Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Berkeley Daily Planet: Crazy Dirty Men Good For Business

I'm sure the Berkeley Daily Planet's Becky O'Malley means well in her recent editorial suggesting that the homeless are not at the root of downtown Berkeley's troubles. While she provides a nice recounting of recent history, her conclusions are flat wrong.
Tom Bates and the Berkeley City Council are to be congratulated for trying to do something about the scourge of anti-social behavior on the sidewalks of the district around Shattuck Ave. In my opinion, the city's workshop on development has come up with a reasonable first set of ideas for how to improve the situation.

But unlike O'Malley, I think Berkeley should go further in its efforts to improve the business climate on Shattuck and Telegraph, and the solution begins with laws to protect business owners and customers from the local crazies.

I understand the desire and drive to be compassionate toward these people. They are generally downtrodden, frequently have psychiatric illnesses, and there's no question they spend much of their time just trying to find food and a place to sleep. The existence of these issues does not, however, mean that citizens should have to put up with their nonsense on a day-to-day basis. The issues are simply completely unrelated.

I also understand Berkeley's drive to try and help the homeless. The problem, however, is simple numbers. The more services you provide, the more homeless show up in the town. There are more potential homeless residents than Berkeley can possibly help. In addition, many of them actually refuse any medical help that is offered. Instead, they'd rather just take advantage of people's generosity.

It's this reality that makes me crazy when I see someone stop and give money to a homeless person. I understand the impulse, but the result of the action is the exact opposite of what the person intends. With overwhelming likelihood, and particularly in Berkeley with its large chronic homeless population, the person they're paying will not use the money to "look for a better life." And, as Milton Friedman pointed out, when you pay people to be poor, you get a lot more of them. Berkeley has learned this in spades.

I also take issue with O'Malley's assertion that, as a "civil libertarian," she supports the "right" of people to panhandle and sleep on sidewalks. This oft-repeated argument is absurd and has nothing to do with being a libertarian. Real libertarians know that part of the philosophy lies in balancing the rights of one person against another. Panhandling absolutely infringes on the rights of the person being panhandled. Begging nearly always contains some threat of violence if no money is paid. And even without that threat, it consumes the time and energe of the beggee without any possibility of a productive economic transaction taking place. In my opinion, a real libertarian should want both begging and paying a beggar to be illegal.

Sleeping on sidewalks has a similar issue. Imagine a world in which I can just stop my car in the middle of the freeway and refuse to move. This is not libertarian. It's just stupid.

So, what happens to the panhandlers if Berkeley cracks down? Only good things, in my view. Beggars have an incentive either to seek treatment or to enter the job market (or both). Citizens see an improved quality of life, and Berkeley improves as a shopping destination.

The reality is that, like Oakland, Berkeley contains a significant number of citizens with the resources to shop in a higher-end shopping district. These people are forced either to Emeryville or even further just to have a reasonable shopping experience. Many of them would absolutely rather shop in Berkeley to take advantage of the town's unique aspects. The fact that they do not is attributable to the lack of shops and the presence of the anti-social element.

I don't buy the argument that somehow poverty is critical to Berkeley's charm. I believe its charm relates much more to the diverse interests of its inhabitants and the presence of a world-class university. Let's take advantage of these good attributes while curtailing the bad.

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