TUCSON – San Francisco and the larger Bay Area, including Silicon Valley, are collectively known as the nation’s center of progressivism, or left-liberalism. But metro Tucson deserves that reputation much more than the Bay Area.
Both Tucson and San Francisco have been controlled for decades by one party, the Democrat Party. Both have establishment leaders who follow the party line on economics, social justice, climate change, race, and immigration; both have large majorities of residents with expressed misgivings about markets and capitalism in general, and both have media and universities that are in tune with this ideology and use every opportunity to reinforce it. (In Tucson, the university is the University of Arizona; in the Bay Area, it’s the Berkeley campus of the University of California.)
There’s a big difference between the two metropolises, however: San Franciscans are not serious about all that, but Tucsonans are.
Stated differently, San Franciscans are inauthentic; Tucsonans are authentic.
Sure, San Franciscans vote in accord with their stated ideology, but beneath the surface, they are unabashed capitalists, as evidenced by the fact that the Bay Area has the highest concentration of billionaires of just about any place in the world—and some of the most brutal business competition imaginable. (Of course, the more billionaires, the higher the income inequality. But even with its higher income inequality, San Francisco’s poverty rate is below the national average.)
Tucson has no billionaires. The founder of Carvana is a former Tucsonan and a current billionaire, but he relocated himself and his company to a more prosperous and dynamic Phoenix. At best, the Tucson business climate can be characterized as sleepy and the overall culture as mañana.
The median household income is three times higher in the Bay Area than in the City of Tucson and is even higher in such Silicon Valley suburbs as Mt. View. Materialism is also much more in evidence in the Bay Area, judging by the greater concentration of exotic cars, private jets, upscale eateries, and multi-million-dollar mansions.
Higher taxes are of little concern to the uber-wealthy in San Francisco, and higher prices for the energy to heat and cool homes are not onerous in the benign coastal climate. In other words, San Francisco elites are barely affected by the policies they endorse.
History explains part of the cultural difference between San Francisco and Tucson.
By the mid-nineteenth century, San Francisco had left behind its Spanish/Catholic missionary beginnings and replaced them with an Anglo-Saxon, or Yankee, pursuit of money. It became the staging area for the Gold Rush, the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad, a financial center, and the home of such tycoons (and scoundrels) as Leland Stanford, who would establish Stanford University.
San Francisco also became a magnet for adventurers, bohemians, revolutionaries, and, later, hippies, flower children, libertines, the homeless, and the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and other billionaire nerds—all drawn to its climate, scenery, easy living, and money sloshing about.
At the same time, Stanford University became an intellectual and ideological counterbalance to Berkeley, especially its Hoover Institution. There is no intellectual or ideological counterbalance in Tucson to the University of Arizona.
Nor is there much of a business counterbalance to the University of Arizona. Until recently, the university was the largest employer in Tucson, and when Tucson had much less population than its current 1.05 million residents, the city was like a small college town, in that it was dominated politically and economically by faculty and staff on the government payroll and with government sinecure.
There may not have been an outright hostility toward industry in Tucson, but there sure was an aversion for big business, an aversion that lingers today.
Tucson also suffers from not shedding the cultural legacy of the Spanish Empire, which had extended just north of Tucson to the Gila River in present-day Arizona. The Spanish Empire in the Americas was built on an economy of extraction, primarily silver, and governed by a one-party state and a two-class society, with a small number of aristocrats at the top and everyone else below. The culture didn’t change much under Mexico. And in many ways, the dominant Catholic Church maintained the status quo, as this Catholic reluctantly admits.
The net result is that Tucson is a very poor city, with a poverty rate twice the national average and all that comes with poverty: crime, blight, and lousy test scores. It is largely shunned by rich companies as a location for their headquarters or major operations—and by hip techies and other knowledge workers, who pretend to be woke and to care about the poor but gravitate to more prosperous cities.
This is the price that Tucson pays for being like San Francisco politically but not economically. Tucsonans have been true to their progressive values and their distrust of markets and big business but their authenticity comes at a great cost.