Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The hideous "Salesforce Transit Center" as a metaphor for neoliberalism

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

If you need a good metaphor for the ravaging effects of neoliberalism, you can hardly do better than the aforementioned debate published in the San Francisco Chronicle and the related online journal SFGate over selling off pieces of artwork in public museums in order to help keep the museums open without having to raise the admission prices to levels higher than they already are (see "Transforming everyone and everything into commodities: arguments that museums should sell off their art expose the self-devouring rot at the heart of neoliberalism").

However, if the image of selling off (and thus privatizing) museum pieces does not convey the self-devouring rot at the heart of neoliberalism strongly enough for you (along with the fact, revealed in the above-linked blog post, that it was actually a neoliberal professor in the school of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley who argued the position that selling off artwork is a terrific idea, which is ironic given the fact that when the University of California was established in 1868, its founding charter established the goal of providing education free of tuition to all qualified attendees who are residents of the state of California [see section 14], a vision which was upended with the advent of neoliberalism in California under a certain governor who would later go on to implement similar policies nationwide as president) another perfect illustration has recently arisen in San Francisco, with the discovery of alleged cracks in the main support beams of the newly-opened "Transbay Transit Center," causing it to be closed until a strategy for repair can be implemented.

As a metaphor for the woeful state of public infrastructure in the united states under neoliberalism during the 21st century, this predicament would be hard to top -- but the symbolism is even better than that because the actual name of this public-transit center (as can be seen in the image above) is the "Salesforce Transit Center," named after the publicly-traded corporation, which contributed some money to the project to revamp the previous transit center (which was  damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and is only now being completely repaired and refurbished). 

Apparently, the public funding for the project was not sufficient or the temptation to sell off the naming rights to the new landmark was too great for the officials in charge, so in exchange for some corporate donations the transit hub envisioned as the new heart of the (woefully inadequate) public transportation system in San Francisco will henceforth be emblazoned with a corporate identity. A more fitting metaphor for the state of the infrastructure in the neoliberal united states (beginning in earnest with the election of Ronald Reagan as governor of California, appropriately enough) would be difficult to imagine. 

The fact that the newly-opened center has now been abruptly closed-down due to cracks found in two central support beams is so fitting that, if the cracks were not actually real, someone would have had to invent them and broadcast the story to the public, just to perfect the metaphor.

Indeed, this article from yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle purports to show one of the cracks in the central steel beam, although despite the fact that I graduated from our nation's first engineering school, I myself would be hard-pressed to actually point out the insidious cracks themselves, and the photographs certainly do not label them (image included below, so that readers can do some building inspection for yourselves):  

I'm guessing that the crack in question can be seen snaking down from the right-angle intersection in the grey-colored support structures seen on the left-hand edge of the photograph as you face the image, but that's just a guess because the image is not exactly self-explanatory, and as mentioned the Chronicle itself provides no additional insight (their editors may have been too uncertain to hazard a guess either).

Of course, I'm certain that the cracks in the central beams are real, because later in the same story the Chronicle provides two photographs, each with a caption that tells us what is taking place: "construction crews corona off a section of the third-level bus terminal" inside the damaged transit center (see below). 

I personally have never heard of an engineering operation which involves the need to "corona off" a section of anything, although when I was in the 82nd Airborne Division we did a lot of training for operations known as "cordon and search," which involved "cordoning-off" sections of villages as part of "humanitarian operations" or other forms of "low-intensity conflict." 

Based on my later research, I know that a Corona is a kind of a beer, as well as the main part of the names of two very important constellations, which leads me to wonder if the entire story about two columns being cracked is some kind of elaborate celestial code or inside-joke between and among the elements who are happily privatizing that which properly belongs to all the people of a nation, using the cover of the depraved doctrine of neoliberalism (a term which Michael Hudson explains can be accurately understood as a form of neofeudalism), and laughing at the people as they do so through the medium of the vestigial organs of what was once known as "a free and independent press." 

Interestingly enough, Michael Hudson also insightfully points out, in his book J is for Junk Economics (which is essential reading on this and many related subjects), the very words "private" and "privatize" come from the Latin word whose root means to "take away" or "cordon off" (or, if you prefer, "corona off"), and which is the same Latin root which gives us the modern English words "deprive" and "privation" (see page 186 in his book, and see also my previous essays "Privatization vs the gods" and "Collaborators against the gods").

