There’s a raft of emotional responses out there to the now-viral “open letter” written by the young woman who goes by Talia Jane to her Yelp boss, CEO Jeremy Stoppelman. So I’m not going to rehash the points in those responses here. Search on “Talia Jane” and you can gorge on them to your heart’s content.
I will pause to point out that neither your opinion nor mine matters, on the topic of whether Stoppelman should have fired her for posting her open letter on Medium.com. Until you’re on the hook to the investors and employees of Yelp to make the company profitable, your opinion isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit.
Other than that, I just want to make two points about the Talia Jane controversy.
The ugly truth
One is that what Talia Jane wants – a cost of living and take-home pay that are more in line with each other – is illegal in San Francisco today. Regulation prohibits it.
This problem is much worse now, in a number of places, than it ever was for older generations. Most of us had to struggle in our 20s too, living in squalid quarters, with weird roommates and unrepaired cars, and getting along on bags of rice. But even so, the infrastructure of regulation wasn’t stacked as steeply against us as it is in much of urban American today. Young people are a large percentage of “the poor” at any given time, and the poor are always the hardest hit by the costs that come with regulation.
A lot has been written about the economic costs of regulation in wildly, insanely overregulated San Francisco. For what’s most on-point in Talia Jane’s situation – the cost of housing, which has been taking up 80% of her income – there’s agreement between small-government analysts and big-government fans: local regulation is the culprit.
For five decades, regulation has severely limited any expansion in the amount of housing available in San Francisco. But an urban resurgence and the inflow of tech companies have brought in more people, especially in the last quarter century. The limited housing stock, coupled with regulations that make the rental market unattractive to small-pocket investors and owner-agents, has driven real estate and rental prices through the roof.
This isn’t Yelp’s fault – or, it is only to the extent that Stoppelman and other top executives use their monetary influence to bolster restrictive land-use regulations in the city. That’s something business executives do a lot of, once they get spectacular views from their balconies.
But the main impetus for housing and land-use regulation comes from the progressive Left. It comes from the class of people who, manifestly, have had the greatest influence on Talia Jane’s worldview. It comes from the people she trusted to explain how the world works, and what she ought to expect from it.
What those people didn’t tell her is that all regulation makes things cost more. It very often causes shortages too.
The very nature of regulation is to require people to not do what they would otherwise be willing to do, or to do what they would not volunteer to do. There’s an inevitable cost that goes with this. You can’t wish it away; people react the way they react, and therefore, market forces work as they work.
Push at this however you will: the reality can’t be circumvented. All regulation imposes costs. The most common pattern is that the more you regulate something, the higher the price it has to command for someone to be willing to supply it. This is because the cost to the supplier of making it available is higher.
Talia Jane has a legitimate beef about how much it costs to live in San Francisco, as a number of her critics have acknowledged. Unfortunately, hardly anyone understands the central thing that society can fix here, which is the amount of regulation that relentlessly makes housing, and city life in general, unaffordable for her.
Regulation is insidious, because it’s invisible to almost everyone. Only the person who has to deal with it directly realizes fully what a heavy weight it is. Poor Talia Jane starts from way behind, because she probably doesn’t even know what I’m talking about. Yet an overregulated world is one of the chief things holding her back in her quest to become a self-sustaining member of the middle class. No amount of “subversive” self-expression or chanting about “social justice” can change that.
The societal void
The other observation I want to make is about something she says early in her little manifesto. Here is the paragraph:
I left college, having majored in English literature, with a dream to work in media. It was either that or go to law school. Or become a teacher. But I didn’t want to become a cliche or drown in student loans, see. I also desperately needed to leave where I was living — I could get into the details of why, but to sum up: I wanted to die every single day of my life and it took me several years to realize it was because of the environment I was in. So, I picked the next best place: somewhere close to my dad, since we’ve never gotten to have much of a relationship and I like the weather up here. I found a job (I was hired the same day as my interview, in fact) and I put a bunch of debt on a shiny new credit card to afford the move.
This paragraph is a big part of the reason I can’t heap disdain on Talia Jane. She needs correction, yes; but she needs kindness too. She writes, here and in the rest of the post, like a person who has never known the expansive safety net of unconditional love – not material provision; love – or the sense of coming from a solid place of refuge, where the ground doesn’t give way beneath her feet.
This isn’t a rap against her mother or father. I don’t know their circumstances. But it is an indictment of the cultural assault on the family in America.
If she had “gotten to have much of a relationship” with her father, Talia Jane would probably have a better understanding of ordinary things like how you have to prove yourself in new jobs, and how the point of the job is for you to perform a service for the employer, not the other way around. From time immemorial, fathers have been the teachers who communicate those things to their children.
In the families our culture has been relentlessly attacking throughout my lifetime, kids could stand to learn those tough truths because they knew they were loved and cherished, within an institution that was both immutable and adaptable. Love and hope were way better than a sense of entitlement. When you had those things from birth, you didn’t have to go looking for poor substitutes for them, in entertainment or possessions. The family was the place to learn about humility, obedience, and patience, without experiencing the lessons as a personal – or a social or political – attack.
Our culture – education, punditry, politics, entertainment – has been busy for years tearing down the age-old father-mother model of the family. It takes courage, and the ability to buck trends and withstand disdain, to keep families together today. And now, too many Millennials have had the cheap politics of an entertainment culture as their formative experience, instead of the family-circle touchstones that give people balance and confidence to last a lifetime.
Talia Jane writes like a young woman, full of beans and promise, who was raised by the village. It’s not her fault. But there is a void in her that wages and accounting-ledger “justice” will never fill.
Government and politics can’t fix that for her, or us – but they can keep getting in the way. They can keep goading us to look toward each other for blame about what’s wrong in our own lives. They can never give us love or wholeness, but they can sure keep us fretful, dissatisfied, and divided. It’s our choice.