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As someone who's family has been in the bay area for over a century I was disappointed the article didn't mention any of the old money families who've controlled SF politics for decades.

This article[0] mentions some, though not all of the families (The Aliotos aren't mentioned here for example). While I haven't fully kept up, I know in the 90s at least a quarter of the financial district was held by two families. They own a ridiculous amount of the city's most valuable real estate and getting into office without their approval seems impossible.

I've been wanting someone to do a deep dive on them forever but it never happens and any analysis that lacks them feels pretty disappointing.

[0] https://www.latimes.com/projects/la-pol-ca-gavin-newsom-san-...

If SF politics is really controlled by a wealthy cabal then why have they allowed the situation to deteriorate so much? What possible benefit could they derive from homelessness, dirty streets, rampant property crime, and a dysfunctional government? The wealthy people who control NYC politics seem less tolerant of such issues.

> If SF politics is really controlled by a wealthy cabal then why have they allowed the situation to deteriorate so much?

Because they can't influence supervisor elections or school board elections as well as they can elections for mayor. The reason why San Francisco mayors are always re-elected is because they're very middle of the road in terms of politics and risk tolerance. Activist policies are usually the product of the Board of Supervisors, the school board, the district attorney, or public initiative, all of which are completely independent of the mayor's office. Sometimes the mayor's office will try to head off policies by offering watered-downed versions as an alternative. This doesn't always work, but it does contribute to the sense that they share some of the more radical policy preferences.

If you don't believe that the mayor's office has been significantly more conservative than the other political centers of San Francisco, just look at the police department. However dysfunctional you think the police department, it's not because the mayor's office has ever appointed a far left, defund-the-police police chief that seemingly every liberal has been demanding for decades. Police chiefs are appointed by the mayor the same way the monied elite choose a mayor--someone who is middle of the road, will keep their head down, and keep things moving along as best they can amidst the fracas. And as you would expect, their performance always falls short because their job isn't to succeed, but to avoid failure.

In general the mayor's office is expected by the old money elite (and increasingly some of the new money elite, like Benioff) to be the caretaker of a city with often times very extreme and contradictory policy demands. They're expected to avoid controversy, blunt the extremists, negotiate (quietly!) among various interests (e.g. unions), and pick up the pieces when things fail.

> The wealthy people who control NYC politics seem less tolerant of such issues.

Maybe. But I tend to think that a more important factor is that NYC still has a larger working class. The upper middle class, which increasingly dominates San Francisco politically, is disconnected from the city. Their politics come from social media and national narratives. They're more focused on avoiding feeling guilty about drug addicts and the homeless than on actual results. That's why the policies keep getting pushed further and further left (far beyond what was ever demanded 10 years earlier) despite the lack of results.

The thing about the rich elite, especially old money, is that in many ways they're far more grounded than the middle classes, especially modern middle classes. If you own buildings or businesses, local politics matters immensely to you. No matter how conservative or liberal you are, what matters above all else is consistency and avoiding surprises. Consistency and security is critical because you're immobile. The same is true for the working classes. No matter how pissed you are at economic inequality, the last thing you need is the ground constantly shifting underneath your feet. Similar to old money, consistency and security is critical because you're immobile.

San Francisco has too few of the latter kinds of people. At the end of an election cycle, its votes that matter, not dollars. The result is that moderates, which are still quite powerful, are always playing defense rather than offense.

Activist politics are the product of the Board of Supervisors and the school board for the same reason that activist politics are more popular in the House than in the Senate: the boards are elected district-by-district, and don't need to tend to the views of larger masses of people. They answer to a small group of constituents, and that's it. If you have a small voter pool, being an outspoken, controversial activist helps (as long as you don't cross the specific lines your district cares about): it raises your profile because you're controversial, and since you don't need to please everyone, you're more free to say or promote ideas that many other people — who aren't in your district! — view as outrageous.

