The Morality Of Our Progressive Elite

Have you heard of Marc Benioff? He’s one of those tech billionaires out in San Francisco. After becoming the youngest vice-president of Oracle back in the early 1990s, he went on to found, where he continues to serve as Chairman and co-CEO. Today, Salesforce has a market cap of over $100 billion, and Bloomberg puts Benioff’s personal net worth at over $6 billion. Not quite Bezos or Zuckerberg territory, but still impressive. Benioff clearly deserves credit for starting and building a very successful business. Like many others of the tech elite, he also exemplifies the progressive world view and sense of morality.

Yesterday Benioff put that all on display in a big op-ed in the New York Times, headlined “The Social Responsibility of Business.” The immediate reason for the op-ed is to advocate for something called Proposition C, which will appear on the ballot in San Francisco on November 6. Proposition C will impose a gross receipts tax — one half of one percent on revenues in excess of $50 million — on large businesses in San Francisco. The purpose is to raise revenue to combat the explosion of “homelessness” in that city. The projection is that the annual revenue from this tax will be in the range of $300 million per year.

Benioff pitches his case in terms of basic human morality. With human suffering all around us, businesses must now stand up and take “social responsibility”!

Back . . . in the 1980s, I was taught . . . that the business of business is business. . . . [But t]he business of business is no longer merely business. Our obligation is not just to increase profits for shareholders. We must also hold ourselves accountable to a broader set of stakeholders: to our customers, our employees, the environment and the communities in which we work and live. It’s time for the wealthiest businesses and business owners to step up and give back to the most vulnerable among us.

Yes, it is the classic statement of the morality of our progressive elite: There is an important human need that must be addressed, and therefore “we” must “hold ourselves accountable” and “step up” and “give back” in the form of a tax.

Am I the only one who sees a problem with this? Here’s my problem, Marc. You are the billionaire here. Provision for the homeless appears to be your idea of the most important charitable cause out there at the moment, one that must be funded at a high level. So go ahead and fund it yourself! $300 million per year would be about 5% of your net worth. You will never miss it. How about at least “stepping up” for the first year? Why not? Because you don’t want to! You want to keep your billions for yourself. So instead of doing the right thing and stepping up yourself, you have come up with a plan to force others — almost all of whom are not billionaires like you — to pay for your favorite cause. All of your shareholders must contribute, whether they want to or not, through lowered profitability of the company. Many of your shareholders own just a few hundred or thousand dollars of stock in a 401(k) that they are saving for a modest retirement. Same with the shareholders of all the other companies that you want to force to pitch in. These people also may well have other charities that they think are even more worthy — how about starving children in Africa? And as to you, what is the other thing that is so important that you have to hang onto that $300 million for yourself next year? Your seventh yacht? Your fifth private jet?

Marc: Why should everybody else be forced to fund a charity of your choice that you don’t want to fund yourself, even though you have plenty of money to do it?

Now here is a guy who is clearly very, very bright, and very, very hard-working, and yet he can’t see this gigantic hole in his pitch. Somehow, he comes away feeling really, really good about himself for advocating for a tax on other people to fund his preferred cause, so that he can keep his billions to spend on himself. This is the essence of the morality of our progressive elite. Really uplifting, isn’t it?

I could end there, but there’s so much more. And the farther you get into this, the worse it gets.

Dare we ask what is the plan for using the annual $300 million to “do something” about homelessness in San Francisco? I mean, I admit I am a skeptic about these kinds of things, but if there was a proposal of reasonable cost that could actually make some serious improvements in the lives and prospects of the “homeless,” I would be the first to support it.

So let’s address the first issue: reasonableness of cost. This tax is projected to raise $300 million per year. How many homeless people are there in San Fran? Benioff has that figure in his piece: about 7500. Do a quick division and — that’s $40,000 per year per homeless person, on top of existing spending on this issue. Wow! That would be $160,000 for a family of four. This is way, way in excess of median family income in this country. And the median family completely pays for its own home, with enough left over for food, clothes, transportation, and everything else.

But maybe there is at least some reason to believe that spending at this lavish level would have a significant positive effect? Well, what is the plan for spending the money? From Benioff:

Under a comprehensive plan developed by experts in the field, this new funding would address this crisis from every angle. It would provide more bathrooms, so that people wouldn’t have to relieve themselves on city streets. More than 1,000 new shelter beds. Up to $75 million to treat the severely mentally ill. Up to $150 million for 4,000 additional units of housing, including for youth and families with children. And assistance or subsidies to help thousands of residents stay in their homes — to help prevent San Franciscans from becoming homeless in the first place.

Of course it will work: It’s a “comprehensive plan.” It addresses homelessness “from every angle.” It’s been developed by “experts in the field.” But wait a minute! Isn’t this pretty much exactly the same bright idea that our Mayor de Blasio back here in New York has been implementing for the past several years? De Blasio got that ultimate “expert” — Steve Banks, formerly of the Legal Aid Society — to come in and run his homelessness programs. Just like with this San Fran thing, they decided they needed a more comprehensive “from every angle” approach, so they implemented and greatly increased funding for all kinds of additional and ancillary services for the homeless, starting with more housing units and shelter spaces, but also including mental health services and legal services and outreach and so on and so forth. Four plus years into the effort, I covered the results in a May 2018 post titled “How Is It Going With Mayor De Blasio’s Efforts To Reduce Homelessness?” The bottom line: The budget for the homeless services department had gone from about $1 billion per year when de Blasio took office to over $2 billion, while the number of people counted as homeless had gone from 43,000 at the end of former Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure in 2013 to about 76,000 this year.

As I have said many times previously on this blog, it is not within the capability of a government bureaucracy tasked with solving a human problem to actually solve the problem and put itself out of business. The essential and unavoidable dynamic of a bureaucracy is to find a way to expand its mission and grow its budget and staff. It will be the same in San Francisco, because it is always the same, and must be the same. If the bureaucracy gets the annual $300 million, the scope of the “homeless” problem will only expand. Benioff doesn’t know this. He may know a lot about his Salesforce business but, like all progressives, he is fundamentally ignorant of the basics of how the world works.