, for you, getting rid of the homeless encampment is priority number one, and it is an afterthought what happens to them afterwards.

Peter: Right.

Michael: But if you're actually a homeless person, if you get kicked out of a homeless encampment right, a cop comes, they typically rip up your tent so you can't reuse it. Oftentimes, they take all your shit, and then you're just there. You're just outside on the street with nowhere to go.

Peter: Shellenberger wants to break up the camps, but he knows that that only scatters people across the city. And that's why you need phase two of his plan, which is forcing large numbers of those homeless people into psychiatric hospitals.

Michael: Yeah. This is basically just like a return to the 1960s, isn't it? 

Peter: That's right. This is basically reversing the deinstitutionalization of the late 20th century and making it easier to involuntarily commit someone to a mental hospital. So little bit of history here. Prior to the midcentury, we had a wide array of people in psychiatric facilities. The conditions were awful. There was a series of abuse scandals that turned public sentiment against the institutions. And that, combined with the advent of antipsychotic medications and concerns about civil liberties that bubbled up in the 60s led to the deinstitutionalization movement.

The idea was that we would move away from these facilities and toward community-based resources. Now, of course, those resources were never adequately funded, and so we end up where we are today with a ton of untreated mental illness. Shellenberger harps on the fact that he's like liberals blame Reagan for this, but actually it wasn't really Reagan. It predates Reagan. There's some truth to that. Reagan didn't exactly make it easier to be poor in this country or to have untreated mental illness in this country. But deinstitutionalization predates Reagan. That's true.

Michael: This is a little bit like those people that say that the volcanoes were going to kill off the dinosaurs, if the asteroid hadn't hit, which my understanding is true, but also the asteroid did hit.

Peter: But I think one thing to keep in mind, and one thing that he points out is that deinstitutionalization was a progressive cause. Prior to the 1970s or so it was much, much easier for states to involuntarily commit people with mental health issues. Now it's much harder, and the person would need to be demonstrably dangerous to themselves or others. So, Shellenberger is advocating for rolling that back, though it's not entirely clear exactly what standard he's advocating for. But in the 1950s, you could be sent to a psychiatric facility for public drunkenness or drug addiction and then never see freedom for the rest of your life.

Michael: There's also a thing where there definitely are people on the street, I feel like, who are so disconnected from reality that they clearly need something, some care of the state, but not prison. Right now, we're mostly using jails and prisons as our mental health services, which just obviously isn't working right. I feel like the Shellenberger-type argument always rests on this idea that “It's too hard to do this in America,” this idea that nobody can be involuntarily committed. We have these systems in place, but they're also underfunded as well. A lot of hospitals I know in Washington state are already overprescribed with people like this, it's not just a matter of finally the progressive grip on the criminal justice system, finally needs to lift so we can start committing people. That's really not the barrier.

Peter: Well, here's the thing, is that when we actually had these systems, what was happening was that these people weren't actually receiving treatment. They were just functionally in prison with the actual difference being that they couldn't get out. It's not like they were sentenced to three years or something. They were just stuck in a facility until someone deemed them fit to leave. And often that never happened. But he's putting forward this purely theoretical policy argument here, where it's like, “Oh, we will do mental health but good this time.”

Michael: And also, then we're back to spending more money on it. This is what's always so weird to me about the discourse around this, is like, nobody wants to spend money on Housing First, or shelters or the stuff that we need to do, because it's like, “Oh, we're throwing money at people who don't deserve it.” But then imprisoning homeless people for sleeping on the street is also expensive. And potential lifetime commitment of people with schizophrenia is also very expensive. So, ultimately, we're spending fucking money. 

Peter: Very American to think that hurting people is priceless. You can't put a dollar figure on it.

Michael: Mastercard.

Peter: So, that's the book I do want to talk about, the postscript for Shellenberger. This book is like part of his attempt to run for governor in 2020. The failed recall of Gavin Newsom.

Micheal: Oh, yeah.

Peter: He is doing this while also being a COVID crank online. He has moved on to trans people.

Michael: Of course.

Peter: And was, of course, one of the people who Elon Musk tapped to publish the Twitter files, which I'm not going to explain on this podcast. 

Michael: Yeah. Jesus Christ. 

Peter: It's pretty good evidence that you are a fake independent journalist who's actually a reactionary freak.

Michael: Yeah. When you're getting, “Leaks from a billionaire” to [laughs] do its reactionary bidding.

Peter: Right. 

Michael: It's not you afflicting the comfortable. 

Peter: I don't think that his book is compelling, but it does read as effective propaganda to me. He is deep enough in the space that he can use the vocabulary of progressives and the academics on these issues. And that's how I think he got himself into this space where he's lauded on the right as a foremost expert in homelessness policy, when in fact he's just a guy who started reading about it and took an aggressive position, that’s it.

