Operating System of a Broken City

September 20, 2020 orc1428308415337 No comments exist

Silicon Valley is home to vast cultural diversity built on the overarching theme of Technology. Being involved in technical disciplines, many of us living here have an expectation that logic and reason factor into the operation of our local government. Thus, when we see problems in our community, we try getting involved – maybe dealing with City Hall. And we might find that our understanding of “logic” doesn’t seem to have a place there.

As versed as we are with technology, we tend to forget that our world is overlaid on the existing local culture, which in Silicon Valley was at one time primarily agrarian. Older residents speak fondly of the orchards that once covered the landscape. City cultures and governmental organizations developed to operate within and service that society. So maybe the way City Hall operates isn’t quite as we’d expect.

But as new industries and technologies arrived, more engineers, programmers, analysts, and physicists got involved in their community governments. They became part of City Councils and city staffs. So most city governments within the region evolved, and became more “logical” over the years, meeting the needs of the constituents of the day.

One didn’t.

Most of us recognize the “operating system” (OS) of a computer as the master control program that manages the hardware and software resources of the system, and provides interface services for user programs.

A computer OS is typically designed from the start with a specific emphasis. For example, it can be:

  • compact, nimble, and user-friendly – like Android on a smart phone
  • open-sourced, engineering-oriented, and open to improvement by sophisticated users – like Linux on a Raspberry Pi
  • proprietary and somewhat bloated, geared towards corporate interests and profits – like Windows on a PC.

In much the same way, city government has its own form of “city operating system” to manage the physical infrastructure and cultural resources of the City, providing interface services to the residents of the City. And like its computer analog, a City OS can vary from nimble and user-responsive to proprietary and exclusionary.

San Jose city government implements a masterfully bad City OS, one that is designed to encourage government bloat and is devoted to enriching a specific industry. Surprisingly, that favored industry is not the Tech industry.

What is that chosen industry? To answer that question, we need to ask another: What drives a city to become a major metropolitan area? Money, of course, figures centrally. But what do the inhabitants of the region get in return? Presumably, things like increased employment, improved roadways, greater cultural and entertainment access. So, the citizens give up some of their autonomy in exchange for the benefits, and the city government becomes a business.

What did it mean, in San Jose, to begin running the city strictly as a business? It’s straightforward:

All decisions are made solely with regard to increasing City Hall revenue.

Of course, on the face of it, that’s what you want. That’s capitalism at its finest. Right? Well, there’s a subtle twist here: the mandate City Hall gave itself is not to increase the wealth of the residents of the City, but rather the coffers of City Hall itself.

Since the 1950s, San Jose City Hall has implemented a policy where maximizing incoming revenue became the primary goal. This goal was to be achieved by growth, expansion through annexation, suburban sprawl, focal industries, etc.

So now we can get back to the original question. The focal industry that maximized cash flow: Construction. Why construction?

  • Spurs development in other areas of the economy (industrial, hospitality, entertainment, etc.)
  • Brings in permit fees
  • Creates justification to hire additional government employees (currently over 26,000 between City of San Jose and Santa Clara County, more than the next 15 top business employers combined)
  • Turns business owners into millionaires (for a select few large developers)
  • Creates jobs in the construction industry, a major force in swinging election votes

As the plan unfolded, a few side effects became clear.

  • It becomes more valuable to let buildings sit vacant and decay than it is to have tenants.
  • Residents are taxed to pay for construction that benefits neither them nor their community as a whole.
  • City workers are rewarded solely for increasing the number of requests they process, not on the outcome or the value of the undertaking.
  • City-funded projects are chosen for their ability to maximize expenditures, not to fix problems.

The arrival of Tech cast a new light on the Bay Area economic situation. No longer was Construction to be the primary driver of the economy. In fact, Tech promoted “smaller, cheaper, better”, quite the opposite of construction-driven development. Smaller cities all up and down the Peninsula and East Bay really got this message, and attracted vast numbers of Tech companies. But not San Jose.

Dealing with San Jose City Hall demonstrates why: it is mired in ’50s bureaucracy. Any attempt at logic results in sneers of derision. Nothing gets done unless you’ve got inside connections with City officials. So most astute Tech companies take their money, their business, their buildings, and their employees elsewhere – Fremont, Milpitas, Campbell – anywhere but San Jose.

Say a technically minded resident decides to get involved and make changes the way they taught us in Civics class – to go to community meetings, to go to Planning Commission and City Council meetings, to try to discuss topics logically and factually. That person will squander hundreds of hours of their 60-hr/week work schedule trying to make sense of the system, and will ultimately move away out of sheer frustration. Look around — how many icons of the Tech industry live in San Jose?

It’s a self-perpetuating system. City Hall will continue to drive away proportional representation by the more technical residents of the region, who are logical and realize they don’t have the time to waste. The bloated revenue-driven operating system will continue focusing on uncontrolled construction, building the kind of city that no one wants and then not having money to maintain it. And San Jose can continue to hold onto its title of “most-broken city.”

It’s clearly time to address the problematic City operating system. Is an upgrade sufficient, or is it time to make the leap to an entirely new OS?

Next Up: Low Tech San Jose


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