You don't really need cabals to explain it. And it's unclear to me what mechanism the cabals supposedly have to choose the mayor; why they'd choose London Breed over say, Angela Alioto (a member of the "old money elite"); why they can choose the mayor but failed to choose their desired DA in the same election cycle; etc.

The situation makes a case for a return to back room politics.

Where as long as you voted for your constituents' priority issues, you were free to strike deals on everything else.

Sunlight and transparency carry responsibility with them... and I'm not sure what we, the public, have done with the additional information (to wit, being outraged about everything, all the time) has been for the best of the entire system.

We don't look kindly on managers who micromanage their employees' work, and yet we're essentially doing the same thing to our politicians. Especially at the local level.

How are the monied elite able to select the mayor, yet unable to select the district attorney?

Go look into the even richer guy that funds the elections of SF's DA.

So they don't run the city, but they are highly influential stakeholders.

There’s more than one wealthy cabal. There’s the ultra rich power brokers like the Aliotos, Getty’s and then there’s the moderately wealthy people at the top of the government itself. Especially anyone associated with Willie Brown.

Government jobs are extremely lucrative, many pay six figures and opportunities to supplement with graft are plentiful. It’s a powerful club to be in and you’re potentially set for life. My spouse is a lifelong resident and remembers rushing to city hall with other hopefuls every time the city opened up applications.

The FBI is still working it’s way through the public works department with noted criminals like Mohammed Nuru and RoDBIgo Santos. I don’t really know what the Getty’s get out of playing kingmaker, but it’s pretty obvious what Willie Brown et all get out of neglecting the city and funneling money as they see fit.

>Government jobs are extremely lucrative, many pay six figures and opportunities to supplement with graft are plentiful. It’s a powerful club to be in and you’re potentially set for life. My spouse is a lifelong resident and remembers rushing to city hall with other hopefuls every time the city opened up applications.

Six figures in SF is literally nothing: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-44725026

Not if you have prop 13 or rent control (like the majority of residents of SF).

I think your imagery paints an image of a much more organized group than exists.

There are probably at least two dozen families, each of which has a few powerful members. Getting them all to agree on anything besides their own self-interest of maintaining their own wealth and power is quite hard.

But the city government has delivered very well on that one shared interest of theirs. They own a lot of property and property values are way up over the past few decades.

Why assume that the ultra wealthy should care about the lesser citizens? What about all the rampant looting in NYC? I don't think they cared then.

Maybe many of them just aren't pro American. In almost every other country the media/politics carefully try to project some national pride and sense of unity; it's actually the opposite here in the US isn't it?

Actually the US is not exceptional in that regard. Media and politicians sometimes use patriotic and popular sentiment (usually empty gestures like sport) to boost their popularity, but around the world in most western countries the tone is increasingly that they should be ashamed of themselves, of their original (secular) sin, and by no means should they take any pride or celebration in their society or its achievements.

I guess the problem is, if you're interested in history, you often do find there's lots to be proud of in a nation's past, but it's usually the precise opposite of the people you can find statues of. So when you're proud of your nations past, what past? I think there's a lot of admirable stuff in british history, for example, but the streets and statues generally memorialize a bunch of really shitty people.

I guess that's not the problem. If you're interested in history there is lots of good and amazing achievements.

If you do or are supposed to feel some guilt or sorrow or shame for the bad, then you could feel some pride or happiness or thankfulness for the good.

That's a disputed take.

Here in France we only just now had a president recognizing our role in the Rwanda genocide, which happened 20 years ago.

Overall I'm seeing a lot more people calling for being proud of our nation and moving past inconvenient historical details than self-flagellation.

Macron is an exception in how much he stands for the "duty to memory" thing. Most people are fine believing their country can do nothing wrong.

That's not what I was talking about. Of course governments are not going to easily admit their own crimes and incompetence and failures -- the same as in the US they don't admit their failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria etc for example.

But they absolutely do love to push the moral and economic burden for such things on to the common person.

And of course people are proud of their country and history and societies because that's normal healthy part of the human condition. This behavior and thought is increasingly shamed and bullied though.

