Solutionism Reigns in Berkeley

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday March 30, 2011 - 09:42:00 AM

When I was toiling in the high tech vineyards in the go-go 90s, the buzz word (the successor to the 60s “plastics”) was “solutions”. Everyone was selling solutions—no one cared much about problems. That mentality is still around, even though many solutions which are tried fail because the problems never materialize as anticipated.

Solutionism is alive and well in Berkeley today, as always more than a few beats behind the measure in reflecting social trends. Last night’s Berkeley City Council meeting illustrated how the process operates.

For example, take the current push to convert industrial space in West Berkeley to high tech office-oriented developments, spearheaded by a collusion between the moribund Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, the big West Berkeley property owners and the aging pols whose campaigns they’ve funded—with the whole process orchestrated by the city’s clueless Economic Development and Planning Departments. Another act in this on-going soap opera played out at the meeting. 

Do the bureaucrats have data supporting their contention that Berkeley needs more big office buildings on the West Side? Well, no.  

In fact, if anyone here looked at data on real estate trends in the Bay Area, which evidently they don’t, they might have seen the chart headlined “More Tech Jobs in Less Space”, which is derived from Employment Development Department figures, reported in recent articles in the San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere. Here’s the gist of it, excerpted from the Chronicle account: 

“…as tech jobs have multiplied, their real estate footprint has fallen. Where tech companies occupied 18.3 percent of San Francisco office space in 2000, they occupy just 9.3 percent today... 

“That's one reason so many offices in San Francisco remain vacant. At the end of 2010, 17.1 percent of the city's office space sat vacant… up from 14.7 percent in the first quarter of 2009… 

“In 2000, tech companies leased an average of 325 square feet per employee. Today that number has fallen to 175.” 

But if we build it, they will come. Sure they will. 

And over-building in West Berkeley is not the only solution around here which is disconnected from the problem it purports to solve.  

Take Bus Rapid Transit. If fully implemented as proposed, it might shave twenty minutes off the trip from San Leandro to Sather Gate. But unless the university adopts a San-Leandro-only hiring policy, there will still be a lot of U.C. Berkeley workers commuting through the tunnel past my house on Ashby every day. 

Meanwhile, local bus service in the East Bay shrinks daily. But this doesn’t deter speculators from building apartments downtown in the vain hope that fantasy residents will give up their cars in favor of fantasy buses which will never arrive. Study after study shows that such apartments are chosen by people who are already non-drivers, but making these apartments available never converts drivers to transit users. 

Mass transit is widely hyped as the solution to global warming even as transit options disappear. Thirty years ago my children could safely take one of several daily Greyhound busses from the Oakland Greyhound terminal to visit their grandparents in Santa Cruz—today the number of buses has been drastically reduced and safety is much more doubtful, so my Santa Cruz grandchildren can’t take the bus up here to visit me.  

Or how about the sit/lie laws, soon to be another Chamber of Commerce promotion which the Berkeley City Council majority is expected to endorse? This is supposed to copy the San Francisco ordinance approved by voters in November—but that’s been shown to be a dismal failure. There are still lots of homeless people in The City, many of them panhandlers—the only difference is that sometimes they stand up to beg instead of sitting down.  

Sit/lie ordinances are a solution, yes, but not The Solution to social problems which are much more complicated than such laws acknowledge. Never mind—we’ll probably get the same sort of useless and annoying ordinance in Berkeley soon. Adequate housing coupled with effective support services are a better solution to the real problems, but we prefer simple solutions, don’t we? 

And finally, there’s the very serious problem which is wrongly perceived as being “guns at Berkeley High”, discussed yesterday at great length on the Chronicle’s Berkeley Blog, (which repeats entries originating at berkeleyside.com). Almost all of the proffered solutions in the readers’ comments focused on what to do at the high school—build a wall around the campus, use metal detectors, ban pot smoking for minors, move to Orinda, don’t accept transfer students with families in Oakland or Richmond, fund charter schools, etc. etc.—and almost all ignored the real problem, which is that an all too high percentage of males in their teens and twenties are caught up in a culture of violence abetted by easy access to guns. Girls aren’t immune, but it’s the boys who are really affected, and it’s not just at school.  

Yes, having guns on school grounds is a flagrant and disturbing manifestation of the problem, but it’s a symptom, not a cause. In case no one’s noticed, the victims are everywhere. Many of them are minority kids, but not all.  