Michael: I think in the overall framing of this as a progressive issue, like how progressives ruined cities and then using homelessness as an example to the extent that there is anti-progressive case to make, I do think that progressives underestimate the extent to which this is acting as an engine of radicalization for people who live in cities.

Peter: I think the reality here is that progressives have not been able to cleanly articulate a satisfying answer to the homelessness question. You go to San Francisco, you see an encampment of people where there is open drug use, and it feels a little dangerous. Saying, “Well, we need to provide these people with housing,” is not a satisfying answer when the alternative is, we need to just clear these people out. One of those is very clearly, if you look at the data, an effective solution, and one of them is very clearly not. 

Michael: Totally. 

Peter: That's a real problem for progressives. I'm not sure that I know the solution to it, but that's why shit like this is so effective, because you look like a naive chump to a lot of people when you start talking about like, “Well, we need to help them.” 

Michael: Right. 

Peter: Right. 

Michael: I don't know other cities as well, but in Seattle, we're in this doom loop where the primary approach to homelessness is policing. It's all this punitive stuff. It's basically what Shellenberger wants. We're doing a ton of encampments. We don't have enough shelters. We do Housing First, but we're not funding it adequately, so there's not that many units. And then over and over again, we get these reactionary mayoral candidates who get into office going, it's time to stop being soft on homelessness.

Peter: Sort of parallels to the police funding argument. 

Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Peter: Where it's progressives want to defund the police and look at what a catastrophe their cities are. And it's like, “Okay, the police in every major city are extremely well funded.” So, if that's the solution, it would already be working. We are already doing the conservative thing in just about every major city on these issues.

Michael: I do feel like also there’s overall framing of how progressives ruin cities, I think assumes that there's some conservative alternative. And if conservatives had been running cities this whole time, we wouldn't have homelessness problems. But you could argue that the reason homelessness is so bad is because of conservative policies. It's like erosion of the safety net. 

Peter: Right. 

Michael: But then also, I just don't think that homelessness actually follows partisan lines all that well. I think there's just a bipartisan understanding that we shouldn't be giving any free stuff to homeless people.

Peter: There is severe misapprehension in the general population about what exactly liberal city’s policies toward homeless people are. The estimation of how far left the San Francisco City Council is, for example, is wildly off base. 

Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Peter: The reality is that the activists and scholars and whoever who are really all about building affordable housing and making it easier to build affordable housing and housing homeless people as a number one priority are a fringe in politics in major cities. Housing first is the stated approach of many major cities including San Francisco, but that doesn't mean that they're actually taking steps to facilitate it.

Michael: Years ago, I was writing an article on conspiracy theorists and I talk to this dude who's, like, super-duper far right QAnon Guy, and I was asking him, “Well, if you were president, what would you do with criminal justice stuff?” And he's like, “I'll tell you what, I would stop coddling black people.” I was like, “Is it your understanding that the criminal justice system of the United States coddles black people?” It's like, this is the factual universe that he is existing within. I feel like there's something similar on homeless people where it's like, we're way too nice to homeless people. It's like all of this stuff is based on this concept of homeless people as just, some group that just gets all these goodies and it just isn't fucking true.

Peter: You can see this in Shellenberger's discussion of victimology. The position has become that it's straight up easier to be black, to be a woman, to be trans, that liberal society caters to you if you are any of those things and it applies equally to homeless people. The fact that progressives might step in and be like, hmm, seems like you're in a shitty situation. Here are some benefits we can provide to help alleviate that, they see as an overall advantage. 

Micheal: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Peter: They're like wow, you're just giving resources to homeless people. I don't get resources.

Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Peter: All I get is a $400,000 PPP loan that I spent on six books. 

Michael: My mortgage interest forgiven every year, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Peter: It's so clearly nonsense, but it's something that I think Shellenberger is trying to articulate with his victimology analysis. I didn't even get into the criminal justice elements, but his whole argument there is basically that The New Jim Crow is wrong and that the actual driver of mass incarceration is not low-level drug offenses and racism, but just like an increase in violence in the black community. He's touching on real academic research. There are serious people who disagree with The New Jim Crow's analysis, but what he's doing is basically being like, you might think that the way that we're treating black people or homeless people is unfair, but actually it's extremely fair, and what we should be doing is maybe even treating them worse.

Michael: Right. 

Peter: It's just a slightly more serious version of I'd stop coddling black people or whatever [crosstalk] said to you.

Michael: Peter, it sounds like you're suggesting we do a whole bonus episode about how conservatism is actually a religion. Actually, if you think about it. 

Peter: [laughs]

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