The Gold Rush of 1849 flooded this port city with millions, and the tech boom of the last twenty years has inundated it with trillions. In Mark Twain’s time, a few millionaires controlled San Francisco. Today, a few billionaires control the city. The superrich tell us what to think and what not to think. They tell us how to vote, what to buy, how to spend our time, and what to fear. They don’t tell us directly but by deftly managing market forces and government mandates. This is done through “algorithms” but much more by simply repeating certain phrases a billion times. “My Body My Choice.” “Toxic Masculinity.” “Stay Safe.” The rulers of our city close and open our streets, open and close private businesses and public projects, tax and spend, all without feeling the need to justify or explain their decisions. At least, this is how I see it from the street level, and this is what I hear from the vanishing middle class of San Francisco.
A few billion dollars is different than a few million dollars. Fantastic money warps one’s thinking, as one can see in the more paltry experiences of those who have won very large lottery amounts. A good argument is made that no one should own a billion dollars, because the billion dollars inevitably takes ownership of the man. To be fair to our dear billionaires and trillionaires, they mostly think that they are benefitting the common good. Perhaps unconsciously, they have come to think that the future and well-being of the planet is in their hands.
Not unlike today, during the Roman Empire a few supremely wealthy people controlled the population through “bread and circuses.” Several times a week the emperor would put on a free gladiatorial show with unlimited food and wine. Today, rather than gladiatorial shows, we are provided with screens, everywhere. Everyone gets a smartphone with unlimited entertainment. As for food and drink, every week hordes of my neighbors line up, fully compliant in gloves and masks, for free government food in a parking lot on 8th Avenue. We quietly accept the “stimulus checks” the government neatly inserts into our bank accounts, and we quietly vote for the leader who promises the most loan cancellations.
This exponential increase of the welfare state reduces us to a zombie-like state of existence dependent on bread and circuses. We clients should thank our benefactors, but we must keep in mind that all blessings flow from God, including those what flow through Google and Amazon and the federal government. Thanking God first is why our country invented the national feast of Thanksgiving. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, at precisely the lowest ebb of our national history (1863):
“The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
How well our greatest president understood how manifold bounties, “so constantly enjoyed,” easily lead us “to forget the source from which they come.” To remain a free people, to resist inevitable totalitarian control by the superrich, we must render absolute thanks God alone, early and often.