Simple: NIMBY. There are places they can live where they don't have to dip their toes into the literal shit. And they keep the "riff-raff" out with harsh NIMBY-ism.

You have Pacific Heights, Presidio/Richmond (especially where Feinsteins, Pelosis, Cockers, Dorseys, etc. live) as well as Marin and Hillsborough, et al.

They can let it happen because they can create their own little bubble world and never interact with "the deplorables".

I grew up in the Bay Area and went to "good schools" with these peoples' children so I've seen them up-close-and-personal. They are not nice people.

New Yorkers in my experience are far more practical and "based" compared to Western large blue cities.

SF has extremely high land values and the value of the land isn't going down. If you bought land 50 years ago you became rich off the work of other people.

Property taxes have been frozen which basically just throws more money into their throats.

I think a story about an ultra wealthy ruling class that stands behind the public political class is not going to get published in mainstream outlets. I mean it will if it's about Russia or China or historical periods like "the Gilded Age", but I guess you don't see it talked about for modern day West.

Well, I think there are some good reasons for that. It's traditionally been an antisemetic trope, and often smoothly blends into antisemitism (Rothschilds, etc). It's also one of those things where the evidence is by necessity weak, and you really can't write weakly-evidenced critical articles about rich people without getting sued.

Personally, I'm very glad that this isn't a mainstream way of understanding problems. Rich people are kind of fungible, in that they usually don't want to pay taxes, but other than that usually have about the same range of politics as everybody else. Focusing on individual malfeasance tends to protect dysfunctional systems.

> about the same range of politics as everybody else

We're not talking about "rich people", that's fine and well. We're talking about classes with .5B+ levels of wealth, where it's not about subscribing to politics, it's about literally having the ability to influence politics, should they wish to. Fyi every country and civilization, ever, has had powerful interest groups that seek to control politics to further secure their position and interests. This is not surprising to anyone that this exists. Maybe the main difference today is that in this era of shell companies and the anonymity that comes with mass, global societies, it's able to be less public than before, e.g. way less public than when societies actually had open aristocracies not that long ago.

Especially not the Economist.

I mean they spend paragraphs bashing the 'leftie' DA before admitting the problem is actually the police being rubbish.

I knew they were biased, but the article seems especially bad.

Not exactly surprising since The Economist is owned by the ultra wealthy ruling class.


This has to do with collusion between the ultra wealthy class, the media class, and the political class.

Upsetting super wealthy people too much will get you the gawker treatment, or something similarly debilitating.

Except the aliotos cannot get elected. I'm happy to believe in conspiracies but if they control so much as you say, why can't they get their own elected.

Elected officials are a lot like C-suite: they run the company, but they don't own it. Owners sit on the board and rarely seek publicity.

Except Angela alioto has run unsuccessfully for mayor multiple times. The family seeks political power but does not get it. This is just ungrounded conspiracy

Just like some board members like to get hands dirty and run things themselves. Musk is this type. But that's an exception.

Oh okay so basically your argument is 'my premise is certainly true and the counter example you provided is simply an exception that I didn't mention'

Being a member of one of those families is no guarantee that you will be supported in search for office by the wider group or even your own family.

My impression is the prevailing opinion within the families should not be attempting to hold office directly and that Angela's bid was not widely supported even by many of her relatives, let alone the wider group we're discussing.

So who is the alioto power broker if not the child of the last prominent alioto, Sam alioto? If the 'family' has power as a single unit, who is in charge. This is baseless conspiracy meant to distract from the real people who control the occupant of the office of mayor .. the residents of San Francisco

Do they try to get elected? why would you need to get elected when you can control any candidate, or control things regardless of who is in power???

Yes. Angela alioto, daughter of ex mayor Sam alioto has campaigned as a conservative democrat and loses spectacularly. There is no basis to claim they run the city. This is just mindless conspiracy.

I think you are confused about what upper class (old money) is. They don't work. They do charity and art. Politicians work for them.

