Strong words, from Elon Musk’s tweets. What’s the big deal, readers might ask. The man is a compulsive tweeter and an equally compulsive provoker. The big deal is that Musk’s musings on apocalypse and Hollywood horror tropes were aimed at an American city that for most of the world is 21st century’s El Dorado – San Francisco, Twitter (now X) and global tech’s HQ. SF, as it is inevitably acronymised in America, where acronymising is a reflex cultural habit, conjures up visions of cutting-edge computing, dressed-down ultra-rich tech bosses, hip geeks, eye-wateringly expensive restaurants with superfoods on their menu, and, for those with a political-sociological bent of mind, a supercool liberal culture, an inheritance of the times the city was the global epicentre of flower power. Now, SF is the poster city of urban decline in America.

US media is awash with accounts of SF’s horrors – an epidemic of street crime, open-air drug use, zombie-like addicts looking for their next fix, empty, ghostly office towers and stores, and a flood of homeless people. So, Musk, this time, was on the ball. Thousands of San Franciscans, on the other hand, are on fentanyl, a synthetic drug that gives a short-lived, powerful high.

A Financial Times feature on SF quotes a resident, “Flower power kids came here in the ’70s to rebel against their parents… Now, kids come here to do fentanyl.” When any city gets walloped as hard as SF has been with a drug-crime-homelessness problem, four things happen – the rich leave, the white collars try to stay away from the many trouble spots, stores and offices catering to these well-off classes lose business, and the ranks of the desperate poor swell. Jeff Bezos’s Whole Foods, which sells lyrically labelled, pricey grub to the wealthy, shut its SF store. American luxury retail chainNordstrom also left the city.

Per the FT feature, 2,500 businesses have left downtown SF since March 2020. The March 2020 cut-off is significant – that’s when Covid lockdowns hit most of the world’s cities, including SF. But, as American commentators have noted, other cities recovered and went past pre-pandemic economic activity levels. SF hasn’t. Perhaps, being the HQ of tech hit SF hard.

Pandemic-time remote tech work sort of got institutionalised and office spaces remained vacant even when the worst of Covid was over. Plus, tech companies ruthlessly downsized workforce as the pandemic-induced global demand boom for B2C and B2B tech services subsided.

Other liberals point to structural inequalities like the white-black income divide, the ‘heartless’ meritocracy of tech, and the wider American problem of an economic system ‘designed’ to create deep pockets of poverty. The last has been explored in depth by two American academics, Mark Robert Rank (The Poverty Paradox) and Mathew Desmond (Poverty, By America). Their blame list includes: Government tax giveaways that mostly favour the better-off Big companies subcontracting work to staffing agencies that offer low pay and no benefits to workers.

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