With invaluable assistance from the NPIC, tech has been on a decades-long mission to assume the reins of power in municipal governments through turning over the electorate and privatizing public services. A recent opinion piece by San Francisco treasurer José Cisneros provides an excellent opportunity to see how tech and the NPIC leverage city officials and long-existing problems to consume city budget while promoting themselves as municipal saviors deserving of more praise, power and money.
Cisneros’ column is ahistorical before he finishes the headline. Saying San Francisco “has become” a predatory government insinuates it is a recent condition, instead of one dating back to when this land was violently seized from the Ohlone people. City Hall has further honed its predatory ways since then, so to say San Francisco “has become” predatory indicates Cisneros hasn’t the first intention of discussing this with anything approaching intellectual honesty.
Sure enough, the first sentence of his column awkwardly name checks Michael Brown and then immediately pivots into the effects of predatory municipal fines in Ferguson; fines the Justice Department found intentionally targeted Black residents. Later in his column, Cisneros dismisses these premeditated racist motivations, calling this violent method of locking Black people into cycles of poverty an “insidious, unintended impact.” All this rhetoric sets up the issue of predatory municipal fines as a vague, amorphous blob of a problem that isn’t really anyone’s fault or anything; it just needs a solution. A solution other than the obvious choice of abolishing predatory fines altogether.
Despite the fact that predatory fines have been an ongoing evil in San Francisco, Cisneros has only now become “increasingly uncomfortable” with these issues. The impetus for his growing discomfort appears to be the “emerging research” of Rourke O’Brien, currently Assistant Professor of Public Affairs at University of Wisconsin–Madison and formerly a Senior Policy Advisor for the US Department of the Treasury as well as Research Fellow and Policy Analyst at the New America Foundation. O’Brien’s report is brief with nothing revelatory, especially not to a city treasurer. Curious that this would be what set Cisneros in motion, as opposed to centuries of evidence.
Or maybe not that curious at all. Halfway through his column, Cisneros pitches a solution to predatory fines: the Financial Justice Project. The same Financial Justice Project mentioned in the title of O’Brien’s “emerging research.” He goes on to list the “hard questions” the project will confront:
What is the objective we’re trying to achieve with each fee and fine? Is there a more effective, non-monetary way to achieve that goal? Is the fine or fee in line with people’s ability to pay it? Or are they falling hardest on low-income people or people of color? My office is staffing a fines and fees task force that will recommend reforms to the mayor and the Board of Supervisors.
As previously stated, the objective of predatory fees and fines is to ensure disenfranchised Black people remain so by trapping them in concurrent cycles of poverty. Predatory fines obviously “fall hardest” on “low-income people or people of color” and seeking a “more effective, non-monetary” method of doing this is every bit as violent. Even if this project were to find worthy solutions, they would only be recommendations to the mayor and Board of Supervisors, neither of whom would be under any obligation to go further with them.
So why all the fuss over a non-binding project that will accomplish little more than chewing through city budget? A cursory glance of the Financial Justice Project’s staff reveals more going on than advertised. The Project’s About Us page lists only one person, Project Director Anne Stuhldreher, formerly a Senior Policy Advisor to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the recipient of Social Entrepreneur of the Year from the Center for Venture Philanthropy of Sand Hill Road. Stuhldreher is currently a fellow with New America CA, formerly the New America Foundation, the same nonprofit that employed Rourke O’Brien, whose “emerging research” led to Cisneros’ awakening conscience.
Digging deeper into New America, specifically New America CA, cuts to the heart of what this is all about. Google’s Eric Schmidt is on the Board of Directors of the main New America org, and New America CA’s Advisory Counsel is filled with representatives of tech companies such as Google and LinkedIn, as well as a senior partner from McKinsey & Company, a cultish management consulting firm whose alumni include Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Major funders of New America include Silicon Valley, Wall Street and the United States government.
Welcome to tech-NPIC central. Tech’s elite, mingling with the federal government, while Wall Street and a legion of nonprofits sit idly by and wait to be of use. San Francisco is also tech-NPIC central, so of course a fellow from New America CA would be chosen Director of City Hall’s pioneering Financial Justice Project. This allows tech to directly influence predatory municipal-fine “reform” while maintaining enough distance to avoid the appearance of any involvement at all. Silicon Valley’s replacement for predatory payday loans was recently exposed for “deceptive practices” and there is absolutely no reason to believe their predatory-fine reform won’t be equally deceptive and exploitative.
This is the tech-NPIC union at its most basic; tech funds nonprofits to act as its surrogate in affecting both municipal policy and which politicians carry out that policy. To the casual eye, it all appears perfectly ordinary; benevolently named nonprofits intertwined with city government is business as usual in San Francisco. Cisneros ends his column by saying Trump’s election as president demands San Francisco “embrace the best” of “the epicenter of the new economy,” meaning tech. Silicon Valley’s “best” are every bit as hateful, bigoted and violent as Trump, though, and granting them increasing control over solving existing social problems is only fleeing the frying pan for the comfort of the fire.