Except, the aliotos run unsuccessfully for office. Claiming the politicians work for them is just conspiracy. Clearly they do not exert complete control in the way you claim.

I find the Economist has fairly shallow "analysis" if you can even call what they do analysis. So I am disappointed but not surprised that they missed on the real story.

The Economist is as useful in terms about learning about the world as reading headlines.

I’m sorry you’re getting downvoted but as someone who has subscribed to The Economist for 20+ years now, I feel the same way as you do.

In areas that are on the periphery, their coverage feels shallow and unsatisfying. I would imagine that the writers, who are some of the best in business, are doing their research but trying to make the content accessible. I can’t fault them for that. However, in this day and age, I would expect them to offer more depth.

You’re not wrong but you also miss the point. I subscribe to both the Economist, a newspaper that covers a range of topics and Stratechery, a newsletter that specialises in tech.

On any tech topic Stratechery dives in deep, analysing the incentives, actions and outcomes of each player. Every quarterly report from the big tech companies is analysed. The author also has the courage to make predictions, many of which turn out to be true. It’s worth the money in my book.

The Economist also covers tech topics but at a high level, and for an audience that isn’t tech inclined. Take for example, this gem of an article - Why Companies Struggle With Recalcitrant IT (https://www.economist.com/business/2020/07/18/why-companies-...). For a layman it’s a great intro on software is always delayed and over budget. For those of us who work in IT, it’s all obvious stuff.

A person familiar with IT might say “go deeper, talk about other issues”. In fact, I did just that. I contacted the author and pointed out a couple of difficulties in software that increase complexity, like dependency management. The author was aware of this already but chose not to add this for the sake of keeping the article a manageable length [1].

That’s what the Economist does - covers a wide range of topics, while not assuming the reader is knowledgeable about any of it. Even though finance focussed newspaper, they painstakingly explain every term before they use it. But these two constraints - covering breadth and not assuming knowledge mean there is a limit to how deep they can go on any topic.

If you find a newspaper that analyses every topic in the world to your desired level of detail, please let us know. Also, if the newspaper isn’t staffed by aspiring fiction writers gratifying themselves by writing impossibly large “long reads”, that would be even better.


[1] - their response to my letter :

Dear nindalf,

Thank you for your letter. You're right, of course - I've always thought it's a bit like an ancient city like Istanbul, with modern buildings sitting on top of layers of old architecture that's only half-mapped and whose builders are long forgotten. Unfortunately there wasn't space to get too evocative in the piece itself.

I've forwarded your letter for publication, though, because it's an important point.


Tim Cross

Technology Editor

The Economist

Yeah, I haven't heard of that, but it seems like this kind of corruption is the most possible explanation.

Possibly, but I don't think its required.

The Irvine Company is very similar in Southern California. It seems like they own everything when you want office real estate.

So, it's corruption, right?

Well, except that if you talk to any contractors (like your internet provider installer) you find that they love The Irvine Company because there is someone who has a little bit of competence for them to talk to when they need to. As opposed to every other real estate company that seems to be staffed by brain-damaged monkeys.

So, you can posit corruption. Or, you can posit that real estate management is one of those markets that tends toward monopoly because you can amortize the costs more effectively the more properties you own.

To add further color to this, the Irvine Company benefits enormously from Prop 13. This law guarantees that once you hold property for long enough, your tax burden will be so much lower than everyone else you have a cost advantage that newcomers will not be able to match. So the current state law favors older companies over new ones.

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1978_California_Proposition_13

Your tax burden would stay the same, relative to future buyers, if prices stay flat. At which some point, they're bound to plateau. How many people or institutions will buy single family homes once they're $10 million each, but the median household income is still somewhere around $100k? It's a subtle point, but the benefits of Prop 13 aren't a function of time, they're a function of appreciation. It just so happens to be the decades following Prop 13 came with great price appreciation, some of that attributable to Prop 13 itself, but most of it attributable to local rule of land use policy.