So, for a three-dimensional visual panorama of what neoliberalism (and its agenda of privatization, deprivation, corporatization and, especially, austerity for those "outside of the cordon") are doing to the world, the recent debacle at the "Salesforce transit center" seems to have a memorable image for everyone.

Once again, I must repeat that just because cracks in the twin center beams of the corporate-sponsored public-transit center provide a metaphor that even the most accomplished poet of bygone centuries would envy, this does not mean that I believe said cracks are not real, and a danger to the structural integrity of said transit center (not to mention a danger to the public themselves, who also provided some of the moneys used in the construction of the structurally-flawed public-transit center).

Indeed, based on my own professional opinion, I would not be surprised if the cracks in the main beams are the direct result of the hideous and visually oppressive aesthetic of the transit center, which appears to be almost purposely designed to send shivers down the spines of visitors, not to mention down the central columns supporting the entire structural monstrosity. 

Several of the articles linked above dutifully inform us that the "Salesforce Transit Center" has been dubbed "The Grand Central Station of the West" (by whom is not specified). If so, then the comparison only serves to call attention to the impoverishment of architecture and public works wrought by neoliberalism in the years intervening between the opening of Grand Central Station in 1871 (when nominal GDP in the united states was about $7.6 billion, which is calculated to be about $133 billion in 2012 dollars, and the population of the country was about 41 million souls, according to data found here) and 2017 when Salesforce made a deal to have San Francisco's new public transit center named after the company (and real GDP in the united states topped $19 trillion, with each single trillion equal to a thousand billions, which equates to about $18 trillion in 2012 dollars, and the population of the country was about 326 million, according to data found here).

In other words, although the country's population today is eight times larger than it was when Grand Central Station opened in New York City, and the country's economic output is more than 135 times greater, the newly-built "Grand Central Station of the West" (situated among some of the largest corporations on the planet, many of whose individual market capitalizations are greater than the entire real GDP of the entire united states from 1871, even if measured in 2012 dollars) is not only immeasurably uglier than the original Grand Central Station, but also so architecturally deficient that it could not even stay open for two months before it had to be shut down again for repairs.

Below for comparison is a photograph of the Main Concourse of the actual Grand Central Station:

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Please note the uplifting atmosphere created by the architectural elements, and especially by the celestial vault of the ceiling, which is in fact painted blue and adorned with constellational imagery evoking the night sky. Below is one more photo of the same Main Concourse, this time with more daylight streaming in and greater visibility of the ceiling design:

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

And now, please sit down before viewing the awe-inspiring grandeur of the modern rival to that 1871 edifice, seen below:

image: the above-linked Chronicle story.

Far from lifting up the spirit of the visitor, which is the effect of the architecture in the original Grand Central Station, it could well be argued that the designers of the "western" version have labored to bring to life a creation that would give the impression of thousands of pounds of institutional slag and high-school ceiling-panels, pressing down upon the unfortunate users of the Bay Area's public transportation systems -- and if this was their intention, then the designers appear to have succeeded beyond their wildest imaginations.

Indeed, in a blog post written all the way back in 2011, entitled "Mild but persistent torture" (after a phrase in the masterful Serpent in the Sky, by the late John Anthony West), I cited John West's observation that:
In the cathedrals and sacred art and architecture of the past, we see the knowledge of harmony and proportion employed rightly, provoking in all men who have not had their emotions permanently crippled or destroyed a sense of the sacred. It therefore takes not great leap in imagination to conceive of the same knowledge put to an opposite use by the unscrupulous. In principle, buildings, dances, chants and music could be devised that would reduce the mass of any given population to helplessness. (page 38).
That book was primarily about the "high wisdom of ancient Egypt," and the incredible level of harmony and proportion which infused the art and architecture of that civilization, still visible today even in its ruins. John Anthony West clearly saw evidence of "the same knowledge put to an opposite use by the unscrupulous" in the world around him -- and a brief examination of the architecture of the latest "public works project" in San Francisco (or, we should say, "public-plus-corporate works project") should leave little doubt as to which category this "Grand Central Station of the West" can properly be said to belong.

A brief examination of the image of the two massive pillars on either side of the entrance to the "Salesforce Transit Center," in the picture at the top of this post, reveals the overtly Orwellian design details which abound in modern public spaces. The pillar on the left (as we face the image) sports a spherical black surveillance camera, dangling from a little arm jutting out of the pillar about half-way up the photograph. The pillar on the right appears to have a low tubular railing all the way around its base, a few inches above the ground. The intended purpose of this decorative accessory is not immediately clear, but I suspect it was bolted there in order to prevent anyone from comfortably sitting at the base of the pillar and resting their back against it.