We’ve had young men murdered in broad daylight in cold blood in front of a barber shop on Sacramento. Just recently a Berkeley-raised young father was shot in the back at his own home on Blake Street, and before that a budding musician from Berkeley died in front of a relative’s house in Richmond. Another Berkeley-bred young man (White, this time, in case it’s important to you) was just convicted of stabbing a fraternity boy in a pointless dispute. And we’re worried about panhandlers downtown? 

A friend whose younger brother goes to Berkeley High asked him what he knew about what was going down among youths in Berkeley and neighboring towns. “I know too much”, he told her, “and you don’t want to know about it.” He’s a good kid, not in trouble as far as his family knows. But even the good kids know that trouble is everywhere around them.  

Part of the problem seems to be feuds between groups, popularly referred to as gangs but often not nearly that organized. A non-solution “solution” is the currently popular stratagem of banning lists of individuals thought to be gang members from certain geographical areas—as residents of adjoining areas in Oakland will tell you, that just moves the problem around.  

Another obvious partial cause of such problems is the consistently higher unemployment rate for people of color, especially for African-American males. A two-to-one discrepancy between Black and White unemployment rates has been a fact of life at least since 1973. So chances are that many fathers and grandfathers of today’s African-American young men have not had steady jobs either.  

In today’s economy, those numbers translate to at least a 15% unemployment rate for all Blacks, as a group, and it’s much worse for young Black males. One estimate is that 25% of them will never get steady jobs. Some of them will end up begging on the street, and others will go to prison. According to the Harvard Civil Rights Project, 60% of African American males who do not finish high school will end up in prison by the time they are in their thirties. 

Young men of any race who don’t see an achievable path to economic self-sufficiency in their future are apt to turn to dangerous hustles, often involving drugs, as a way of making money. That’s the underlying problem, and metal detectors at every entrance to the Berkeley High campus won’t solve the problem, it will just move the would-be bad actors elsewhere, probably not far away, and make the school more unpleasant for everyone else.  

Is there a solution, then? No easy one that I can see. It will do no good for school administrators and well-meaning parents and blog commentators to pretend that a host of half-measures represent progress, when the problem is much bigger than the school community can resolve, extending well beyond the Berkeley High campus. 

But that’s the nature of the solutions-first, problems-later mindset, sad to say. We’d all be better off if we’d stop and think what problem we’re trying to solve before we throw out a lot of half-baked notions that don’t work. Hard to do, of course. 

For a graphic illustration of what’s wrong, take a look online at the Berkeley City Council’s discussion of changes to West Berkeley zoning last night, tedious as that might seem. The mantra of the council majority, articulated, if that’s the right word, by Councilmember Wozniak: “We’ve got to create some new jobs.” And they actually seemed to believe the proposed zoning changes would do just that. 

It was Councilmember Anderson’s finest hour. He said that he doubted that new jobs for his constituents would come from the proposed re-zoning. Preaching to mostly deaf ears among his colleagues, he expressed the fear that conversion of space now used for warehouses to R&D sites would transfer wealth to the well-educated and well-off while doing nothing for those young men looking for a future. He noted that West Berkeley already has a lot of good blue-and-green collar jobs for ordinary workers, and those might be lost if permitted land uses in the area were shifted to promote speculative upscale ventures.  

Councilmember Maio, as is her habit, said that she felt his pain, but she voted with the majority in the end as usual. Councilmembers Worthington and Arreguin made a substitute motion to support the West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies’ compromise proposal to limit conversion, but it was roundly defeated..  

All of the other councilmembers voted enthusiastically for unlimited conversion in key zones, albeit with a minor quibble asking for a progress report after 50,000 square feet had been converted. Maio did ask for a report on how many jobs, and what kind, would be “created” by the altered zoning, but planning staff doubted that this could be provided. 

You can be sure, however, as Anderson pointed out, there will be few new jobs in the pipeline for the people who really need them as a result of the proposed changes.  

At the end of the discussion, the majority councilmembers launched into a rousing rendition of the old Joe Hill favorite: 

“You will eat, by and by, 

In that glorious land above the sky; 

Work and pray, live on hay, 

You'll get pie in the sky when you die. 

Okay, I made that part up. But all the rest of it actually happened—watch the council meeting online and see for yourself why this country is in trouble.