I think inflationary monetary policy (a good thing) more or less guarantees that in dollar terms (the thing that matters for prop 13) prices will go up every year. I think prop c does allow for some price adjustment for inflation, but it has a crazily low cap

Property taxes can go up 2% per year. That's reasonable from an inflation perspective if you are just living there. (Supposedly inflation has been that low for a long time, but doesn't feel like it in real cost of living)

I think you need to defend your claim that inflationary monetary policy is a good thing. How is it good for the residents of a country?

I mean to the best of my knowledge basically all economists think it is, but beyond that imagine a world where we had stagnation or worse deflation. You would have much less of an incentive to invest money rather than just keep it in the bank.

Well, the corruption comes in when they start influencing politics, and also when they use their monopoly in shady ways to evict people and such. I agree it's problem regardless of corruption.

Land is already a monopoly in its own right. There is no real estate without a monopoly even if it is a tiny one.

There you have it. Why is San Francisco’s city government so dysfunctional? Because no matter how bad it gets and how much liberal policies fail, voters can convince themselves that the problem is “moneyed elites” and “not enough liberalism.” Just amazing.

It is kind of ironic, isn't it? These days Tucker Carlson talks about pardoning Assange, the deep state and that house prices in SF are too high for the middle class. Literally Noam Chomsky could be saying the same things.

But people still believe that Republicans will take away your freedoms and Democrats will solve everything (I don't believe either will solve much).

The Republicans are actively eroding voting rights around the country (see Texas) and actually tried to annul the last election. Gee, I wonder why people believe that.

"Erode" compared to what? Texas's voting laws are still vastly more loosey goosey compared to voting in France. The Netherlands didn't even have mail in voting for the elderly last year. Most European countries have very limited early voting compared to even the "restrictive" new Texas rules.

Voting rules should instill confidence in elections among people who are low information and don't trust the other side. You can't build an election system on telling the other side "trust us" and "you can't prove bad things happened." And elections should be decided quickly and decisively, again to foster faith in the system. The NYC Democratic Primary was a shit show in this regard.

Look at how they do voting in Taiwain--we should do it that way too: https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/3855762

Democrats tried to "annul" the 2004 and 2016 elections too. They had Congressional hearings over "voter fraud" in Ohio, based on the supposed mismatch between exit polls and the final results. (And that was with a 2 point margin for Bush, vastly bigger than the ones at issue in 2020.)

America is the only first world democracy that doesn't require stringent identity verification to vote or acquire your ballot for mail-in, etc.

I read the article last night. I lived there from '98-'01, during a somewhat different cultural moment, in the Willie Brown era. It was if anything more corrupt and dysfunctional. The music writer Bill Wyman wrote a good article on this back in 1999, which probably still holds up:


I don't think there's that much ideology to it. The place is corrupt and dysfunctional because it's conditioned itself to be corrupt and dysfunctional. Brownback's Kansas government had similar problems; same in Ohio.

Well, it could be true, but not necessarily in a right wing vs left wing sense. People with stupid amounts of money playing stupid political games, propping up people who have no business being in political leadership but are funded to be “our person in office” with some specific agenda but no real attention to the actual roles (buying authority but not desiring or able to actually manage). I don’t know, sounds a lot like USA in the Middle East.

The word you're looking for is progressivism, not liberalism. American liberalism is just progressivism wearing liberalism as a skinsuit.

Fair enough. I’m a liberal if by that you mean “ACA is a good idea.” “Let’s have massive tent camps of homeless people” is where you lose me.

Many social problems in west coast cities are self-inflicted but there's also the 9th circuit's Martin v. Boise decision (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_v._Boise); it prevents criminalizing public camping unless there's shelter space for everyone. This is effectively impossible given the number of homeless people so we're stuck with the encampments.

Are Pritzkers involved in "SF management"? They manage Illinois and Chicago in particular, and the politics style is similar to that in SF.

Which are these two rich families who controlled a fourth of FiDi in the 90s?

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