Below is another image from inside the transit center (this being the other image with a caption that tells us we are looking at a picture in which "work crews corona off a section of the third-level bus terminal," although in this photograph no one appears to be actively corona-ing (although a few workers are standing around in the background, and they may be Corona-ing, although it is difficult to tell from this distance).

Note that in this photograph, another oppressive-looking pillar is present (again giving almost entirely the opposite impression to the visitor from that imparted by the architecture of New York's Grand Central Station), and once again we see the same thin metal halo circling the base of the massive column, a few inches above the floor. One can only deduce that this barrier is added in order to make sitting down at the base of the pillar impracticable or at least extremely uncomfortable for the human body -- but not to worry, since the station's designers appear to have scattered a few groups of four chairs here and there, in similar fashion to those found in an airline terminal (although far fewer in number). 

Even though airline terminals have many more chairs available than these, I'm sure many readers have, like me, found them all filled up at various times, and have been forced to try to find a spot to sit on the floor. Don't try that in here, however. 

If you look at the pleasant orange-colored walls of the blockhouse shown in the center of the above picture, you can just barely make out what appears to be a similar sort of railing or barrier around the base of those walls as well (look especially at the corner at the right-hand edge of the blockhouse, as you face the image). This might be seen as a way of dealing with your homeless problem -- you can either solve the structural issues underneath the surface which are creating that problem (some of which are discussed below), or you can build metal halos around the base of every structure against which someone might wish to rest their old bones for a spell.

Without doubt, the Salesforce Transit Center is equipped with a veritable plethora of metaphorical details for those seeking a manifestation of neoliberalism in all its apathy.

Perhaps, however, these metal halos are not a sign of lack of empathy at all but rather a safety feature, since based upon the building's cracks along the central beams, it may be inadvisable to get too comfortable anywhere within the confines of the structure itself.

Please note that I do not actually fault the leadership at the corporation for making the decision to contribute a few million dollars towards the multi-billion dollar project, in order to get their company's name on the city landmark. The project was looking for corporate sponsors and making the offer of selling off the name, and they made a business decision to "invest" in it. The decision may even have been influenced by a sense of civic duty and pride, in addition to purely corporate marketing motivations.

The real problem is not with this particular corporation, or the structurally-flawed transit center which it chose to sponsor, but rather with the deeper structures of the society itself, of which this cracked and oppressive edifice functions a rather apt and visually-striking symbol. The reasons that California has a difficult time funding public transportation projects in the first place, and a difficult time funding necessary infrastructure in general (just try driving around on the freeways in the Bay Area, to say nothing of infrastructure in the rest of the state), has to do with structural features which are common to the neoliberal economy that dominates the modern world. 

The contrast is particularly stark in California, which is home to some of the wealthiest and most successful corporations in the world (and certainly in the united states, during a period in which many other industries across the country are faring much more poorly), and which is also home to some of the most expensive real estate in the world -- and yet which is also a state with some of the most criminally-neglected infrastructure, including the public school system, in the country. 

One of the main reasons that California has so much difficulty funding necessary infrastructure (and which, paradoxically, is also in large part responsible for the soaring real estate costs in the state, which make housing among the least affordable in the world) is the state's neoliberal property tax laws, beginning with Prop 13 (also known as "Jarvis-Gann," enacted in 1978), which I still remember being hotly debated at family gatherings in the year before it was passed (when I was just a child).

Unlike a sovereign government, which can (and actually must) run a deficit in order to inject money into a growing economy (see discussion here, and also see the voluminous material available online regarding Modern Monetary Theory and how fiscal policy works in a modern economy, some of which can be found here), a state such as California cannot create its own currency, and thus must run a balanced budget over time. This means it must fund its expenditures either with taxes or with borrowing (or by selling off the commons, all of which appear to have been used during the funding of the Transbay Transit Center).

Proposition 13, which passed by an overwhelming margin, stipulated in 1978 that property taxes in California would be locked in at 1976 valuations for all property owned at that time, and subject to no more than a 2% increase in valuation per year thereafter, until the property was sold to someone else, at which time they would receive a new valuation, although the same 2% maximum increase per year would still apply going forward from the sale. In case anyone is not aware of it, property values in California have increased at a bit more than 2% per year since 1976, to put the situation mildly.

