What went wrong in San Francisco

February 18, 2020, 2:07 PM UTC

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San Francisco, a real place, is the cultural and commercial heart of Silicon Valley, a made-up place. The former is a mess, even as the latter churns out unprecedented profits and scares the world with its concentration of power. Their ills are inextricably linked: Vast tech wealth has collided with political dysfunction to produce a horrifying state of affairs on the streets of a great American city.

I spent the last couple months stepping outside my lane as a business and technology journalist to investigate how things got so bad and what might be done about it. My article, “Can San Francisco be saved?” appears in the current issue of Fortune, alongside other looks at cities around the world.

It’s tough to summarize what’s wrong, but a few things are obvious. San Francisco hasn’t built enough homes to house the people who’ve come to fill all the jobs it has created. Because there isn’t enough housing, prices have skyrocketed, which is fine for most tech-industry workers and not so good for everyone else. Because it’s tough for working people to find a place to live, it’s really difficult for the working poor, the non-working poor, and those afflicted with mental health and other ailments.

There are solutions to these problems, such as building more housing and spending even more money on the least fortunate among us. But these solutions need political leadership and compromise, two things historically in short supply in San Francisco. Political factions squabble in this city dominated by what elsewhere in the country would be called left-wing liberals as much as Democrats and Republicans do on the national stage.

Since I finished this article, the mayor of San Francisco, London Breed, said she took a gift from the powerful former head of public works, a longtime bureaucrat who has been charged with corruption by the U.S. Attorney in San Francisco. (He paid more than $5,000 for the repair of her 18-year-old car.) Breed is a pro-business centrist by San Francisco standards, and her left-of-the-left, anti-development opponents already have pounced.

Also since my story went to press, I picked up, with serendipitous timing, a new book, “Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America,” by the New York Times economics reporter Conor Dougherty. I interviewed several of the people he writes about in this outstanding book. It is highly readable (a true feat for a book about housing policy). I’m a slow reader, and I read this book in a few days. I recommend it to anyone who wants to go deeper on this important topic.


This week also marks the release of Fortune’s 2020 Best Companies to Work For list. You’ll find many tech companies made the cut, including Ultimate Software, Cisco Systems, Workday, and Salesforce in the top 10.

Adam Lashinsky

Twitter: @adamlashinsky

Email: adam.lashinsky@fortune.com

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.


More contagion. The impact of the coronavirus is still unfolding. Apple on Monday warned that it would not meet its financial guidance for this quarter due to factory closures and reduced consumer shopping in China. "Work is starting to resume around the country, but we are experiencing a slower return to normal conditions than we had anticipated," Apple said. Also, Facebook cancelled its Global Marketing Summit in San Francisco next month due to the outbreak and IBM said it would not attend the long-running RSA cybersecurity conference in the same city. Meanwhile, organizers of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, already cancelled, vowed to return to the city to hold the gathering in 2021.

Attacking the big problems. In news of other calamities, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said he'll contribute $10 billion to help fight climate change. "This global initiative will fund scientists, activists, NGOs — any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world," he explained. In anti-Bezos news comes word that Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who funded the Amazon-criticizing effort called the “Free and Fair Markets Initiative,” is holding a fundraiser for another Bezos foe, President Trump, at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

Look to the western sky. Internet from space is getting real. SpaceX's Starlink service lofted 60 more satellites on Monday and now has about 300 in its constellation circling Earth in low orbit. CEO Elon Musk says that at 400 satellites, minimal broadband service could begin. Almost there!


For decades, companies have made software that interacts with software from other companies via triggers known as application programming interfaces, or APIs. But when Google used some APIs in its Android operating system that originated in Oracle's Java programming language, Oracle sued, citing copyright law. The Supreme Court gets the case on March 24 and Fortune's own Jeff John Roberts says one question is whether the simple data labels that make up APIs are even copyrightable at all.

Google and its allies...main argument is instead that the kind of APIs used by Google are ineligible for copyright because they represent an idea or a method—similar to a recipe or a math formula, which can’t be copyrighted. In support of this position, they point to a case from 1880 in which the Supreme Court ruled that a bookkeeper’s wife could not copyright a system of ledger headings in account books.

“It’s an oldie but goodie,” says law professor Pam Samuelson, who adds the argument will likely resonate with the justices because the Supreme Court pays close attention to its own precedents.


The Conversation: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella on how the tech industry can win back public trust By Andrew Nusca

Did the ‘techlash’ kill Alphabet’s city of the future? By Robert Hackett

Coronavirus recovery: Why it’s so hard for China’s factories to get back to work By Eamon Barrett

5 things Madewell’s CEO always packs when traveling By JP Mangalindan

When innovation doesn’t equal improvement By Sy Mukherjee

4 ways to get your resume noticed by companies like Google By Anne Fisher


Among the not-quite-early-adopters of electric cars: Bill Gates. The Microsoft co-founder was recently on the always excellent YouTube channel of Marques Brownlee and said he'd bought one of Porsche's new Taycan electric models. That apparently annoyed Tesla guy Elon Musk (who has also been interviewed by Brownlee). "My conversations with Gates have been underwhelming tbh," Musk tweeted.

Aaron Pressman

On Twitter: @ampressman

Email: aaron.pressman@fortune.com

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