What this unburdening of real estate from taxation did to California was place a big anchor on the state's ability to meet its infrastructure spending obligations in the subsequent decades, especially as population increased dramatically. 

As for making housing more affordable, you can ask residents of California whether the law has had that effect on affordability. In actual fact, as Professor Michael Hudson explains in this video clip (embedded below) from November 2016 (and as he explains in many other interviews, essays, and books), lowering taxes on real estate actually has the effect of making housing much less affordable -- because the banks end up getting what would have been paid in taxes, and because lowering taxes on real estate makes rentier activity much more affordable (and encourages people to hold on to more property, restricting supply and driving up both rents and property costs). 

However, before those who voted for Prop 13 get too angry, let me note that I personally would argue for eliminating the property tax on the place of residence (where someone is living, as opposed to a rental property), as well as on small farms up to a certain size. The classical economists argued for taxing rentier activity -- and it is rentier activity that neoliberalism consistently want to un-tax, forcing the tax burden onto productive activity instead (including small businesses and wage earners).

If you are a landlord who owns vast tracts of land, or dozens (or even hundreds) of vacation houses or apartment complexes that you rent out, removing the ability of the state to increase the tax on those business properties commensurate to their actual rental value means that you will be much less likely to decide to sell them, all other things being equal. This means less property coming to market, and higher rents and higher property prices. 

And, as Michael Hudson explains, when the tax burden is removed from rent-producing properties, then buyers simply calculate that they can make a larger mortgage payment in order to buy the same property and bring home the same amount of profits (paying the bank in interest the dollars that would otherwise have been calculated as going to the state in the form of property taxes), and will thus bid up the prices of properties based on the calculation of what they can afford to borrow to get the income from the rent-producing property. The dollars which are lost to the state end up in the profits of the banks -- and the banks are not responsible for public infrastructure such as roads, schools, or Transbay Transit Centers.

The whole purpose of Prop 13 / Jarvis-Gann was to prevent homeowners from being priced out of their own homes by rising property taxes every year -- this is how the proposition was sold to the public, and this is why the public voted for it in overwhelming numbers in 1978. That goal could be accomplished by making someone's primary residence tax-free (or keeping taxes very modest on the primary residence), while increasing the taxes on income-producing properties. Doing so would change the calculation of owning income-producing real estate, and would make more property available. Instead, by throwing enormous tax incentives at rental real estate, those with large portfolios of income-producing properties are incented to hold onto it as long as possible, even if it would be uneconomical to do so if it were not for the stupendous tax advantages afforded to real estate at the expense of infrastructure.

Thus, the "Salesforce Transit Center" debacle has roots which go much deeper than the landfill on which that particular egregiously-designed building is constructed. The causal factors of this problem, of which the transit center is only the barest tip of a very large iceberg, go down to the very structures of neoliberalism, which have been enacted around the world with extremely deleterious effects, and which are also directly related to the illegal wars being waged in many parts of the globe at this very moment.

Apologists for neoliberalism will perhaps point out that the original Grand Central Station itself, as well as many other train stations around the country, were also built in part (or in whole) with private funds, many of them by railroad companies. However, that argument would only serve to prove the point, because as Michael Hudson points out elsewhere (see for instance some of the quotations cited in this previously-linked article), the "land grants" given to the railroads during the nineteenth century in the united states turned the railroads (and their owners) into the largest real estate holders in the country, and were essentially an egregious example of a privatization of that which belonged to all the people (or, it could be argued, to the Native Americans first and foremost), with results that are still being felt to this day. 

That giveaway was an earlier manifestation of the very same kind of neofeudalism which we see spreading into advanced stages in recent decades. Pointing to the "railroad barons" of the late nineteenth century and saying, "See, what we're doing today is nothing new" is not exactly a very compelling argument, if you want to try to defend the current system.

In point of fact, it is absolutely true that neoliberalism's central tenets are indeed nothing new. I have argued in previous posts that the suitors in the Odyssey of ancient Greece, who lounged around the home of Odysseus in his absence, devouring the substance of his household while plotting ways to sleep with his wife and murder his son, are another apt metaphor for the rentier behavior that the classical economists sought to reduce, and that the neoliberal backlash against the classical economists seeks to enable.

The Odyssey demonstrates to us that the behavior of the suitors was an affront to the gods.

The ungainly saga of the "Salesforce Transit Center" in San Francisco, right down to the cracks in its central steel beams, should show us the same thing.